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There is a bluegrass song archetype that mixes the minor/major 3rd and raised/lowered 7th making almost an extended scale. How can I describe what's going on here using music theory?

Modal mixture comes to mind but it doesn't seem like a fleeting thing, affecting only a single chord, rather it's pervasive through the entire harmonic texture.

Is this trying to apply a framework that just doesn't fit for this type of music?

Pretty polly -

I could produce more examples if needed

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It's basically blues. Major key music inflected with blue notes. The rhythm accompaniment patterns are what make it specifically bluegrass.

Most of the time the harmony - heard most clearly by following the bass - is one chord B major. But while the bass spends most of the time thumping along with roots and fifths of a B major chord it will do a little walking bit at the end of phrases that gives an F# chord (chord when you consider the whole ensemble.) Sometimes that walking part goes up through an A but I have trouble hearing if it's really an A# for a leading tone (to make a clear F# major chord.) It may be a little lower than A# but the overall sense to me is B major and F# major chords.

In the melody parts you will get the play between major/minor third and major/minor seventh. Those are simply blues tones. You can think of that as an extended scale if you like, but it isn't a unique or problematic thing. In "classical" minor key music the sixth and seventh scale degrees are variable too. The only "problem" this presents is mistaking a tonality with a fixed scale of seven tones. Blues is a tonality not a scale. Minor key is a tonality not a scale.

I think an important thing to mention is that while the melody parts will use the minor third and seventh for a blues sound they may freely clash with the major intervals in the accompaniment parts. When the B major chord is played - with a D# for a major third - in the accompaniment the melody part may use D natural. That clash - technically you can call it a chromatic cross relation - is part of the blues sound.

The fact that this song spends most, but not all, of the time on the tonic chord (B major) has no bearing on the tonality. Although it is a characteristic of some folk music.

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Keywords here are blues scale, and even more importantly blue notes. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_note Blue notes appear in various styles, particularly often in blues, but also in jazz, rock and others. Various musicians, using various instruments play them differently, e.g. by playing note in between two pitches, sliding between them, playing microtonal bends, grace notes...

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If someone tried to describe this song to me by saying it's "modal", I would think of something completely different. It's bluegrass, with bluesy bends in the melody. I'd guess that even the most pathologically classically oriented music theorists must have encountered the term "blues" by now.

Some anonymous Internet writers have written a Music Theory article on Blues: https://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Music_Theory/Blues

No mention of modes or modality has been deemed necessary to describe "blues"!

Quote:

 Another common practice in blues is to play the entire song over a single chord...

What comes to chords, there are chord changes in the Pretty Polly example song, one V chord in the end of every verse, and between 4:04 - 4:09 they even hold the V chord F# as a final high-point of the song.

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This tune is 100% modal, and it uses a single scale from beginning to end.

Now, please note that "modal" doesn't mean "using one of the seven major scale modes". "Modal" describes any music which is built around a scale -- any scale -- rather than on the combination of chords and melody.

For example, Indian classical music is modal, while Western pop, rock, and classical music are not, being based on harmonic progressions. (Exceptions exists but are vanishingly rare, e.g. Pink's song "Get this party started", is a rare example of a modal pop song. You'll notice that there are basically no chords, it's just a B minor scale)

Blues and bluegrass may fall in either camp -- if you play a blues in which the chord progression is in evidence, then the harmony dominates, and the melody and improvisation is forced to follow the chords. But if the chords are not used, or limited to a single chord, then the improvisation becomes an exploration of the scale, just like in the video above. And then what you have is essentially a modal tune.

Similarly, most Jazz is not modal, as chords are central to most Jazz tunes, but if you leave chords aside, or use just a single chord for an extended period, the music takes a modal flavor immediately.

Bottom line, whether the scale has minor thirds, or major thirds, or both, is not the point -- if there is no chord progression, and the star of the piece is the scale itself, that's what modal music means in general.

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  • There's a lot of B major in there too, so it's more than 'B minor scale'. – Tim Oct 23 '20 at 8:58
  • @Tim, are you talking about Pink's tune? Because that's what I was talking about there. – MMazzon Oct 23 '20 at 9:01
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    There is a chord progression. B .... B .... B .... F# B .... B .... B .... B .... F# B .... B .... B .... B .... F# B .... B .... B .... B .... F# B .... etc. It makes you wait for the V chord a looooooong time and then only very briefly flashes it. Tease and denial! – piiperi Reinstate Monica Oct 23 '20 at 11:06
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    I didn't hear it before, but I think the presence of the V -> I at the end of each line makes it more closely related to blues than to something like Coltrane's Impressions or Get This Party Started which seem to prioritize texture over functional harmonic direction. Either way, it seems more like a gradient than a hard line – speedfranklin Oct 23 '20 at 14:12
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    You say it uses a single scale from beginning to end. That's what scale? There are m3, M3, P5, d5, and just about everything in between. The fitting scale would be the chromatic scale. – Tim Oct 24 '20 at 16:23
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The two key notes you've picked up on - M3/m3 and M7/m7 - are the hub of the blues scale notes - along with P5/d5, also featured.

Strangely, in a major key (this song is in B major - one chord, all through!) although the 3rd, 5th and 7th notes all fit perfectly well, by playing or singing them a semitone lower works too. In a sort of 'sweet and sour' way, as a student once told me.

So, no, it's neither modal nor multi-modal. It's blues. Might even consider calling it bluesgrass..?

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    "one chord, all through" not really! At the end of each verse there is a V chord, F#, played for two beats, for example at 0:43. – piiperi Reinstate Monica Oct 23 '20 at 11:03
  • @piiperiReinstateMonica - you're right. I can hear the bass change, not sure if everyone does. – Tim Oct 23 '20 at 11:44
  • You're right of course, my conception of blues as having a strict 12-bars, I-IV-V construction is overly restrictive. I often forget how intertwined bluegrass is with the blues (as well as music from the British Isles, especially the lyrics!) – speedfranklin Oct 23 '20 at 14:31
  • @speedfranklin, 12 bar blues is just a song format. You have 8 bar blues too, etc. It's the blue tones that matter. That's a great point about music of the British Isles and bluegrass! – Michael Curtis Oct 23 '20 at 17:15

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