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Quarantine has allowed ample time for musical exploration. I'm a classically trained pianist studying music in college, and I'm using this extra time to be immersed in and learn how to play the blues.

I've transcribed a handful of pieces and I can play them in full, but I fail to understand certain theoretical aspects of each. I expect this post to be quite long...

The first song I transcribed was "Marie" by Otis Spann.

The most confusing aspect of this song is its mixing of major/minor blues scales. Even in the opening riffs, the song seems to switch between the two. The first little lick uses notes G, A, and C, going into a C7. The A puts it in the C major pentatonic/major blues scale category. Another 2 licks incorporates notes all from the C major blues scale, then he uses a lick that uses Bb instead of A (0:07). At what point is this just minor blues with an added sixth, and at what point is it switching between the major and minor blues scale. And, if it is all minor blues scale with an added 6th, how does one explain the constant use of sliding from Eb to E almost every time that note is hit (since E is not in the C minor blues scale). Is this merely a blue note leading into a chord tone?

Another point in this song that perfectly showcases this mixture is at 0:24. As the first 12 bar blues sequence goes into the V, Otis uses a lick that goes up chromatically (hitting each note in conjunction with a high C). The notes hit are C, D, Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G. It's almost as if both the major/minor blues scales are combined into one, composite, chromatic scale. How can this be explained?

I understand that blues is essentially a study in mixing major and minor simultaneously, but I'm confused about the how and the when; how do I know when to mix these two ideas, when does it get away from one or the other and turn into one seamless mixture?

Another song that mixes the major and minor blues scales is "Same Old Blues" by Freddie King. I worked this out on piano first and then on guitar when the bends proved... kind of impossible on piano. lol

I'm specifically interested in the solo section starting at 1:56

The chord progression of this one is a little more nuanced. The solo section is as follows: D, F#7, Bm /, D, F#7, Bm, Am7, D7, G, G#dim, D, D/C, B7, E7, A7, D

The solo is all in the D major blues scale until the second D chord hits, the one before the D/C (at 2:24). At this point, it switches quite abruptly to D minor pentatonic, incorporating the 7th (C) instead of the 6th (B), and making heavy use of the minor blue note Ab. The remainder of the solo is in this minor blues scale.

Why does this work, and how can it be understood in a way that can be applied to my own playing? I understand it was most likely just intuition on Freddie's part, but because I don't have that intuition, that doesn't help me learn and progress from the example.

One last example that I'd like to add is the piano solo in Jeff Beck's "Blues Deluxe" performed by the great Nicky Hopkins.

The solo runs from 2:37 to 4:47, and it's a banger. It constantly seems to switch between the major and minor blues scales, incorporating the 6th and lowered 7th left and right. I've found that it's common to switch from the major blues scale on the I to the minor blues scale on the IV, and that happens here; Nicky also uses the bVII chord on the IV, something widely used in almost every bluesy Elton John track. That said, there seems to be some other forms of blues-based trickery going on here, and I can't make sense of the seemingly mixed scales and how to synthesize that into an understandable and usable format.

I hope this all makes sense. I guess some smaller-scale questions would be: - Can the blues idiom of hitting the minor third and major third in quick succession be be interpreted as a blue note in the minor blues scale or is it a switch to the major blues scale, since the major blues scale contains the major third (as well as the minor third)? - Does adding the 6th and 9th (or 2nd) scale degrees in a minor blues scale make it major, or is it simply a means of changing color/tone?

And these lead to the larger question of: - How do I understand the mixture of the major and minor blues scales in an applicable way?

It could just come down to more transcription and familiarization with the blues in the pursuit of this major/minor intuition. It could also be that the major and minor blues scales are completely interchangeable over a major blues harmony and can thus be used and switched at any point, whether separately (like "Same Old Blues") or in conjunction (the other two). Or maybe there is a more concrete explanation.

If you made it this far, thank you so much for your time and I look forward to your answer!

~Carson

  • 1
    If you find yourself asking "why does X work", you don't know enough about the domain. "Why does scratching my back work?" What do you mean "work"? You should be asking "what does it do to something". And when you get that question answered, then you might be closer to figuring out how it does what it does to that something. What is the thing that's being manipulated here? It's the harmonic context. Do you have practical musical ways to test and feel what the harmonic context is in your mind at each point in time? The context is in your mind, so how do you test your feelings? – piiperi Reinstate Monica May 13 at 8:07
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    @piiperiReinstateMonica In questions of music theory it's generally safe to take "Why does X work?" as shorthand for "What is the theoretical justification for this musical choice, and how can I incorporate that concept into my own compositions and improvisations?" The OP has clearly done their homework, including noting the harmonic context (I've found that it's common to switch from the major blues scale on the I to the minor blues scale on the IV) and the emotional effect of the phrases in question. – Max May 13 at 10:31
  • @Max The question should be, what does "switching from the major blues scale on the I to the minor blues scale on the IV" do (if that's the main musical device in question here). Not why it "works". If you can explain what its effects are to the "harmonic potential field" around a tonic, and you can reproduce those effects at will in any key you want, what more is there to understand? "What does it do" is the real question. Switching between scales doesn't feel like a description of that. A scale is not harmony. Think about all the harmonic turns that can be done with a single major scale. – piiperi Reinstate Monica May 13 at 11:25
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    Frankly, I'm not sure what you mean by a "harmonic potential field" or the distinction between "what it does" and "why it works" (which to me are both synonyms for "its musical function"). I find OP's question perfectly legible; if you can see a way to make it clearer, propose an edit. – Max May 13 at 11:32
  • How comes all videos you link to yield "video not available". As a result I can't even listen to what you refer to. :-( Is it because of some sort of regional access control? I'm in France FWIW. – Stéphane Gourichon May 15 at 10:20
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How do I understand the mixture of the major and minor blues scales in an applicable way?

The short answer is that the mixing of major and minor tonalities is the essence of blues.

Many people draw a distinction between "major" and "minor" blues scales, where in C the major blues scale is A C D E♭ E G and the minor blues scale is C E♭ F G♭ G B♭. Generally speaking, both of these scales are available when playing a blues (or even a bluesy song) in C.

Another way of thinking about this is that there is only one blues scale, namely the "minor" blues scale 1 ♭3 4 ♭5 5 ♭7. Notice that A minor is the relative key to C, so the two blues scales available in C are really just the (minor) blues scale from the parallel minor and the (minor) blues scale from the tonic. I will refer to these as the vi blues scale and the i blues scale, respectively, but try to include both names to be helpful.

Now, as you note, there is a 12(ish)-bar song form called the blues. Both the A and C blues scales are available when playing a blues in the key of C, but there are certain points in the form where one or the other may be more appropriate. A common newbie mistake is to play an E♮ on bar 5, where we have the incompatible chord F7. This comes from misapplying the A (C major) blues scale.

In general, as you have observed in the Jeff Beck example, we favor the i (minor) blues scale over the IV7 chord. The vi (major) blues scale works nicely over the I7 chord, particularly at the resolution point in bar 11, whereas the i blues scale confers a tenser sound when played over the I7 chord.

Finally, there's no rule requiring us to use exclusively blues scales when playing the blues. Notice that neither of the blues scales in C contains the note B, but that's the leading tone and sounds quite lovely when played over the G7 chord on bar 10; it's also used in plenty of classic blues guitar licks. You can use mixolydian scales, triad pairs, or any other jazz techniques you know about to lend variety to your blues playing, bearing in mind that the more you deviate from the blues scale, the more your sound moves from a "classic" blues sound to a modern, "jazz" idiom.

Can the blues idiom of hitting the minor third and major third in quick succession be be interpreted as a blue note in the minor blues scale or is it a switch to the major blues scale, since the major blues scale contains the major third (as well as the minor third)?

I would say it's the latter: It's a lick drawn from the parallel minor's blues scale. If you write the chord changes into your transcription, you'll notice that this pair of notes rarely appears over the IV7 chord since the major third becomes the major seventh of this chord, as above.

But another interpretation comes from noticing that when singers or horn players approach the blues, they will often bend the pitch to play a note that sits just between scale degrees ♭3 3, or ♭5 and 5. This sounds quite melancholy and beautiful. A textbook example occurs at about 1:26 here:

(King Oliver is one of the earliest recorded blues cornet players, and most know him primarily as the mentor to Louis Armstrong.)

Freddie King also uses this move a bit in your example, which will certainly confound your piano execution. To emulate that sound, pianists often play both notes (e.g. ♭3 and 3) together, then release the lower note. Theolonius Monk was famous for this. You can also play a more conventional grace note.

Does adding the 6th and 9th (or 2nd) scale degrees in a minor blues scale make it major, or is it simply a means of changing color/tone?

It could. Depending on the context and idiom, you could argue that such notes are drawn from the iv blues scale, or if it's a more modern example you might argue instead that the player is using something called a "bebop scale."

In general, jazz theory aims to describe rather than prescribe, and sometimes there are multiple theoretically correct descriptions of what's going on.

The notes hit are C, D, Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G. It's almost as if both the major/minor blues scales are combined into one, composite, chromatic scale. How can this be explained?

You explained it right there :) Notice that this line is phrased in triplets, so the accent falls on the notes C, E, and G, outlining the tonic.


Overall, I would say your approach to understanding the blues is the correct one: Favor transcription by ear over sheet music, and learn to recognize the character of the major and minor blues scales as they fit with each chord in the blues form.

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  • This is immensely helpful! Thank you so much! It's interesting to think about the major blues scale in the context of the relative minor, it makes sense and simplifies it. I never really thought about it that way. One follow-up question is that, while the b3 to 3 is derived from the major blues (or vi blues), I find that, in my limited guitar experience, it's "curled" up within a purely minor pentatonic/blues context. In this case, it would simply be a bent note in minor, not a one-note digression into major, correct? Thanks so much! ~Carson – eubio May 13 at 7:07
  • Yes, I've noticed that too, where the guitarist will bend into what seems like the major 3rd over a minor chord. They usually stop just shy of the major 3rd itself, so I would be inclined to analyze this as the "blue note" between b3 and 3 rather than a digression into major. But in some contexts, the other reading might make more sense. For example, if we have Cm7 moving to Fm7, then an E natural over the Cm7 would be the leading tone of the Fm and could be analyzed as tonicizing that subsequent chord. – Max May 13 at 7:12
  • Great, thank you! – eubio May 13 at 7:41
  • 5th para. - blues in C - playing an Enat. in bar 4 is absolutely fine! You probably meant bar 5, which is where the F chord comes in. There is also the 12 bar blues that has F on bar 2, so Enat. doesn't work there either. – Tim May 13 at 7:46
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    @Tim, here's an example: In bar 2 of the guitar solo (starts at about 1:10), we have Db bent to D over a Bbm7 chord. youtube.com/watch?v=bZ2EEepqzMM – Max May 13 at 8:04
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I think the source of your confusion is the notion of "switching" between major and minor, and the resulting question of when to switch. I would suggest to view things differently, i.e., not to think in terms of "switching" between major and minor.

If we consider a blues based on dominant chords - so we're not talking about the minor blues here, which doesn't have that problem anyway - we need to realize that the basic scale over a dominant chord is the mixolydian scale. In the blues, we like to add blue notes, and these notes are the b3 and the b5. So the melodic material in the blues is drawn from the mixolydian scale to which we add those two blue notes. It is important to see, however, that in that concept we can't use a single scale for the whole blues progression, because over the IV7 and V7 chords we need to use their respective mixolydian scales, possibly with added blue notes.

In that concept, we don't need to think of switching between major or minor. We just use the melodic material in whatever way we like. We can stick more to the basic chord sound by emphasizing the chord tones and using the mixolydian scale, and we can give it a more bluesy touch by mixing in the blue notes (b3 and b5). When moving from I7 to IV7 we switch scales, which in practice just means that we replace the 3 of the I chord with the b3, which becomes the b7 of the IV chord, and that we put more emphasis on the 6 of the I chord (which is now the 3 of the IV).

The "traditional" blues scale (minor pentatonic with added b5) simply fits in with the above concept as a certain subset of the mixolydian scale with added blue notes. Played over the I7 chord, the notes that are skipped are the 2, 3, and 6 (while adding all blues notes). For this reason, very long solos based exclusively on the blues scale can sound a bit one-dimensional to some listeners.

But apart from all theoretical considerations, it's of course important to understand that music develops before we come up with a theoretical framework for it, and that we have to learn how blues works from recordings of blues artists, just like you've done. Then we note, for instance, that the major third can sound a bit too sweet in a blues context, so it is more often than not approached from below using the b3, which gives it a much more bluesy sound. One can also notice that blues improvisation is approached differently with different instruments. As an example, it's interesting to compare guitar players with horn players. One can learn a lot from listening to other instruments and from figuring out which lines they tend to play.

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  • After more reflection, I actually do prefer this mixolydian + blue notes approach to things (opposed to major/minor blues scales or the I and vi minor blues scales as explained above). I think it makes more sense and will make more progressive sense as my blues exploration inevitably leads down a jazzier road. Thank you! – eubio May 13 at 18:29
  • I agree that it's less a matter of "switching" between major and minor and more a matter of blending them, for the same reason that apple pie doesn't "switch" between sweet and sour, but combines them. That said, the mixolydian-based (modal) understanding of the blues applies better and better the further forward we move in history. In early blues, we can observe the melody really is confined to the two blues scales; the leading tone seldom appears, and the b7 (when sung) is usually "extra" flat to conform to the natural harmonic. cont. – Max May 14 at 0:11
  • cont. I also think that blues scales can explain certain blues cliches, like alternating between the 5, 6, and 1 (a segment of the major blues scale), more directly. But a modern blues musician should be familiar with both approaches/justifications, since they can each guide you to new possibilities. Anyway, I hate to risk my +25, but @eubio, if you like this answer better, you're free to accept it instead of mine :) – Max May 14 at 0:13
  • @max I agree that both should coexist in a modern blues toolkit, and I also see how the blues scales explanation can address many “pure” blues situations more directly. I decided to accept your answer because it addresses my other smaller questions and gives that freedom of interpretation (par. 6) to enable both (or even more) understandings to coexist. Thanks again!! – eubio May 14 at 0:57
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As per my answer here, I feel that the essence of melodic blues playing is to move beyond the idea of a fixed set of notes, and embrace the fact that in certain parts of the octave, ranges of pitch, rather than only certain fixed pitches, are available.

I also think a lot of the writing in educational resources about "major blues" and "minor blues" is potentially confusing, and sometimes maybe even confused. Conceptually, I find it easier to think of a single, flexible blues scale when playing in an archetypal blues style. It may be that "major blues" and "minor blues" are each good descriptions of the tonality of some pieces, but it would definitely be incorrect to say that blues tonality divides neatly into "major" and "minor"; a strong characteristic of blues is that it bridges the gap between the two.

Yes, when you're playing a fixed-pitch instrument like the piano, you're restricted to fixed pitches - but you rightly mention the idiom of e.g. hitting the minor third and major third in quick succession, which is the piano's way of putting in a bit of that 'bendiness'.

In the blues, these bends aren't just incidental inflections - they're central to how the tonality works, and to ignore their importance is to misunderstand the genre.

The notes hit are C, D, Eb, E, F, F#/Gb, G. It's almost as if both the major/minor blues scales are combined into one, composite, chromatic scale. How can this be explained?

Let's compare that with my impression of the 'C' blues scale from my linked answer:

  • C

  • a 'window' around Eb, covering the range down to D and up to E.

  • F, bending up a little (maybe not as far as Gb)

  • G

  • Bb, with scope to bend up a little (but maybe more like a quarter tone - not as far as B)

Apart from the fact your particular lick doesn't hit a Bb, I'd say we pretty much agree :)

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    I wish I could upvote this 10 times. The concept of a blues scale is really a crutch taught to beginning students in order to get them sounding fluent quickly. – Ben Crowell May 13 at 23:33
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The (sort of) generally known major blues scale in key C consists of C, D, E♭,E, G, A, and minor blues scale in key Cm consists of C, E♭, F, G&flat, G, B♭. So, put another way, the notes NOT included are:C♯, G♯ and B! So, if you like, there are three avoid notes involved in blues on C.

Given that the other two main chords used frequently in blues in C are F and G, and those missing notes can come out to play at times.As in - when on the F chord, the F blues scale notes are brought out (or in!) to play, both maj. and min., and exactly the same thing happens on the G. So, put another way, there's very little that you could play that will be 'wrong'. Obviously, as with all music, where you play particular notes in each bar is of paramount importance to it sounding good.

Thing is, with blues, it's that the 'rules' get broken - often. And maj. and min. blues tend to get mixed and used side by side all the time. And that's without considering the 'bent' notes that guitarists and sax players in particular use all the time. They're the ones 'in the cracks'. Piano players tend to get some emulation of them by crushing in the notes that are one semitone lower.

As I tell my students - you can use any of the twelve notes from the chromatic scale, in any key, at any time, once you know the basics of how they interact and work. And blues (and jazz) tend to do just that. It's not breaking the 'rules' (there are few!), but working alongside them.

One caveat - maj. and min. blues both work over major (or seventh) chords, but maj. blues doesn't do so well over minor blues sequences.

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Making Sense of Blues Soloing; differentiating major/minor pentatonics

A. Major:

The major blues-melody contains major 3rds but also minor 3rds (and diminished 5ths, minor 7ths: the blue notes, which fit quite well with the tones of the parallel key) The bass and the chords are major chords (the blue notes are chromatic approaches or bent 3rds and 5ths.

B. Minor:

The minor blues melody, chords and bass line don't contain major 3rd (except in V7 and sometimes when the subdominant is a major IV like in Dorian.)

"It ain't necessarily so", "A woman is a sometime thing" (Porgy and Bess / Gershwin) and"Yer blues" (Beatles)

We probably shouldn't try to describe the blue notes by traditional western theory. My own concept is to understand the blues as a sad song expressing misery, desperation, crying, as if you someone is soaring and desperately singing, not able to reach the perfect pitch. In German baroque we have the "Seufzer motif" - the motif of sighing. In my opinion the blue notes are like a sighing (bent tones, chromatic approaches leading up to the major 3rd or major 5th, down leading ("Seufzer") b3->2->1 and b5->4-1

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Considering your situation, I suspect you're pretty good on theory. So regarding your problem of thinking of "switching" major and minor, I suggest you start thinking more in terms of modes. In historical terms, pretend you're playing baroque or even earlier.

We have a perfect example of this in the English folk tradition. Greensleeves switches seamlessly between its relative majors and minors. Its author (allegedly Henry VIII, although evidence of this is lacking!) would have been entirely familiar with how blues players move around the scale.

And of course remember that musical theory is just a way to represent what the piece or player is doing, after the piece is written or the player has improvised. It's not a rulebook of what is and isn't permitted! :)

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I've found that it's common to switch from the major blues scale on the I to the minor blues scale on the IV, and that happens here; Nicky also uses the bVII chord on the IV

I think some of your questions can be addressed as general harmony issues and in many cases those blues harmony characteristics are not hard to understand from a "classical" harmony perspective.

First take note of the importance of the IV chord in blues. In the opening of 12 bar blues you get I IV I and then in the turnaround ending you get IV I. There is a very noticeable emphasis on the subdominant.

In classical style you can have I IV6/4 I where the IV chord is considered a kind a embellishment of I. If you want to treat IV not as a mere embellishment, it can be tonicized to emphatically make it a goal by lowering the seventh scale degree. I V7/IV IV or with chord names in C it's C C7 F.

Both of those happen in blues harmony.

In 12 bar blues the basic beginning harmony is | I | I | I | I7 | IV.... The I7 essentially tonicizes IV. If you really wrote the symbols correctly it would be like `| I | I | I | V7/IV | IV...'

On the IV chord of bars 5 & 6 you can have something like IV IV64/IV IV in C it's F Bb/F F. The subdominant of the subdominant. It's a lot easier to write and think about it you treat F as momentarily tonicized and just label it I IV64 I. This is the embellishing use of IV. In your question you called the chord bVII. C: bVII is sort of synonymous with F: IV, but it misses the subdominant quality.

Lot's of jazz and blues method put this all together with a general reference to the Mixolydian mode. Each of the 12 bar blues chords - I7 IV7 V7 - can be seen as a Mixolydian flavored chord. The Mixolydian mode provides both the 7 for each chord and an embellishing IV6/4.

Now go back to switch from the major blues scale on the I to the minor blues scale on the IV and you will see the minor blues scale in C gives you a Bb and Eb and those are exactly the tones needed to get F Mixolydian for the IV chord. In classical harmony terms Bb first provides the seventh for C7 to F then it becomes the subdominant of F and the Eb which seems like a minor third relative to C also provides a minor seventh for F7.

So, if you are trying to make sense of why and when to switch between blues major and minor, and you bring to the question a "classical" perspective, you can say switch from blues major to minor tonicizes the subdominant.

I don't see a problem with intellectually satisfying the question with a bit over overwrought music theory ...and then setting the theory aside to approach improvisation more intuitively.

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There is no blues scale, any more than there is a jazz or a pop scale. Much African music is based on a pentatonic scale having notes that fall in between western temperances, explaining the blues guitarist's use of bending strings and/or a slide, and the pianist's use of adjacent keys. The harmonic content and use of scale is sometimes better viewed as being based from the V chord even when you are on the I chord, and much African music displays this context. Possibly this could be seen as a cultural difference in what is perceived as the root. As far as "mixing minor and major", the real answer is neither. Its pentatonic. Furthurmore, if you listen to blues from the 1930s through the 1960s you will hear musicians intentionally blurring the "rules", contrasting the harmonic major tone of a song's vocal part by playing a guitar part based completely in minor. This is an element of blues evolution, in which western harmonic mentality has been somewhat assimilated. Another thing you may discover if you start to understand the pentatonic scale is that everything you play or sing sounds "sad", but that is a reflection of our contextual experience; the lyrics of many blues songs can be interpreted differently if one is not hearing "that melancholy strain" accompanying them. You are most correct in thinking that further study will help learn this mysterious musical language, and startong with very early blues and working your way thru the decades. Many idioms and elements became meme-atic over the years, you no longer have to play a turnaround because everyone knows there's a turnaround there. Or, to put simply: "Blues ain't nothin but a good man feelin bad" St. Louis Slim "Nobody leaves without singin the blues".

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