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Discovering music: the blues
Discovering music: the blues

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12.1 The blues scale

The reason for the plaintive, melancholy melodies is the type of scale used in this music. Scales are fundamental to all music. We hear snippets of scales all around us in phone ring tones, elevator tones, airport tannoy systems, games sound effects and so on, so the sound of them will be familiar. Before continuing, watch this video which explains step by step what scales are and how they are used in blues music.

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Video 1
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Although it may look and sound like the major scale has fewer notes than the blues scale, remember that blue notes are alternative ways of playing or singing a note rather than extra notes. If you draw the analogy of a note being like a colour on an artist’s palette, the blue notes introduce subtle shades of a colour rather than a new colour. In the video you saw a graphic illustration of the notes of a major scale and the notes of the blues scale which looked like this:

Described image

You do not need to read music notation to be able to understand scales, but if you are curious as to how these scales might be written down, they look like this. The major scale, shown here shown with Doh as the note C, is correctly described as a C major scale.

Described image
Major scale

The blues scale you heard on the video with the third, fifth and seventh notes lowered, or more correctly, flattened, looks like this. Here the blue notes are circled.

Described image
Major scale, with circles

Activity 4

To help you become more familiar with blue notes and the blues scale, listen to this extract from Crazy Blues sung by Mamie Smith. Note the slides or bends on the words ‘crazy’, ‘since, ‘baby’ and ‘went’. These are examples of the singer making expressive use of the blue notes.

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Audio 5 Mamie Smith
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You may need to listen to songs like ‘Crazy blues’ several times to practise listening for blue notes. They are part of the expressive idiom of blues singing, and sometimes difficult to isolate. Listen out for ‘bends’, ‘slides’ and places where singers approach notes indirectly as these are probably around ‘blue’ notes.