In jazz and blues, a blue note is a note that—for expressive purposes—is sung or played at a slightly different pitch than standard. Typically the alteration is between a quartertone and a semitone, but this varies among performers and genres.
Origins and meaning
The existence of the blue note within music derives, in part, from the fact that equal temperament in western diatonic harmony is an artifice or compromise originally employed in the eighteenth century to address problems posed in the creation of keyboard instruments. Equal temperament was an artificial 'straightening out' of a tendency for the natural harmonic series (musical intervals as they exist in nature) to go off at a tangent, meaning that higher intervals and octaves in their natural form are of a different pitch than the lower intervals and octaves. This made it difficult to create keyboard instruments that were 'coherent'. Hence, the blue note attempts to correct this artifice by playing a note that is closer to the interval as it exists in the natural harmonic series. Country blues, in particular, features wide variations from the diatonic pitches with emotive blue notes. Blue notes are often seen as akin to relative pitches found in traditional African work songs.
Like the blues in general, the blue notes can mean many things. One quality that they all have in common, however, is that they are lower than one would expect, classically speaking. But this flatness may take several forms. On the one hand, it may be a microtonal affair of a quarter-tone or so. Here one may speak of neutral intervals, neither major nor minor. On the other hand, the lowering may be by a full semitone—as it must be, of course, on keyboard instruments. It may involve a glide, either upward or downward. Again, this may be a microtonal, almost imperceptible affair, or it may be a slur between notes a semitone apart, so that there is actually not one blue note but two. A blue note may even be marked by a microtonal shake of a kind common in Oriental music. The degrees of the mode treated in this way are, in order of frequency, the third, seventh, fifth, and sixth.
The blue notes are usually said to be the lowered third, lowered fifth, and lowered seventh scale degrees. The lowered fifth is also known as the raised fourth. Though the blues scale has "an inherent minor tonality, it is commonly 'forced' over major-key chord changes, resulting in a distinctively dissonant conflict of tonalities". A similar conflict occurs between the notes of the minor scale and the minor blues scale, as heard in songs such as "Why Don't You Do Right?", "Happy" and "Sweet About Me".
In the case of the lowered third over the root (or the lowered seventh over the dominant), the resulting chord is a neutral mixed third chord.
Blue notes are used in many blues songs, in jazz, and in conventional popular songs with a "blue" feeling, such as Harold Arlen's "Stormy Weather". Blue notes are also prevalent in English folk music. Bent or "blue notes", called in Ireland "long notes", play a vital part in Irish music.
- Van Der Merwe, Peter (1989). Origins of the Popular Style, p. 119. ISBN 0-19-316121-4.
- "Blue Notes". How To Play Blues Guitar. 2008-07-06. Retrieved 2008-07-06.
- Ferguson, Jim (1999). All Blues Soloing for Jazz Guitar: Scales, Licks, Concepts & Choruses, p. 20. ISBN 0786642858.
- Lloyd, A. L. (1967). Folk Song in England, pp. 52–54. London: Lawrence & Wishart. Cited in Middleton, Richard (1990/2002). Studying Popular Music. Philadelphia: Open University Press. ISBN 0-335-15275-9.
- Epping, Rick. "Irish Harmonica". www.celticguitarmusic.com. Retrieved 2008-11-04.
- Schuller, Gunther. Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development (New York: Oxford University Press, 1968), pp. 46–52). Cited in Benward & Saker (2003), p. 39.