Music, at its core, is a story of conflict and resolution. As in a novel, themes are introduced, something goes differently than planned, and eventually it all works itself out. In a musical context, this narrative arc is expressed through harmony. A single note is objective, a mere frequency, but the moment you add another, a story is being told. When those two notes are in a stable relationship, they are immediately understandable and pleasing to the ear. Certain other notes have more tumultuous relationships, still madly in love, but more volatile, temperamental, and, let’s be honest, a bit sexier too.
The contrast between these different types of note relationships – or intervals, in educated parlance – is the essence of how we judge the harmonic content of a given piece or type of music. The stuffy but stable intervals – or consonances – resolve the drama that the toxic but sexy dissonances create. That’s at least how harmony was generally understood in the European music tradition. Black Music, with all of its Blue Notes, flips the script. After all, who are we to judge the relationships of those minor seconds, tritones and sevenths? Can’t we have our cake and eat it too? Can’t we have stability AND fun?
Blue Notes are the notes in between the notes of the standard scale which give Black Music its distinct melodic attitude. That, of course, raises the question of what constitutes the “standard”. As the world became more international, it’s undeniable that a Western conception of music composition and theory – fairly or unfairly – came to be the predominant framework of musical understanding. Just as English became the “world language”, the diatonic system of European harmony became the “world music theory”. But just as there are expressions in other languages that can’t possibly be expressed in English, there are numerous styles of music that don’t adhere to Western tuning systems, can’t be adequately written on staff paper, and aren’t played on Western instruments. A skeptic might therefore question the validity of the term “Blue Note” altogether. After all, who dictates what is “Blue” (meaning strange or off-kilter) and who decides what’s normal? But to me, this question misses the point. The fact is that this “Blueness”, this confrontational quality of thriving within the margins of a pre-existing system, of mastering not only the right notes, but the “wrong” notes too, is what Black Music is all about.
Consonance and dissonance are objective harmonic qualities, not matters of cultural relativism. An octave or fifth is equally consonant in whatever part of the world, and a tritone equally dissonant. A musical culture is defined not by a contrary understanding of these harmonic elements, but by how they’re played off of each other. Consonances tell our ear that it’s hearing music, and dissonances keep us interested. Each style of music balances them differently. Consonances are the meat, potatoes, and veggies – used by all, but often boring on their own. Dissonances are the seasoning that give the music of a given culture a flavor as distinct as that of its cuisine.
Blue Notes are the cayenne pepper to the sonic soul food of Black Music. They made their way across the Atlantic on slave-ships, and found entirely new yet familiar expression in the strange lands of the New World. The displaced Africans and their descendants came with a culturally inherited taste for dissonance. While the music their Western captors idealized was as smooth and flowing as possible, the music of their homeland was the opposite. Through standardized tuning, instrument making, and practice, European music had been striving for centuries to achieve more harmonic homogeneity. African music, by contrast, was fundamentally more heterogeneous, superimposing distinct melodies and rhythms onto one another and creating an ensemble in which no individual voice is ever lost – the sonic equivalent of pattern-blocking. Djembes, axastes, gankogui bells, and balafons play contrasting rhythms and figures, responding to the collective sound with singular contributions. A player might at any moment add even more sound to the sonic gumbo by tapping their foot, letting out a holler, adding overtones, or doing all at once. And that’s saying nothing of the singing on top. Within that rich sonic tapestry, “mistakes” don’t hinder the performance as much as they become unexpected jump off points for further improvisation. The sound of a performer at the edge of their technical capacity, and all of the unexpected sounds which that entails, is a key part of the experience. Compared to music in which twenty violinists strive to play the same phrase with Swiss watchmaking precision, it’s a hot mess. But in reality, Black Music is a system governed by its own rules, based on process and a constant give-and-take between individual and collective.
African slaves brought the heterogenous sound ideal of their ancestors with them, and one can only imagine how confounding Western instruments were at first. The instrumental world of the West was that of Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier”, one still celebrating the hard-earned ability to play 7-note scales in all 12 keys. But while it’s all well and good to be able to play an E-major scale consistently in tune, what about those notes in between the notes? The kind that don’t necessarily happen on purpose, but without which the music loses that special something. On a guitar, you can bend the string, but on a piano or staff paper, you’re stuck within the limits of the 12-note, well-tempered system. Traditional African music, by contrast, is most often based on pentatonic and hexatonic scales, five and six note scales whose greater simplicity lend themselves to more improvisatory freedom. This harmonic flexibility left space for the singing across the continent to to become more melismatic (flowing from note to note on a single word or syllable) under the increasing influence of Islam. This combination of melismatic vocal singing on top of minor pentatonic scales was the earliest prototype for the basis of Black American music; the Blues.
The Blues is the primordial genre of African-American music, the first crystallized aesthetic of African sounds played on European instruments. While the term “Blues” in the context of the genre is more associated with the subject matter of the songs (“I’m feeling so Blue because my baby left me”), the name could just as easily be justified by the prominent use of Blue Notes. Like its African precedents, the Blues is based on a minor pentatonic scale that includes a diminished fifth, also called a tritone. It’s well known that the tritone was once called the scary Diabolus in Musica (Devil in Music), but the extent to which that interval was actively avoided in music history has been overhyped. It was first called that in the 18th Century, and was, in fact, actively used in European music since the Renaissance. Still, that shouldn’t obscure the fact that its particular significance to the sound of the Blues was entirely unprecedented.
Western music had toyed with the devil a bit, but the Blues sold its soul to him. Guitar was, unsurprisingly, the instrument most associated with this process. Frets were a small obstacle to cross to find those ephemeral notes in between, to channel the spirit of African banjo playing and accompany the comparably melismatic singing on top. But even as it moved to more rigidly organized instruments like the piano, the spirit of the Blues manifested through those same Blue Notes, creating sounds which were equally unprecedented on even more foreign instruments. There’s something about that fundamentally African taste for sonic mash-ups and perfect imperfection that provided the only imaginable soundtrack to the later African-American stories of woe that set the musical tone for the twentieth century and beyond. It’s a bittersweet tension which characterizes the Blues and all of its musical offshoots – empowered by a connection to an increasingly distant cultural homeland, and embodying the feeling of being on top of the world, even at the margins of society.
Blue notes can be heard across the Black Music spectrum, and this playlist features some of the many examples: