Harmonising Blue Notes

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At the start of this year, I was sharing some feedback with an arranger on a chart-in-progress, and went to send him my post on the difference between blue 3rds and minor 3rds. It turned out that I’d never actually written it, and what I was remembering having written took place in an email conversation with Adam Scott back in 2014 when he was commissioning ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ for the Barbershop Harmony Society.

So it looks like I should probably get around to writing it now, as the technical and artistic challenges of blue notes for a cappella arranging aren’t going to go away.

Definitions first: a blue note is a kind of melodic inflection that comes from (believe it or not) African American musical traditions such as the Blues. (I have just this moment discovered that the Wikipedia article as presented on the day of writing appears not to recognise this heritage, but recasts the narrative as a problem created by equal temperament in 18th- and 19th-century Europe. This irks me more the more I think about it; how can you define blue notes without talking about the Blues? As whitewashing goes, that’s pretty egregious.) The most frequent and archetypal note to be altered is the 3rd, though 5th and 7th are also common.

(Oh and sometimes the voice-leading suggests that we’re actually looking at a raised 2nd or 4th rather than lowered 3rd or 5th, but I only mention that for completeness, it’s tangential to my main purpose today.)

Blue notes, like many other elements of African American music were co-opted into the expressive language of commercial popular musics of the twentieth century, including of course barbershop, itself a genre a genre of Black origin of course. And we find some interesting challenges when harmonising this inflected sound with the rationalised harmonic language derived from European traditions (major/minor system, circle of 5ths, etc) that form the primary structures for the style.

The question that inspired both this post and the conversation I had with Adam all those years ago, is how to handle a blue 3rd in the melody when the primary harmony is chord I in a major key. If your render the blue 3rd as lowered by a semitone, as is typical when brought into notated idioms, the most immediately obvious approach is to end up with a minor triad.

The problem is that this then sounds like, well, a minor triad, instead of like a blue note. In jazz, blues, and the commercial musics that borrow from them, you have a clear distinction between the tonal/harmonic structure in the major key and the blue melodic inflections that add colour and meaning by pulling against it. In a cappella textures, your accompaniment and your melody come with the same timbre, so the ear wraps the blue 3rd into the primary harmony as if it were the structural 3rd, rendering a tonic chord in the wrong modality. It’s not just theoretically wrong, it really sounds weird.

As I put it in one of the mails to Adam:

Remember, tonality is King, which is why we define it up front with key signatures. Tonality rules harmony, and harmony rules melody, and whilst melody flirts with rebellion, its dissonances are resolved out through well-established rules. This is why the Beatles’ use of blue thirds in major keys acted as one of their signifiers of transgression, but it remains part of the expressive surface of the music, and doesn’t in fact disturb the basic structural hierarchy – it’s in the voices, but not the harmony that backs them.

So, you ask, what do we do instead? Here are a few solutions that I have used in different contexts:

  • Leave it unharmonised as a moment of pure melody. This is nice because it really features the melodic expressiveness of the lead, and allows them some leeway as to how much they bend the note into blueness.
  • Change it to a major 3rd. This what I did in ‘A Hard Day’s Night’, as the note came at a major cadence point that really needed to be harmonised. Interestingly, listening to a number of live recordings of the song revealed that the extent to which Lennon flattened the note in performance varied quite a bit, and he quite often bent it back up towards a resolution on the major 3rd towards the diphthong, which reassured me that it really was a blue note not a minor 3rd, and thus should be the one to compromise when up against the major harmony.
  • Substitute a IV7 chord, rendering the blue note as a barbershop 7th. I like this for all kinds of reasons, not least that it has been theorised that the barbershop 7th evolved from blue 3rd in the baritone line in early African American quartets. Plus of course IV7 is a cadential chord in the Blues, so whilst substituting for I involves a certain distortion of harmonic rhythm, it maintains the implications that we’re heading home (just a little later than anticipated).

Righto, next time I have this conversation, I will be properly prepared!

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