If you want to make beautiful music you must play the black and white notes together.
– Richard Nixon
CHAPTER AIM: Exploring the harmonics of The Blues
Gershwin Piano Concerto, 2nd movement
All That Jazz
Folk music – in effect pop music of the past – has always influenced classical music. Think of those dances that influenced the structure of classical music back in the Baroque age (as we saw ). And don’t forget all those romantic composers, tramping over the countryside to find inspiration from their national folk musicians (as referenced .
During the twentieth century, a new popular sound began to drift across the Atlantic to Europe, and that was the music of Jazz and The Blues.
Was jazz influential for European classical music? Certainly. Most receptive were French composers like Debussy and Ravel. But across the other side of the Big Pond, George Gershwin was working in the other direction, building his way through jazz and the blues back towards classical music.
Jazz and the Blues grew out of folk traditions as well, but these articulated the woes of America’s enslaved black peoples. From the humblest of origins, these simple work songs and spiritual prayers were to produce the single greatest influence on 20th century music.
That’s why they call it The Blues
Early Prison Chain-Gang Song
Shostakovich, describing Jewish folk music, posed the question “Why does someone sing a cheerful song?”. His answer: “Because he is sad at heart.”
The Blues originates from centuries of pain and suffering that befell the enslaved Negroes of America.
Kidnapped by force from their homes in Africa, these people had for generations been regarded – and even branded – as cattle by their owners. That meant being treated like animals, sometimes under the harshest of conditions. They were starved, beaten, raped and murdered, usually with impunity.
But Africa was, and remains, a source of deep musical resources. A few years ago, I edited a film about an African village. There was some wonderful footage of the women, who would sit together grinding maize, singing a collective song, and timing their thumping and grinding to the beats of their music.
Work songs provide a beat, a channel for collected labour. But the African slaves working on american plantations added a new ingredient to the mix. Christianity was the spur (the slavery suffered by the Jews in Babylon offered obvious parallels). Allied to western-style church vocals, the slaves lamented their woes, wishing for a better world after their death. It was a style of music we now call ‘negro spirituals’, and it would develop into the music we now recognise as gospel music, and which remains popular to this day.
There was a separate strand of music that now developed from this experience, a music that concerned itself more with the pain of this world, than the promise of the next.
This was the sound of ‘The Blues’, and its effect was transformational for 20th century music. The Blues will lead directly to Jazz, and from there to its increasingly white incarnations, Rock & Roll and Pop.
So how do we describe the actual harmonic language of the Blues?
Major and Minor at the same time
Gershwin Piano Concerto, 2nd movement
We’ve already seen how jazz loves to explore the smallest harmonic steps of the semitone (). The Blues actually takes this harmonic principal further, finding a voice in between semitone relationships.
The most obvious ‘bluesy’ effect can be heard in the harmonic space between major and minor modes.
However you produce harmonic instability when you explore the ambiguous harmonic space between major and minor modes.
That doesn’t mean changing key. Rather, we exist in minor and major modes at the same time.
Rather than getting bogged down in explanations, let’s just hear this in action.
Here are a two moments in this movement when we hear direct switches from major to minor keys. I’ve edited the two quick examples together:
- 0.00 Major key
- 0.01 Minor key. And again…
- 0.05 Major key
- 0.07 Minor
The close proximity of major and minor modes of the same key gives the music a sense of pain and longing. We’re not changing to an entirely new key, but rather finding new tonal space within the existing fabric. And in that space we’ll find ‘blue notes’.
No Need to Fret
Gershwin Piano Concerto, excerpt
You can actually reach this Blues space by bending a note through major and minor notes. You’ll often hear Blues guitarists doing just that.
However, that won’t work on a keyboard with a rigid semitone key system. Good luck trying to bend anything on a piano!
But Gershwin can still create the harmonic space of the blues through the piano keyboard. Listen to this example, right from the main melody of the piece:
The method is to have major and minor notes playing together. Even for a fraction of a second.
Can you hear how the music above hits the direct minor of the key at 0.02 with the right hand of the piano just before the change to the minor in the left hand and the rest of the orchestra.
You hear it again at 0.09. Right hand first into the minor, followed at once by everything else. It’s so fast it’s almost instantaneous. And yet, for a moment, the music hangs in both major and minor key at the same time.
Harmonic space has kinked for a millisecond. You can feel it, like a tug at your heart. It is from that tiny kink that pours out all the emotion we call The Blues.
Here’s an even better example, from the piano cadenza near the middle of our piece:
Listen to how the left hand (the lower notes) plays the melody in a major key. At the same time, the right hand is playing minor ‘blue notes’ (technically, a flattened 7th).
Then at 0.06, the left hand switches to playing the melody in the minor key. At the same time, the higher right-hand notes have also switched, and are now playing in the major key.
That tension, that sense of being and yet not quite belonging, gives The Blues that sense wistfulness, even of pain and loss. It’s a new and different harmonic language for classical music. And Gershwin expresses it beautifully.
More Blue Notes
Piano Cadenza (8mins in)
When I played guitar, I learnt there were three blue notes in a blues scale. These occupy the 3rd (our principal major-minor ambiguity), 5th and 7th notes of the scale. In the key of C major, we would find the blue notes, coloured thus:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 (Octave)
C → D → Eb / E → F → Gb / G → A → Bb / B → C
Well that’s okay, but it really doesn’t tell you the whole story. In fact there are any number of blue notes you can find in a given octave. The Blues is an emotional expression, not a lesson in musical theory.
Another way of expressing this is that it is the bending of harmonic space that gives us The Blues, rather than the playing of a particular note or a particular number.
Which means you can use pretty much any of the twelve notes of the semitone scale to express a bluesy sound.
Like the start of our piano solo (cadenza):
Gershwin drops semitones in the bass, with the piano left hand (0.03-0.16). Each new spread chord gives a new twist to the harmonic fabric. Remember, the right hand plays the same two notes each time, providing the structure awat from which the harmonics can bend. The music lilts and sways. It feels bluesy.
For another example, take the small violin solo that comes in the middle of the piece:
Violin Solo (6mins in)
That violin solo running from 0.03-0.20 contains ten notes of the octave (that’s out of a possible twelve). All sorts of harmonic ambiguity is created by all sorts of bluesy relationships in those ten notes.
Listen to all those blue-tinged notes. At 0.05, 0.07, 0.08…there’s just too many to list! 0.12, 0.14, 0.14…
It’s what any blues musician will tell you: this is something you feel rather than explain. You don’t need to give these harmonic relationships numbers in order to feel the effect they have on the music.
Gershwin’s Piano Concerto
Once your ears are attuned to blue notes, you’ll hear them everywhere – and I mean everywhere – in this piece!
We’ve already looked at just a few of the many blue notes in the piece (). But let’s just take a closer look at the section just leading up to the piano’s introduction. We’re going to pay particular attention to the clarinets, which occupy the main background harmonic space to the music, in the mid-tones:
Just before piano entry (2’45 in)
- 0.02 Clarinets slide down a blue note
- 0.04 That chord the clarinets play includes a blues 7th.
- 0.08 A slide down through blue semitones in the clarinets
- 0.12 Another slide down a blue semitone in the clarinets
- 0.14 Clarinets play a blues encrusted chord. Listen also to that trumpet note slightly bending blue…
- 0.17 Another slide down in the clarinets. And again at 0.23
- 0.24 Clarinet hit another blues 7th, before sliding down again (0.28)
- 0.33-0.41 There too many blue note relationships in the clarinets to list.
- 0.43 Strings slide up blue semitones.
- 0.48 Trumpet solo is studded with blue notes
- 1.04 The Cor Anglais repeats a high blue note
- 1.07 The Bassoon (lower) repeats, before curling up into a blue note (at 1.10).
That final blue note on the bassoon sets up the piano’s entry perfectly, which starts with those strident ‘graced’ notes that are of course also ‘blue’ semitones.
As you can see, there isn’t a bar of music without some kind of blue harmonic action.
Gershwin Piano Concerto, 2nd movement
The blues is not just a set of notes: it’s a description of harmonic space between the traditional tonal palette. Try as we may to explain it with notes and numbers, the power of the blues originates from its emotional content, from its refusal to conform the musical rules of an establishment.
There’s an important point here, musically and historically. The Blues doesn’t represent a revolution in harmonics. That was actually happening in Europe at the start of the 20th century (as we saw in ). Composers were actively seeking to dismantle the harmonic structure of music, and replace it with something entirely new.
The Blues works in a very different way. This doesn’t seek to revolutionise anything. Rather The Blues subverts from inside an existing order. That means bending or twisting the system from within, rather than replacing it with something different.
The Blues comes from within.
- A further cross-over offering from Gershwin in 1928 with An American in Paris. Performance complete with car horns (as scored!).