Blues tonality

Ethan Hein
15 min readJul 28, 2014


Why music class needs to teach the blues scale as being as basic as the major or minor scales

The need for blues tonality

Most Americans who study music formally do so using common-practice era western tonal theory. Tonal theory is very useful in understanding the music of the European aristocracy in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the music derived from it. Tonal theory is not, however, very useful for understanding the blues, or any of the music that derives from it.

The blues is based around a very different set of harmonic expectations than the ones underlying classical music. In the blues, major and minor tonality are freely intermingled. Dominant seventh chords can function as tonics. Tritones may or may not resolve. The blues scale is as basic in this context as the major scale is in tonal harmony. Music theory as conventionally taught is inadequate to explain the blues.

In conventional tonal theory teaching, the major scale is taught as the most basic and fundamental theoretical building block. The very language of tonal theory proceeds from the assumption that the major scale is the most “natural” one. For example, in C major, you modify the “natural” seventh B to produce the “flat” seventh B♭. For western Europeans in previous centuries, using the word “natural” to describe the major scale makes good musical sense. But western Europe is not the only salient influence on the musical culture of the United States. The music of the African diaspora is as fundamental, and it has come to weigh increasingly heavily over time.

African diasporic musical culture expresses itself through all of America’s indigenous music: jazz, rock, hip-hop, R&B, country, and of course, the blues. The music academy gathers all of these genres together under the term “popular music” (with the exception of jazz, which in recent decades has become a “legitimate” academic music.) Steven Feld goes so far as to describe “American popular music” as “a euphemism for Afro-American popular musics” (31). Growing up in America’s popular culture enculturates us with a quite different sense of what “natural” harmony is. For example, DeClerq and Temperley (2011) shows that the♭VII chord is vastly more prevalent in rock than in common-practice classical music. To a rock listener, B♭ may well sound more “natural” in the key of C than B does.

Abandonment of formal music study is epidemic among Americans. Of those high school students in North America who have elective music programs available to them, only five percent choose to enroll (Lowe, 2012). These low enrollment figures are startling when one considers the central role of music in the inner lives of adolescents. There are a variety of reasons why young people are alienated from studying music in school, but surely one of them must be that the music theory being taught does not align with or acknowledge the music that they find most meaningful. The rules of tonal theory describe (or prescribe) a foreign musical culture.

The content, historical development and pedagogy comprising present-day music education and music teacher preparation in the United States of America (USA) continues to reflect a predominantly Western European cultural perspective. (Kindall-Smith p. 375)

Under the rules of tonal theory, blues-based music is either “wrong” or simply inexplicable. The omission of blues from music theory curricula is a glaring one, since it ignores America’s signature contribution to world musical culture. The case for amending music theory to encompass the blues is more than a musicological one. There is a crucial social justice component as well. Just as the descendants of the African diaspora have been oppressed and disenfranchised politically, so too has their musical culture been historically delegitimized. It is time to amend the situation.

I propose that we teach blues tonality as a distinct category from major or minor, combining elements of both with elements not found in either. Furthermore, I propose that we present blues tonality as being a fundamental category, not a strange exception. Pop musicians, who tend to be self-taught, already effectively do treat blues this way (Green 2002 p. 43). The music academy should do the same.

Defining blues tonality

There is some disagreement as to what, exactly, constitutes the blues scale. There are several scales referred to as “blues scales.” The most commonly understood definition is the one given by Levine (1995). It is the scale comprised of the intervals minor third, whole step, half step, half step, minor third, whole step. The C blues scale is C, E♭, F, F♯, G, B♭.

This interval pattern is quite unlike any of the diatonic scales. Levine (1995) observes that traditional music theory can not explain why this scale should sound good. The usual chord progression of a blues song similarly defies analysis in tonal theory terms, since the tonic chord is usually a dominant seventh.

The blues scale has further peculiarities. Unlike any other scale in common use, the blues scale is a kind of universal harmonic solvent. It can be played on any chord in any tune. (Levine p. 230) While the combination of the scale against all of these chords produces a great deal of dissonance, in the blues context the dissonance is perfectly acceptable. The clash of adjacent chromatic pitches in blues sounds right, not wrong. This fact can not be explained by Western music theory. But the blues emerged in Western culture and is now a central pillar of it. It is time for Western music theory to grow to accommodate the blues, the same way that the music itself has.

This diagram shows where I see blues tonality fitting into the broader western harmonic universe. I explain its contents below.

Diatonic major

This is the plain-vanilla major scale and its associated harmony as currently taught in school.

Diatonic minor

The natural and harmonic minor scales and their associated harmony.

The supermode

The supermode is the union of the major and natural minor scales. This collection of pitches comprise the ones most commonly used in rock and pop melodies, as determined by DeClerq and Temperley (2011), who also coined the term.

Non-western music in the western world

There are three major harmonic practices that western musicians have incorporated from the rest of the world, all of which are important to the blues:

Modes. Exotic scales have infiltrated western pop through vectors as diverse as the globetrotting dance music scene, big-eared hip-hop producers, rock and metal musicians looking to break out of cliches, film score composers, and of course, wave after wave of immigrants. Jazz musicians were exploring the major scale modes back in the 1950s, and a wide variety of non-western scales in the 1960s. Pop eventually followed suit.

Drones. Drones seem very exotic, more a feature of Indian or middle eastern music than blues. However, a huge swath of western pop uses static harmony based on a pedal point, and a pedal point is just a rhythmically broken drone.

Pentatonics. Almost every world culture uses pentatonic scales. Western musicians learn them early because they are easy to play. On the keyboard, playing on the black keys only gives you the F♯ major and E♭ minor pentatonic scales. On the guitar, pentatonics are by far the easiest scales to play.

Jazz major

Contemporary music rarely confines itself to the strict rules of tonal theory. Particularly in jazz, major-key music is frequently enriched with non-diatonic pitches, like ♯4 and ♭7. Levine (1995) and many other jazz teachers describe the “bebop major scale” as the major scale with the added ♭6. The “bebop dominant scale” is the mixolydian mode with an added ♮7. (See also Baker 1988.) I refer to this collection of expanded major scales as “jazz major.”

Jazz minor

I use the term jazz minor to refer to the union of all of the different minor scales commonly used in contemporary music: natural, harmonic and melodic minor, plus Dorian and Phrygian modes.

Weisethaunet (2001) observes that contemporary blues players will commonly use the Dorian mode against dominant seventh chords, and that the second and sixth scale degrees are common additions to the blues scale generally.

The tonality of the blues scale

The chords from the major scale are formed entirely from notes within the scale. The minor key system is more complex because there are several different minor scales, but still, the general idea is that chords come from within the various scales. Blues tonality works differently. The roots of the characteristic chords come from the blues scale, but the rest of their constituent pitches can come from anywhere in the harmonic universe. I consider the characteristic chords associated with the C blues scale to be:

• C7♯9 • E♭7 • F7 • F♯dim7 • G7♯9 • B♭7

Is blues major or minor? It is both, and neither.

Blues players will also employ the major third in their solos and phrases; however, if this is overdone, it will take the feeling away from that of the blues and make the music sound more ‘jazzy’ or ‘country-like’. From the perspective of the blues performer and listener, the major third against the major chord may thus sound more ‘dissonant’ than the application of the minor third over the major chord! (Weisethaunet 2001 p. 105)

The same way that major-key music can borrow from the parallel minor and vice versa, blues also commonly borrows from both major and minor.

For all of its violations of western tonal theory, blues is in no way atonal. There is always a strong tonal center, recurring at the beginning of every chorus. A great deal of blues music never departs from the tonal centers, as practiced by musicians as diverse as John Lee Hooker and John Coltrane. This is why it is necessary that the definition of tonal harmony expand to include blues.

What about blue notes?

If the blues scale is a disputed term, the blue note is even more so. Non-specialists will frequently refer to the flatted third and seventh (and sometimes the raised fourth) in the blues scale as blue notes. This is not correct; those are blues scale notes. Blue notes are microtonal pitches that lie between the piano keys. The question is: are blue notes stable units of equal significance to the blues scale itself? Or are they consequences of pitch play, the treatment of pitches “as mobile, unstable units instead of treating them as discrete points in a scale” (Tallmadge 1984 p. 155)?

Weisethaunet (2001) distinguishes between the blue note as a particular pitch or set of pitches, like an altered third or seventh, versus the broader concept of blues feel. The pitch play that produces blue notes can not be meaningfully separated from the rest of the musical devices that make up blues feel.

[I]n blues performance every note may be bent or altered, but in different ways depending on style and how such notes appear in the harmonic texture. One of the most frequently heard ‘blue notes’ as regards pitch discrepancy in post-war electric guitar playing may be that of the bent fourth: this is commonly bent to include different pitches between the fourth and the fifth (and higher pitches as well). The second (which does not even appear in what scholars have named the blues scale) also seems to be a very common ‘blue note’ feature of most blues guitarists’ repertoires: moving between the second and the minor third in innumerable ways. In fact every note of the twelve-tone chromatic scale may appear in a blues tune, possibly also as ‘blue notes’, because microtonality, attack, and timbre variation are such essential parts of blues expression. (Weisethaunet 2001 p. 101)

While blues musicians bend and inflect some pitches more than others, any chromatic pitch is subject to pitch play. One might ask, as Tallmadge (1984) does, whether any music with bent pitches has blues tonality? This would sweep a considerable variety of world music under the blues category, which makes little sense. How, then, do we distinguish a blue note from a microtonal or bent pitch generally? Much work remains before we can resolve the issue.

Blues tonality and genre

Different genres of African diasporic music are partially defined by the blues content of their harmony. Country is mostly diatonic with a dash of blues tonality. Rock is more evenly split between diatonic and blues. Funk is mostly blues with a little diatonic. Jazz freely blends blues tonality into diatonic showtunes, and diatonic harmony into blues tunes.

Good musicians intuitively understand how much blues tonality to use to sound more characteristically “jazzy” or “country” or “rock.” Along with rhythm and timbre, blues content can be a significant help in delineating the often overlapping and vaguely defined genres of American vernacular music.

Roots of blues tonality

Conventional wisdom says that the rhythms of African-American music descend from Africa, while the harmonies descend from Europe. This oversimplification neglects African harmonic practices that have persisted in American music that depart widely from European norms.

Kubik (2005) sees blues and jazz as the effort of black musicians to recreate blues tonality on instruments designed for tonal music. In turn, he locates the roots of blues tonality in several African harmonic practices: the “span” process (a kind of harmonic parallelism), the use of equiheptatonic scales, and tuning systems derived from the natural overtone series. He has observed that listeners to some of his field recordings from various regions in Africa find them to be particularly ‘bluesy,’ and that those recordings share musical properties.

I discovered that in many cases, the impression was created by just a few traits that appeared in those musical styles in various combinations and configurations: (a) music with an ever-present drone (bourdon), (b) intervals that included minor thirds and semitones, (c) a sorrowful, wailing song style, and (d) ornamental intonation. Songs with a prominent minor seventh in a pentato-hexatonic framework also sometimes received this designation, as did pieces that featured instrumental play with a clash between a major and minor third or with a specific vocal style Kukik 2005 pp 191-192).

While blues musicians use chords, there is not a sense of inevitable progression the way there is in Western classical. Indeed, the dominant V chord is frequently absent entirely in rural blues (Kubik 2005 p. 207). As rock and roll absorbed the influence of rural blues, it should be no surprise that “rock is not governed by rules of ‘progression’ at all; rather, there is simply an overall hierarchy of preference for certain harmonies over others, regardless of context (DeClerq and Temperley 2011 p. 61).” The rejection of the V-I cadence seen in rural blues was made explicit by bebop musicians in the 1940s. While their source material of Tin Pan Alley songs was full of cadences, they disguised and obscured them by means of the tritone substitution and other reharmonization techniques.

A few examples of blues tonality

John Lee Hooker — “I’m Bad Like Jesse James”

It is no surprise that you will find blues tonality in the blues. The major/minor mixture that characterizes blues is especially clear here; the piano chords are minor, while the guitar chords are dominant. As in a lot of great John Lee Hooker tunes, there is no chord progression.

Jimi Hendrix — “Purple Haze”

Centered around the famous “Hendrix chord,” otherwise known as E7#9. The other two chords are G and A7, straight from the roots of the blues scale. The chord changes under the guitar solo aren’t particularly functional; they’re mostly there to give a modal backdrop to the blues scale, as enriched with various outside notes.

John Coltrane — “Alabama”

Written in response to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing of 1963 by the Ku Klux Klan, which killed four girls. Usually blues uses minor melodies over major chords, but occasionally you’ll encounter the opposite, as in this recording. The harmony is minor all the way through until the end, when Coltrane hits the major third unexpectedly and hard. Listen at 5:35.

Parliament — “P. Funk (Wants To Get Funked Up)”

Mixes all of the minor scales with the blues scale, over a totally harmonically static background.

Michael Jackson — “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough”

This tune is largely in B mixolydian mode, but its keyboard solo is entirely blues. An even stronger blues connection comes in the very first interval of the vocal melody, the major third dropping a tritone to the flat seventh. Every line of the verses begins with this tritone, and its prominence gives the song a bluesy edge. At the time this song was released, Michael Jackson was beginning the process of bridging the racial divide in American pop, a process that would culminate in the unprecedented crossover success of Thriller. His most popular albums struggle to reconcile black and white music, sometimes awkwardly.

[I]n an era in which the mainstream was more racially segregated, Jackson donned the physical and acoustic clothes of white rock artists in “Beat It” and “Dirty Diana.” He could not legitimately be rock to a consumer base and thus had to find other (white) artists who could, preserving the black/white musical dichotomy.6 While Van Halen forged new territory in “Beat It”—but remained a sound without a face—the “Dirty Diana” guitar simply sat there, functioning primarily as a timbral indication of White Rock. This fact is all the more ironic given the reality of rock as a fundamentally African American tradition, despite its racial coding as white. Jackson’s transracial pop sound—and his later This Is It presentation of rock expertise—reflects this history, but it is overshadowed by the hyperracial whiteness of rock in all its in/authentic theatricality (Roberts 2011 p. 29).

Janet Jackson — “What Have You Done For Me Lately”

Another example of freely mixed major and minor. The line “What have you done for me lately” is minor, and “ooo-ooo-ooo-oooh yeah” is major. The keyboard line that repeats throughout the choruses spells out a diminished chord, further reinforcing the blues feel.

Blues tonality and rock

Rock operates in a mostly tonal harmonic universe, but it also has characteristic deviates the conventions of tonal harmony as well. I will argue that these deviations are the result of blues harmony.

Blues is one of the central pillars of rock. A great many rock songs are simply blues played faster and louder. The first rock song to top Billboard magazine’s main sales and airplay chart, “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets (1955), is a twelve-bar blues (Browne 2001 p. 358). The blues influence was felt especially strongly by British rock musicians in the 1960s, and they in turn spread awareness of blues to white American listeners (Schwartz 2007 p. 22).

Beyond direct covers and imitations, how might we gauge the impact of blues on rock? One good source is DeClerq and Temperley’s corpus analysis of rock harmony (2011). The authors analyze the twenty top-ranked songs from each decade from 1950 to 2000 of Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the ‘500 Greatest Songs of All Time’. The Rolling Stone corpus takes a broad stylistic definition of “rock” — so broad, indeed, that it includes an assortment of non-rock songs, including representative jazz, country, pop, R&B and hip-hop.

The most immediate difference between common-practice harmony and rock harmony as represented by the Rolling Stone corpus is the high incidence of the flat seventh scale degree and the♭7VII chord. These are rare in common-practice minor mode, and vanishingly rare in common-practice major (DeClerq and Temperley 2009). While the flat seventh has entered rock through a number of vectors, like the Mixolydian mode used in many folk musics, blues is likely the strongest influence on the use of this device.

Rock’s other major departure from common-practice tonality is the distribution of pre-tonic and post-tonic chords. In rock, the most common chord preceding the tonic is IV, whereas in common-practice music it is V. Furthermore, the IV, V and bVII are as likely to precede the tonic in rock as to follow it. “In light of this data, one might conclude that rock is not governed by rules of ‘progression’ at all; rather, there is simply an overall hierarchy of preference for certain harmonies over others, regardless of context” (DeClerq and Temperley 2009 p. 61). Again, rock has many streams of influence, and any number of folk musics have contributed to the relaxation of the rule that V must precede I. Once again, however, blues is likely to have played the strongest role in this difference from European norms.

Areas for further consideration

There are several diminished chords commonly used in blues tonality beyond the ♯IVdim7. A ubiquitous turnaround/embellishment figure uses I7/iii, ♭IIIdim7, IIdim7, I7, or those same chords in the opposite order. Furthermore, the pitches in Idim7 are highly idiomatic to blues melodies. Should these diminished chords be considered fundamental to blues tonality? If so, how do we incorporate them?

A greater challenge is posed by microtonal blue notes. These “bent” or “worried” notes are a foundational component of blues harmony. They are not only a feature of melodies; guitarists, harmonica players and horn sections will routinely bend entire chords into clusters of blue notes. I believe that blue notes are too important to be considered mere “participatory discrepencies” or embellishments. However, there is no obvious way to systematize their use. Maybe no such systematic treatment is possible, or desirable. The issue demands much thought.


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Browne, P. (2001). The Guide to United States Popular Culture. Madison, WI:: Popular Press.

De Clercq, T., & Temperley, D. (2011). A corpus analysis of rock harmony. Popular Music, 30(01), 47–70.

Feld, S. (1988). Notes on World Beat. Public Culture Bulletin, 1(1), 31–37.

Green, L. (2002). How Popular Musicians Learn: A Way Ahead for Music Education. Ashgate Publishing Group.

Jones, L. (1999). Blues People: Negro Music in White America. New York, New York, USA: Harper Perennial.

Kubik, G. (2005). The African matrix in jazz harmonic practices. Black Music Research Journal, 25(1), 167–222.

Levine, M. (1995). The Jazz Theory Book (pp. 219–236). Sher Music Co.

Roberts, T. (2011). Michael Jackson’s Kingdom: Music, Race, and the Sound of the Mainstream. Journal of Popular Music Studies, 23(1), 19–39.

Schwartz, R. (2007). How Britain Got the Blues: the Transmission and Reception of American Blues Style in the United Kingdom. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Tallmadge, W. (1984). Blue notes and blue tonality. The Black Perspective in Music, 12(2), 155–165.

Weisethaunet, H. (2001). Is there such a thing as the “blue note”? Popular Music, 20(01), 99–116.



Ethan Hein

Adjunct professor of music technology at Montclair State University; teaching artist for NYU IMPACT; researcher with the NYU Music Experience Design Lab