Hi! Another post in English for my friends around the world!
In this post I’m going to talk about the blues scale and how we can use it creatively if we know its historical evolution. By following this 5-step approach, we can go beyond the explanations that can be found in the common handbooks available in stores. In particular with the last step (the fifth) we can produce harmonic and melodic effects that characterize also the so-called avant-garde and experimental music.
Before starting to explain these concepts, I suggest you take a look at my video “Not so blue” below, where I apply what I explain in this post.
So, here are the 5 steps you can follow to create most of the material I use in this video.
STEP 1: Major scale and parallel minor scale
In figure 1 you can see the D major scale and its parallel D natural minor. These scales are at the basis of European tonal music and account for the 99% of the material that classical composers have been using for centuries. I have overlapped them so we can analyse their differences in terms of intervals. The strong degrees, or the I tonic (T), the IV subdominant (S) and the V dominant (D), are in common between both scales. While the III, VI and VII degrees are different in the two scales. The II degree does not differ in the two scales but still does not have the same consonance as the strong degrees and for this reason will be temporarily left out from this explanation.
STEP 2: Overlapping of the two scales
If we overlap the two scales and add up their notes to create a single scale, we get to Figure 2.
The result is an “almost chromatic” scale: a scale whose notes, if used with no logic, do not produce a fully acceptable sound. In short, they don’t mean much! This implies we need to take a step forward to find a way to make this “formless mass” of notes sound good.
STEP 3: Choosing the most important notes
What we need to do now is to choose, within all these notes, the core sounds to resolve the phrases both for improvisation and composition. Figure 3 shows the notes that can be taken as the “pillars” of this scale. These notes form what we call Minor pentatonic scale. This scale is universally recognised as the most natural and comfortable to sing and remember, both in its major version (starting from the F) and minor version (starting from the D).
It is formed by the strong degrees (I, IV and V) plus the minor third and the minor seventh, and can be divided into two identical blocks that are formed by whole step and half step. This scale is extensively used in a lot of European popular music and even in folk and world music (e.g. in several parts of Africa or in the Far East). Being such a “universal” scale, it is suitable for many other applications in the modal system such as the perfect fourth chords (in figure 3 notes of A, D, G, C, F) or the M6/9 chords in the tonal system (in Figure 3 the F6/9 chord is F, A, C, D, G). These other possibilities will be explained in a future post. Now we will focus on the development of the blues sound.
STEP 4: Including the other notes
After determining the main notes (the D minor pentatonic), we can use the other notes to approach the main notes.
These notes are positioned a half step below the main notes and will sound very effectively if they are moved or resolved on the pentatonic notes. If we add the notes a half step below the main notes, it becomes natural to add a note a semitone before the fifth degree, too. Although this note does not belong to the D major or parallel minor scale, it is appropriate because it has the same function as the other notes that are positioned a half step below. This fourth augmented or fifth diminished note is called blue note and is extremely effective to convey the characteristic blue mood.
To sum up, in figure 5 we have:
1. In black the D root note
2. In green the main notes or target notes (D minor pentatonic)
3. In red the approach notes that resolve on the green ones
4. In blue the 4th augmented or 5th diminished which does not belong to the initial major or minor scales but allows us to create the same tension/release effect that exists between the red and the green notes.
STEP 5: Two pentatonic scales in sequence
This last step is the true turning point of the whole approach, what distinguishes it from all other ordinary explanations of the blues scale. It is to be considered as an advanced development of the blues scale and historically can be found in music from the Seventies, it is very recent as compared to the traditional use of this scale (dating back at least to the beginning of the XX century). This fifth step stems from the awareness that the scale in Figure 5, if you watch it from another perspective, is formed by two pentatonic scales a semitone away from each other. Better said: the D minor pentatonic scale, which is the main scale, can be preceded by the C# minor pentatonic scale.
It goes without saying that the D minor scale will be used as the initial and final scale, while the C# minor will be used for short phrases as a transition scale to create a tension/release effect. Of course, to use effectively this fifth step, a musician needs to have good instrumental technique because the transitions between the D and C# scales should be performed quite quickly (and taking into account other elements like the style of the song that’s being played, the other instruments in the band etc.)
The video “Not so blue” (btw, the title is no coincidence!) shows some possible applications of this scale on the electric bass. In the next post I’ll give you some more ideas on what I did in this video and how you can practice these techniques on your instrument.
That’s all for now. To the next meeting!