Blues Scales

blues scalesA musical scale is a set of notes in a particular order, based on pitch and frequency. Nearly all Western music learners and enthusiasts are familiar with the major heptatonic scale, which includes seven pitches per octave. This scale, C D E F G A B C, is often taught to musical students using the sounds, “Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do.” In this scale, the major notes are played in ascending order, the pitch rising with each note. To move to a note lower than Do would mean moving down an octave, or set of eight notes. Likewise, to move to a note higher than “Do” on the other end of the scale would mean moving up an octave. Though the major scale is certainly the most well known musical scale, there are many other kinds, including many scales with a different number of pitches per octave. Octatonic scales have eight pitches per octave, pentatonic scales have five, and so on.

With a long and rich history, the blues are a popular and complex genre of music, particularly for those learning to play guitar, and there are several different corresponding blues scales. Whether you are a music student, or you just appreciate the blues, learning about blues scales will broaden your musical knowledge.

Characteristics of Blues

The musical genre of blues developed in the late nineteenth century, born from the musical communities of African American peoples living in the American South. The institution of slavery is majorly responsible for the inception of what we know today as blues music. African Americans working in the field would pass the time, show solidarity, and ease their perpetual struggle by singing together, in the form of work songs, chants, spirituals, and call-and-response singing. The repetitive character of blues lyrics, still prominent today, is a result of these communal singing practices; the leader of a work song would often sing a line, and the rest of the singers would repeat that line back to him in song. The blues today includes a variety of sub-genres; blues music can sound unique and different according to region, instruments, specific chord progressions, and other aspects. However, the blues in general are characterized by some notable traits that can be found across all varieties of blues.

These defining characteristics include the traditional blues verse, the narrative nature of blues lyrics, and the presence of the all-important blue notes. The traditional blues verse consists of three lines, the first two of which are the same line repeated. An example of the blues verse can be found in the classic song, “Crossroads,” the lyrics of which begin, “I went down to the crossroads, fell down on my knees; I went down to the crossroads, fell down on my knees; Asked the lord above for mercy, Save me if you please.” The narrative nature of blues lyrics can be observed in this example as well. Since the blues developed as a method by which to ease certain sufferings, the lyrics of blues songs are usually telling a story of a sad nature. You’ll find that blues songs are often lamenting the negative circumstances of the singer or performer. Blue notes are a hugely important part of the blues genre; blue notes are major notes that are sung or played at a lower pitch than the major scale calls for. This practice is what gives blues music its sad and cool quality, in contrast to other genres that rely heavily upon brighter, major notes.

Blues Scales

Like the major scale, the blues scale can have a different number of pitches per octave. As a result, there is more than one blues scale, and the scales include a hexatonic blues scale, as well as a heptatonic and octatonic blues scale. In other words, there exists a blues scale with six, seven, and eight pitches per octave. The major blues scale consists of the notes C, D, D sharp / E flat, E, G, and A. The minor blues scale consists of the notes C, E flat, F, F sharp / G flat, G, and B flat. As you can see, blues scales are similar to major scales, but with the addition and substitution of particular flat and sharp notes in order to create the distinctive blues sound.

One of the most famous chord progressions (a series of musical chords played in an established order) in popular music is played using a basic blues scale, and it is referred to as the twelve-bar blues. The twelve-bar blues chord progression can be found all throughout popular music, from the early days of blues all the way through modern R & B. One very famous example is the song “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” by Big Joe Turner. The lyrics in the song adhere to the traditional blues verse; they consist of a phrase repeated twice, and finished with a new phrase. For example, the song begins, “Get out of that bed, wash your face and hands; Get out that bed, wash your face and hands; Well you get in that kitchen, make some noise with the pots and pans.” The twelve-bar chord progression follows a similar pattern, maintaining a similar sound through the first two lines of each verse, and changing the sound for the final line. Each line consists of four chords, adding up to twelve chords for across the entire verse. This pattern in each verse of the song allows the lyrics to present the beginning of a narrative, reiterate that narrative, and then present a new piece of information that provides closure for the previous lyric. A majority of traditional blues songs, particularly those written and performed in the early days of blues popularity, follow the pattern of the twelve-bar blues progression.

Different variations of the blues scale are used depending on the instrument being played. A lot of blues music relies heavily upon the guitar, and there are a variety of ways to incorporate blue notes into guitar playing. Many guitar students incorporate the blues into their practice by using the major pentatonic scale, which consists of five of the major notes from the Do-Re-Mi musical scale. The major blues scale on guitar is created by using the pentatonic major scale, and adding one blue note. For example, the C major pentatonic scale includes the notes C, D, E, G, A. The C major blues scale includes those notes, with the addition of a blue note: C, D, E flat, E, G, A. In the same way, the A minor pentatonic scale includes the notes A, C, D, E, G. The A minor blues scale includes the notes A, C, D, E flat, E, G. This format can be used to create a major blues scale out of any major pentatonic scale. If the pentatonic scale includes notes 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6, the corresponding blues scale includes notes 1, 2, 3 flat, 3, 5, and 6. The addition of a blue note to a major scale will lend that cool blues quality to the music you’re playing, and will serve to offset the brighter and happier sounds associated with the notes on major scales.

Further Music Study

If you’re interested in a more complex study of musical scales, the blues scales, music theory in general, or the history of the blues, there is a lot more to learn about the varied aspects of this genre of music. If you’re a musician, a singer, or just a big fan of blues music, your understanding of music will benefit from studying how the blues, and music in general, is organized, played, and performed.