Blue Notes Are “Wrong” Notes
Some people would consider blue notes to be “wrong notes.” But they’re not just any wrong notes. They’re particular wrong notes. Some “wrong notes” are cool, and those are the blue notes. Some wrong notes are not cool, and those are just wrong notes. It’s important to know the difference.
According to Merriam Webster, a blue note is “a variable microtonal lowering of the third, seventh, and occasionally fifth degrees of the major scale.” Unless you know your music theory, that is probably meaningless to you, so let me explain with an example.
Paul McCartney Sings Blue Notes
Let’s use the Beatles’ song “Can’t Buy Me Love” as an example for discussion purposes. Most musicians would consider this song to be in C major, which has no sharps or flats. The opening vocal pick up outlines a C major triad: C, E, G.
During the verse, Paul sings an E flat on the second half of the word “diamond.” Check it out:
Considering that the key of C major has no sharps or flats, this is a wrong note! You can listen to it here if you want to double check my work.
Does it sound wrong when he sings it? You’re probably so used to it, you never gave it a thought. That, my friend, is a blue note! In this case, he’s taking the third note of the C scale and making it flat.
The Most Popular Blue Notes
The most common notes to be messed with are the third, the sixth, and the seventh. It’s almost like singing a minor scale over an accompaniment that is more major in tonality.
Throughout the rest of that song, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” in fact, Paul sings a flat third (E flat) and a flat seventh (B flat) in all the verses.
Know the Difference
The thing is, though, often the melody goes back and forth between the blue note and the regular note. And you need to know the difference. In “Can’t Buy Me Love,” the chorus melody uses the regular E natural that is part of the major scale.
I was just working with a singer last week on the Arctic Monkeys’ song “Crying Lightning,” and the coolest part of the vocal line is when the melody goes back and forth between the blue note and the regular note in one phrase. It was a tedious lesson working through which ones were which!
Blue Note Extremes
I’m not sure if it’s T Bone Burnett’s doing, or Alison Krauss’s idea, or Robert Plant’s, but in the song “Rich Woman,” they really mess with you. The bassline is most assuredly playing the blue note third, Robert is singing the blue note third, but then Alison sings the MAJOR THIRD, OMG! That is messed up! When I first heard it, though, I thought, “That sounds SO COOL!” And then I tried to sing it while playing the bass line on my guitar. Whoa. I hated it at first. But once I got Ted Ervin singing the lead and playing the bass, it started to come together.
Check it out:
Try Singing Some Blue Notes!
Some people can do it right away and have no problem. More beginning singers can have difficulty. If you’re in the latter group and interested in learning more about it, you could look it up on YouTube. There are myriad tutorials on how to incorporate blue notes into your singing.