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Okay, so there’s no such thing as a “happy” blue note, I made that up. But if you’re curious as to why I did that, read on.
To start, if you don’t know what a blue note is — or what the difference is between a “blue note” and a “blues scale note” — you should read this article by Soundfly instructor Ethan Hein, where he identifies six common “blue notes” (microtones not found in tempered instruments) and their ensuing three “blues scale notes” (tones you can play on your instrument without having to stretch, bend, or break something).
What I’d like to add to the discussion starts off with the fact that, most of the time, blue notes are taught with the context of a “major blues” tonality, and where notes are stretching and bending towards (parallel) minor scale notes, or towards the tritone.
Now, relative to our happy-sounding major, bending notes towards minor scale notes (♭3, ♭6, ♭7) and the tritone (♭5) produces, for lack of a better word — you guessed it — “sad” sounds. It’s why blue notes are also referred to as “worried notes,” and why they so often have tensed, grunting, and wailing tones. Here is a graphic of this on a staff in the key of C:
By contrast, what I’m calling the “happy blue notes” are the ones that occur when you’re in a minor blues tonality and you bend and stretch your notes towards (or all the way to) parallel major scale notes, producing “happy” sounds (or at least happier sounds), like when the minor 3rd (m3) bends up towards the major 3rd (M3), and when the minor 7th (m7) bends up towards the major 7th (M7). These specific bluesy bends from minor to major make for happier, more relaxed, sighing and released tones. Here’s a graphic for that:
Alright, before we get to some examples, I want to point out something that doesn’t get mentioned enough concerning how blue notes are used. What needs clarification is that blue notes usually aren’t stand-alone microtones. More often than not they’re attached to tempered (“in-tune”) scale notes, and are either “bent-to,” “bent-from,” or even heard “in between” two tempered notes during a slide or bend. I won’t speculate which one of those ways is heard more often, but just to reiterate: It’s very seldom one hears a blue note without an adjacent “scooping” or “dipping” in its sonic vicinity.
With that in mind, take a listen from our first example, “Tainted Love” by Soft Cell.
By 0:40 seconds in, they’ve established the minor tonality, so it really sticks out when the singer lazily bends the minor 3rd up towards the major 3rd on the word “once” in the lyric, “once I ran to you.” Listen a few times. Did you hear it?
Moving on… As I write this, I’m looking out of my window at a smokestack belonging to Prince’s junior high school. That doesn’t really have anything to do with anything, but it does mean I spend a lot of time thinking about The Purple One. One line from his song “When Doves Cry” always stood out to me as having some unknown something. It’s actually what prompted me to write this in the first place. I had to figure out what was going on with this bluesy, lifted and relaxed-sounding “happy” tone.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “Understanding Advanced Blues Harmony”
Okay, I won’t give this one to you right away, see if you can find it yourself first. In the song’s chorus, listen for the minor 7th scale degree (m7) teased up towards the major 7th (M7)…
Find it? It happens on the “fath” syllable in “just like my father, too bold” at 1:17. Too bold indeed, Prince. Actually, don’t you think we should now refer to this musical maneuver from as “the purple note” from now on? I think we should. Let’s start a trend.
Lastly, let’s pick apart Soundgarden’s classic drop D riffer, “Spoonman.”
Blue notes galore. At 0:36, we’ve got one rising up to the tritone from the fourth scale degree (P4) on the lyric “hands.”
At 0:38, the backing vocal is all kinds of semitone blues on “while you.”
And at 0:39 we’ve got our “happy” raised 3rd on the first syllable of the title refrain, “Spoonman.”
And then there’s another on the “Spoonman” at 0:59. And how you describe it depends on how you hear the tonal center (indeed, sometimes two humans can hear the tonal center of a section of music differently). If you hear it as unchanged, it’s bending from the major 6th (M6), or dorian 6th if you prefer. But if you hear the tonal center as having modulated up a 4th, then it’s another raised 3rd “happy” blue note!
Then, just in case you hadn’t had enough, Chris Cornell gives us one more at 1:39 — another raised 3rd on the syllable “Oh.”
And by the way, if you’re interested to learn more about how to harness the intersections between jazz, improvisation, and modern music like hip-hop in your own music, you’re going to love Soundfly’s newest course with jazz pianist and beat producer, Kiefer: Keys, Chords, & Beats.
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