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Riley Music Academy Music Cast: 3 key concepts for Blues

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3 key concepts for Blues

This week I’ve been invited to conduct workshops in schools as part of the Upton Blues Festival. They’ve been running a reach out program, offering young people the opportunity to experience and learn blues music and explore the historical and cultural ramifications of the style.

As it’s all fresh in my mind I thought I would give you some of the key musical concepts of blues and how you can make use of it in your own playing. It’s slightly more technical than some of my blog posts so if it’s not for you then just skip it.

The magic major formula

Most classic forms of music adopt the traditional western scales of major and minor.

Both these scales comprise of a series of tones and semitones (Americans call these Whole Steps or Half Steps which actually makes more sense). I’ll outline the major scale as its fairly straight forward.

You start with the root note then count up a tone (Whole Step), then another tone, a semitone (Half Step), three tones and lastly another semitone.

It’s like a magic formula and once you master it you can easily work out all 12 major scales.

I’m going to leave minor as its a little more complicated. Mainly because there are several types of Minor scale and which one should I start with? The Harmonic, the Melodic or the Natural?

Too pretty?

So what happens if you create music using this major scale? Answer: It sounds excessively pretty. It’s a bit like my favourite Cornish desert Thunder & Lightning (clotted cream (always use Rodda’s!) with golden syrup). It’s beautiful but it can make you feel physically sick.

Trim the fat

A neat trick is to reduce the seven notes of the major scale to just 5. The mighty pentatonic scale is the complete all rounder. Found in world music, folk, Latin, jazz, rock, classical, in fact, you name it, it’s probably in it.

By trimming out the seventh note (which can lead to confusion over the nature of the harmony involved) and the horrible clashy sounding 4th, you can create a joyful tune without too many nasty moments.

Major to minor

What do blues musicians do? Surely the major pentatonic scale is still too happy for these miserable* sods?! Well yes…although the vast majority of blues pieces are in major keys, the use of the minor third is prominent. This is one of the biggest features of blues. You don’t tend to find major and minor thirds in the same phrase in other styles.

Another trick used by blues musicians is to swap the major pentatonic scale for the relative minor pentatonic scale. So if you play in the key of C major you can use an A minor pentatonic scale instead.

But wait… these notes are exactly the same! Very true but the emphasis changes slightly and it creates a different sound. Try it.

The Devils Interval

Blues musicians have long been accused by the overly religious as bringers of evil and debauchary. Probably because they sing about very real issues and use rude metaphors! But worst of all is that they love playing a flattened fifth! How very dare they! While the fourth and fifth intervals have both earned the title of ‘perfect’ because of the heavenly sound, the black sheep in the middle (the augmented 4th or diminished 5th) has been a musical taboo for hundreds of years. Paganini was nearly burnt alive as a heretic for exploring such an outrageous interval in his compositions. Perhaps blues musicians just liked the sound or maybe it was the musical equivalent of sticking it to the man!

Breaking the rules

The last musical device used by blues musicians is the glorious dominant seventh. This is a chord which, for most of western musical history, has been used to move from one place to another; usually in the form of a perfect cadence. It is the supreme leading chord and in isolation it has such an unfinished sound that the musically pedantic amongst us will loose sleep unless they resolve the sound to the tonic! So guess what these pesky blues musicians do? You guessed it, they don’t resolve the chord! Just to really hammer home their message. When a traditional dominant seventh chord (chord 5) becomes a chord 1 then the whole piece feels like it’s travelling.

The three ‘bluesical’ devices

In summary, if you want to play the blues you need:

  • A minor third
  • The Devils interval (flatten fifth)
  • Non resolved dominant 7ths

*Ironically, although Blues musicians sing about very depressing topics, the act of expressing these feelings musically dissipates the angst so they are usually much happier for it. 

Have a play with these three elements and let me know how you get on (leave a comment or a question below). Enjoy!

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