What is the Blue Note
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What Is The Blue Note?

“Blue Note” is a beautiful and mysterious term quite often encountered in the music world. It feels like blues, it feels like jazz, but it mainly feels like something that can touch our souls.

In the music industry, “Blue Note” is internationally recognized for being the Avant-garde record label “Blue Note Records” but also the chain of music clubs “Blue Note Jazz Club” with a presence in New York, Tokyo, Japan, and even in São Paulo, Brazil.

But in music, (1) what is precisely the blue note? and (2) how to recognize it?

1. What Is the Blue Note in Music?

First, the blue note is a note. And more than a note: notes–with an S. It is not an idea reduced to one note as its name suggests, but actually, several possible notes.

Second, the blue note is blue by the feeling it gives, and not due to a color used for the notation or anything like that. The note creates an inner depth–kind of blue–characteristic of what feels like blues and jazz.

This leads to a first clarification:

  • There is more than one blue note
  • A blue note is a specific note used to create certain feelings, leading to a sense of blue emotions

So naturally, the blue notes are often used as an expressive tool in music to add emotional depth and intensity to the music. It is an important element of the musical language in jazz, and obviously a grounding one in blues. Yet, it is not limited to these two genres and it can be found in a variety of musical styles to create this sense of blues and jazz phrasing or inner depth.

2. How to Recognize the Blue Note?

Blue notes are never to be alone. They are blue in relation to other notes, by being dissonant or in conflict. But these blue notes are just in between, part of a progression, so the dissonance or the conflict is the not end. The notes are part of a bigger whole that becomes this way naturally relatable and profound: dissonances are part of life as they create surprises and challenges, but we prefer it does not end on it.

a. Finding Blue Notes In A Song

Before recognizing the note, you will certainly feel it: if you get that sense of sadness or longing for the music, you most probably just encountered one.

To recognize a blue note in a piece of music, listen for a note that sounds slightly off, kind of out of place in the context of the scale or chord progression. It is often played with a different tone or inflection than the other notes in the music, as blue notes are frequently played with a bit of bend or vibrato to give them a bluesy sound.

In the following video, you will hear a progression without a blue note at 01:13, and with a blue note at 01:17:

b. Finding Blue Notes In A Partition

If you read music, look for a note that is written with a different pitch or notation symbol than the other notes in the music as in:

Blue notes in music sheet
Blue notes (in blue): ♭3, (♯4)/♭5, ♭7 – Wikipedia

Blue notes are typically flattened thirds, fifths, or sevenths, and they are notated in sheet music by placing a small “b” next to the affected note, indicating that it should be played slightly lower in pitch than the standard scale. For example, a C note written as “Cb” would be played as a C♭ (a half step lower than C).

“The blues. It runs through all American music. Somebody bending the note. The other is the two-beat groove. It’s in New Orleans music, it’s in jazz, it’s in country music, it’s in gospel.”
–Wynton Marsalis

Blue Notes, Blues, and Jazz

Blue notes can be traced back to the earliest forms of African-American music, such as spirituals, gospel, and blues, and it can be heard all through the best Blues albums of all time played by the best Blues guitarists ever.

Of course, these notes preexisted the definition we just gave and might be spotted in Scandinavian or Irish folk music–and possibly classical European music–but it is only with the specific use and intention of the African-American music that they became blue notes.

Then, they also became an important part of the development of jazz, which itself evolved from the African-American musical styles of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Jazz musicians have used blue notes to add expression and emotion to their music, and it has become an integral part of the jazz style and genres.

“Blues is to Jazz what yeast is to bread; without it, it’s flat.”
–Carmen McRae

…just as without the blue note!

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