To account for this slightly bent pitch in melodic expression while being confined to an equal tempered scale, we created the concept of a blue note. This concept allows the 3rd, 5th and 7th intervals of the scale to be lowered by half a step. Instruments that can play semitones often bend this note resulting in a pitch that is not perfectly accurate to the scale. Fixed instruments such as the piano often slide between the lowered and regular versions of these pitches, allowing the two sounds to blend in the listener’s ear.
The introduction of blue notes at the 3rd, 5th and 7th intervals lead to the development of a blues scale which incorporated these pitches. There are three versions of the blues scale which are based off of three different approaches to adding these blues notes. The hexatonic blues scale is a six pitch blues scale. In this version, people realized that the minor pentatonic scale already contained the desired b3 and b7 blue notes. They merely added the b5 (or #4) to the scale to create a six pitched altered version of the minor pentatonic which contained all three blue notes.
The heptatonic blues scale is an approach in which the major scale is altered. In this approach, the 3rd, 5th and 7th intervals of the major scale are lowered. This results in a seven pitch scale that contains a minor third, diminished fifth and minor seventh.
The octatonic blues scale is an approach which also alters the major scale, but in a different way. In this approach, the b3 and b7 are added to the seven pitches of the major scale. This results in a nine pitch scale that contains both a minor and major third and seventh. Quick sliding between these chromatic pitches is utilized to create the blue note inflection. The b5 (or #4) is not used in this version of the scale.
When improvising in the blues style, one can apply the hexatonic blues scale as a key signature over the entire 12 bar form. As mentioned last week, the blues style allows for chromatic alterations that are not common in other styles of music. For example, every chord within the form can be played as a dominant seventh chord (contrasting typical diatonic music where only the V chord is a dominant seventh chord). This sonic nature of the blues style allows the hexatonic blues scale to be applied as a “one size fits all” improvisation scale.
When using the blues scale for jazz and other forms of improvisation, it is often beneficial to apply more care. Styles like rock and pop contain very little chromaticism. Even in jazz, chromaticism is applied in a very different way (through V of V’s and temporary key centers – look at my lesson on connecting chord progressions). Because of this, many people use the hexatonic blues scale applying both a minor and major tonality.
In these applications, the hexatonic blues scale that we have been studying so far is considered to be a minor blues scale. It is used to improvise over minor seventh chords since it contains many of the minor seventh chord tones. When using this scale in this fashion, one should attempt to end phrases on the chord tones. This brings a sense of closure to the melodic line. The other pitches in the blues scale can be used as approach notes leading to the chord tones.
The rules between relative major and minor apply the same way when it comes to blues scales. Therefore, a major blues scale will contain the same pitches as the minor blues scale three half steps below it. For example, a C major blues scale will contain the same pitches as an A minor blues scale. We are merely considering a different pitch to be the tonic within the sequence. This creates a scale with a root, 2nd, flat 3rd, 3rd, 5th and 6th. The existence of the major third and perfect fifth in this scale cause it to be more consonant with the chord tones of the dominant seventh chord. The flat third can be used as a quick slide or passing tone to create that blue note affect.