Tag: parallelism

Mega Drive Vibes

Mega Drive Vibes

Today’s post analyses a composition by Tim Follin from the soundtrack of a 1994 Sega Mega Drive game, Time Trax. (I found it on this sweet playlist.) I wanted to find out how it succeeds in being so improbably funky.

Chiptune music has been rising in cultural prominence with the predictability of any nostalgic trend. A mate of mine recently put me on to the quite expensively produced Diggin’ in the Carts, series, for example. I guess what’s fun about the music, beyond just hearing things from your childhood, is the musical meaning conveyed within harsh technical limits. Somehow, cheaply synthesised noises that don’t sound at all like brass, bass guitar, a string section, or whatever, can cheekily evoke just those things. So I want to examine that dialogue across the chasm of failed simulation, where the ludicrousness of the attempt at orchestral grandeur or, in this case, funk jamming, is part of the aesthetic.

The tune (it repeats, the actual track is about 3:30 long).

You won’t remember this one from your childhood, because this game was never actually released and only a prototype of it emerged online in 2013. “The game is notable for its use of a relatively advanced sound driver designed by Dean Belfield for Follin,” segaretro.org tells us. I get the impression that this was a technical peak of sound design on the Megadrive.

Not to get too nerdy – let’s save that for later – but this style of synthesis is associated with, roughly, the 16-bit generation of consoles as opposed to earlier 8-bit. It is called frequency modulation synthesis and it tends towards a distinctive metallic, clanging, bell-like, brassy tone. (Which Tim Follin’s sound design actually disguises pretty effectively, at least until the heavy distorted riff sections.) You may also recognise the sound if you ever played MIDI files on a laptop with a cheap soundcard, like my Dell Latitude.

Let’s get to the music!

This oscilloscope view is cool. BTW, different ones on Youtube have six and five channels. I read somewhere that it was a technical achievement of Follin’s to stick to five channels so as not to have game sound effects interrupt his music. I don’t know what the sixth channel is doing here and I can’t hear any extra instrument that isn’t in the five-channel version. *shrug*

So, apart from the dinky sounds, we have a medium tempo funk-rock groove tune. The first thing I was curious about was the structure. As is typical for game soundtracks, this one is designed to loop interminably. However this isn’t really an issue either way as players were not likely to stay long on the ‘Mission Briefing’ screen where this track is played. (In this playthrough video the player spends 40 seconds.)

In any case, there’s a 90-bar structure lasting about 3 and a half minutes. The basic principle is one found in a lot of groove music – Wayne Shorter’s ‘Beauty and the Beast’ is my canonic example – which we could call “on or off”: you’re either in the groove or getting ready to get back in.

Yellow for ‘in the groove’

Follin uses key changes to shape his track. (He mentions his “fondness for random key changes” here.) As shown above, we get the excitement of going up a b3rd, then a gradual floating down to the home key – a good scheme for a track whose opening will be heard more than its ending.

The key change is smooth on a number of counts.

The end of the brass build (that line is seen at the top left) going into the first organ solo. The double bar line marks the 1:07 section change (and key change).

Okay, the lead line doesn’t voice lead, but in general its D major pentatonic melodic/modal colour is goes strongly to G minor (i.e it’s the elemental I major to IV minor alternation that has strong gravity in both directions). The (faint) bass voice ends on a D before a strong G bassline comes in, so that works. And the inner voices have a general upwards sliding of a semitone. Nice.

There are some other nice applications of harmonic colour, suiting this rock/funk context. In the intro we get some Cs, the b6 of the key, giving a suitably earnest diatonic natural minor mood of cop show epic – after that these are thrown out in favour of minor-7th/sus-chord funk colours. There’s some strong use of the 9th, F#, in a couple of places e.g. the brass pentatonic build.

(I recognise that my names for the instrumental sounds are arbitrary. I just don’t want to put quotations around “organ” and “elec. piano” for the whole blog post. Your interpretation of what the instruments are meant to be is just as valid.)

This ambiguity of instrumental sounds is crucial for what I consider the secret sauce to this track. I’m talking about the inner voices that comp all the various organ solos and can be most clearly heard in the breakdown at 3:00. Quietly, with a warm electric piano-like sound, they add some rhythmic action that interlocks nicely with the rest, and fills out the middle part of the sonic spectrum. At the end of bars 2 and 4, every time, they feature some bluesy parallelism of a type I discussed a long time ago on this blog. A bII I movement, and next time it’s bIII IV. How does the bII I fit so smoothly in a minor key? I think it’s really a bV IV – a classic blues side-slip – in the V key!

Here is where I’d normally show a little transcription (I did attempt one bar of it above – the dotted eighths in the second bar). However, these inner voices are incredibly hard to transcribe due to two peculiarities of the medium: overtones generated by FM synthesis; and the need to swap instrument sounds mid-flow to maximise channel use.

The first issue means that, although I think only two channels are used for these inner voices, we get a fleeting impression of triads in the passing chords – I believe I can hear the thirds. This is due to the way frequency modulation synthesis works] – it adds overtones called side-bands, in various proportions, to the original fundamental. As the 3rd and 5th (actually 3rd+2 octaves and 5th+1 octave) are part of the overtone series, frequency modulation can generate a kind of major chord. So, for instance, while the most audible line in the inner voices starts b7 b7 8, or D D E at 3:00, I think this is actually the 5th and that below there’s a b3 b3 4, G G A which is the fundamental.

What makes it trickier is the fact that Follin may not be keeping the sound (or “patch” in synthesiser terminology) consistent from note to note. In the intro, we note a changing modulation on the synth stabs. And if you look at the visualisation, you’ll see that a channel may switch from brass to bass instantly (e.g. when the groove kicks in at 1:05), or whatever. (Follins mentions this as a “basic trick” here.)

So, even though with a bit of hunting around on old-school, nerdy websites I got some tools to extract MIDI data from the game files, I still can’t, after a decent effort, unambiguously notate it, because these lines might be transposed or changing timbre any time, and in any case they’re definitely using timbres with at least a strong 5th above the root.

Here are the two inner lines in MIDI in REAPER – but I still amn’t confident of what the sounded notes are!

What does all this mean musically? Just that it’s a full-sounding comping pattern with some sonic depth and mystery, and which, especially during those passing chords, is subtly but unmistakeably bluesy! Because blues uses that ambiguity between harmony and timbre all the time (so does electronic dance music, funk, jazz…), particularly for cliched parallel chord movements.

Let’s talk about the other sounds! Some commenters on Youtube have gotten into the nitty gritty of Follin’s techniques – in particular, his use of clipping/overdriving the signal to get otherwise impossible waveforms. I don’t know enough to comment there but I’ll just praise the sounds from a musical perspective and from what I can see in the visualisations.

Firstly, the very effective drum sounds are a single instrument/patch sounding at a high note for snare and a low note for kick, and a really high note for the hats. (Listen in the breakdown sections and you’ll hear the hat sound is kind of like a snare.) This is clear in the intro fill which sounds like it’s on the toms – but later those same notes function as a kick and snare in the main beat. While initially they sound more like toms than a kick or snare, in the mix they’re convincing. The beefy snare takes up some bass register quite effectively.

The distorted sounds later on, and the brass in the intro, are even less “realistic” but still sound good. I really like the bleep on beats 2 and 4 in the intro – here Follin uses a classic technique of “fake delay,” repeating the tone more quietly 3 16th notes later to give the impression of a classic tempo-synced delay effect. Then the bells/glockenspiel in the middle are a really nice timbral contrast. In fact timbral contrast is one of Follin’s main tools.

There are some cool sequencing tricks. The time feel changes from straight 16ths when it’s only hats, to swung 16ths when the groove kicks in. Also, there are some nice dynamic changes in instrumental sounds: the volume swell for the 2nd pads chord in the section starting 0:05, and the changing timbre of the synth stabs in the following section (accomplished by dialling in the degree of modulation of the carrier wave).

Of course, the centrepiece is the organ melodies. Although not very memorable as themes, they’re definitely funky, using tricks like staccato pedal tones, 32nd-note blues scale ornamentation, and (not idiomatic for organ, as I mentioned) pitchbends. As Follin says, “I also liked the playing styles used by folk musicians, all the twiddles and little arpeggios, which were again relatively easy to reproduce.” In general, these organ lines are built using rhythmic groups of 3 and either I minor pentatonic or V minor pentatonic shapes.

There’s one characteristic of the programming which is more to do with expediency – there’s a lot of reused material. The underlying drum pattern has no variations until it switches to a disco beat; the last minute is mostly just one riff in various orchestrations; and all of the organ bits use the same “answer” phrase in bars 3-4 and 7-8. As Follins recounts, these tracks were made by typing in notes in a text editor. I’d say this is why he copied and pasted a lot. It’s not a major problem functionally: the up-and-down the arc of dynamics keeps a meaningful directionality even though much of the groove stays unchanged for multiple sections. However, once you know about them, some of the 4-bar exact repeats (i.e. in the middle of the organ solo bits) become a little jarring.

This track was evidently made quickly, within the strictures of commercial production. Nonetheless it’s remarkably crafted, especially the sounds, which are not only skilfully programmed but gel together in a very fat “band sound.” And this was done without any mixing in the normal sense of applying EQ, compression, reverb. My personal yardstick is that I repeatedly found myself tapping my foot as I analysed it. No surprise that Follins states, “My own preference in my early teens (squashed by peer pressure) was for Quincy Jones.”

The actual game Time Trax, BTW, “is a straightforward platformer that sticks to the 16-bit platforming formula rather than innovate.” It’s clearly Follin’s composing work – which he says was something too nerdy and embarrassing to mention to friends and acquaintances at the time – that has kept it in the limelight. It’s nice to see that he’s only getting more recognition with the years.

I hope you enjoyed this jaunt into some different territory for the blog! If you have any insights into VGM or synthesis, feel free to comment!

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Blues Parallelism

Blues Parallelism

Ever since last year when it clicked that parallel chord movements are probably an essential part of blues, I’ve been working them into my bass style. As a musical force, parallelism is probably familiar to jazz listeners from the style of guitarists like Wes Montgomery. Check out his playing from 4:16 in this iconic performance.

What I’ve been trying to do relates very much to jazz guitar and even more so blues guitar traditions. I remember how refreshing it was to hear Simon Jermyn once point out that bass guitar and guitar are closely related instruments. Rather than model my approach on double bass or synth bass, I’ve often taken guitaristic paths in my playing. So, to my mind, the parallel chord movements I’ll look at today are completely native to fretted bass guitar.

“Parallel”, for anyone unfamiliar with the term, means that each new chord has the exact same inner structure (distance between its component notes) as the one before, but starting in a different place. So, each note moves in “parallel” with the others to reach the corresponding notes in the new chord.

The reason this is native to guitar and bass guitar, is that you can form a chord shape, and then easily slide the whole shape up or down to make a new chord. (You’ll see it in the solo I do at the end of the post.)

The first time I really noticed parallelism was in electro house tracks with basslines doubled in major 10ths. Remember this one?

But, actually, since childhood I’ve loved hearing blues slide guitar which is built on completely parallel “open-tuned” chords sliding up and down. Guys like the hippy blues savant Alan Wilson (seriously check out that magnificent performance by his band Canned Heat!) or George Thorogood.

Not all chord shapes are equal for this application. The strongest shapes are those that resemble part of the overtone series. This similarity causes the notes to interact and buzz. Gerhard Kubik calls acoustically resonant chords like this “timbre-harmonic clusters”.

D Harmonics to 11th

So, the first interval (counting up from the bottom note) in the series is the octave. Wes Montgomery is famous for his use of parallel octaves, for example at 2:50 in the first video above. But I don’t particularly like the sound of them on bass. This is partly due to the lack of a satisfying way of sounding them – Wes strums them with a muted string between the root and octave, but that doesn’t work for me. Also, they don’t achieve that chiming sound in the bass’s register.

The next interval is the perfect 5th found between the second and third harmonics (D and G). This one is, again, completely guitaristic – the “power chord” of rock and metal. As an interesting demonstration of a distinctive resonance, if you play a power chord on bass or guitar with distortion, a strong difference tone an octave below appears.

(Sorry for the poor sound quality by the way – I’ve upgraded my microphone but forgot to plug it in here.)

Without distortion, the phenomenon is much weaker, but still noticeable as an extra fatness/bassiness at gigging volume levels. (Actually I think that’s due to the slight distortion in the preamp stage of my amp.) So I do use power chords sometimes at gigs to augment a simple bassline.

Okay so some quick thoughts on the use of the other intervals available… 4ths are very buzzy and strong, and obviously easy to play on an instrument tuned in fourths. Major 3rds are strident and bright, sometimes overwhelmingly so, but it can be used for some parallel cliches. In particular, the blues scale fragment b5 4 b3 can be harmonised a major 3rd away by b7 6 5, another bluesy cell.

Another interval I use a lot is the 10th – it’s good for “prog house” or “electro house” sounds. One interesting thing about lines consistently harmonised in major 10ths is that it becomes unclear whether the top or bottom note is the “main” one, despite the fact that a single 10th interval definitely sounds like the root is the bottom note. Try it!

Minor 3rds are a flexible interval for parallel cliches, and I wrote an article about one of those. Major 6ths are used in the classic blues chromatic descending run, but can also be extended into half-whole diminished sounds like Scott Henderson’s. Minor 6ths basically can work as the 3rd and octave of a dominant chord or its 2nd and b7th. Minor 7ths sound good but can only really function as the 1st and b7th or the 3rd and 9th of a dominant chord. So minor 7th and minor 6th parallelisms in blues are basically targeting these landing points.

An interesting larger shape is one using the fourth, seventh and ninth harmonics, which ends up as a root, minor 7th and 9th (a dominant 9th with no 3rd or 5th):

9th no 3rd no 5th

This shape has a lovely resonance. Other 3-note shapes that are nice for parallelism are the 3rd inversion of a major triad (fourth on the bottom) and 2nd inversion of a minor triad (fourth on top). These are both particularly compact shapes on bass. And of course the skeletal dominant 7th, 1st 3rd b7th.

I busted a blues solo using many of these shapes in parallel movement. Have a listen and let me know what you think! I’ve timelined the appearance of different chord/interval types below.

0:02 6th

0:06 minor 3rd

0:12 minor 6th

0:22 dominant 7th (no 5th)

0:27 minor 7th

0:31 major 3rd

0:47 4th

1:02 major 10th

1:08 dominant 9th (no 3rd no 5th)

Thanks for reading/watching!

Book Review: Origins of the Popular Style

Book Review: Origins of the Popular Style

I’d been meaning to read Origins of the Popular Style by Peter van der Merwe (published 1989) for quite a while. It’s a musicological look at the origins – European and African – of 20th century styles like popular song, jazz, blues and rock’n’roll. I finished it a few days ago.

Basically, author Peter van der Merwe has turned around my ideas on the development of black music, including ideas I’ve written about on this blog. Today, I’ll first of all look at these revelations.

After that, I’ll evaluate the book’s approach and style.

So, first up, what are the big ideas? Number one is the complex connection between British folk music and blues. Van der Merwe is great at matching up variants of a song or song type, on different staves, so you can identify bar-by-bar how they changed over time and in passing between cultures. This reveals how blues song forms slowly evolved. For instance, the “4 bars of verse, 8 bars of refrain” structure of “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “Long Tall Sally” are traced back through the early blues “Tight Like That” then to Mississippi John Hurt’s “Frankie” to the hillbilly song “Josie”, itself a variant of a Scottish folk song, “Tattie Jock”.

As well as stanza shapes, melodic skeletons can be traced back to Europe. So, a prison work song like this one recorded by Alan Lomax, as stereotypically African-American and rootsy as one can imagine….

… uses a melodic skeleton from 15th century France, known as “Le Petit Roysin”.

An example that amazed me was the use of the flat 7th in blues. This note often features beautifully on the V chord of blues songs, for example at 0:30 in Barbecue Bob’s “Going Up The Country” (you can also hear it in both the improvised harmonies and the main line of the prison song above, e.g. at 0:50). I had always assumed that it was an African-derived use of the 7th harmonic of the root. This book neatly points out that it is a feature of British song known as the English cadence. But this is not to discount the African lineage. Van der Merwe is at pains to show how similarities between two different cultures reinforce each other during cultural interchange. He makes that point about, for instance, the originally separate British and African tradition of songs of complaint. I think it applies well to the merging of separate African timbral and British folk music derivations of the flat 7th.

Another aspect with much emotional resonance for me, the lyrics of blues songs, also turned out to have more British ancestry than I realised. For example, “One Kind Favour” (here in a seriously great boogie version by white hippy blues experts Canned Heat) is a  compilation of floating couplets of English lyric and poetry.

Moving on, the second major discovery for me in this book was about jazz and blues harmony. Van der Merwe paints a convincing picture of 32-bar popular songs (which became jazz standards) being the end result of harmonic/melodic trends initiated by great Romantic composers. To over-simplify, melody became more and more independent of harmony, by granting the 3rd, 7th and 6th greater modal power. A classic example is “Mack The Knife”. The melody is completely built off the 6th, which becomes a chord extension over standard major harmony (e.g. the 9th of the V7 under “und die tragt” at 0:31).

One of the great insights of the book is that such techniques pioneered by Liszt and Schubert became too vulgar for “serious” or “art” music in the middle of the 19th century but thrived in the trashier end of Victorian music: music-hall, salon music, arrangements for amateurs, dance music, etc. (The book names all of this “parlour music”). From there, they went directly into the jazz standards.

The biggest surprise for me in “Origins of the Popular Style” was the origin of blues chromatic parallel cliches. I’m talking about the descending 6ths used by almost all blues guitarists, discussed in this article, and the descending minor thirds that permeate music as disparate as Chuck Berry, Skip James and Thelonious Monk, discussed here. Very simply, these are Romantic-era innovations that became cliches of parlour music, and from there, ragtime and early jazz and blues.

That descending 6ths figure? Here it is in 1841 (at 2:16, in the bottom right of the score on the video).

Last year when I first discovered the extent of these parallelisms in jazz and blues, I thought they were a basically African-derived phenomenon, of treating chords or chord fragments as “timbre-harmonic” units – sounds prized for their physical quality rather than harmonic function. So I’m really glad that this book opened my eyes. Now I would say the parallelisms are European material that fitted the African timbre-harmonic conception and so gained a new life, and completely new and sophisticated meanings, in African-American music.

A third idea from the book is blindingly obvious and yet blew my mind – that many folk and blues songs have a “mode” or melodic basis of as few as two notes! This is an extremely refreshing perspective for anyone with classical or jazz training. Van der Merwe is really strong on analysing melodies and dealing seriously with the simplest of tunes, sometimes irreverently comparing them with Western art music. For instance, placing Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony beside “Oh! Mr. Porter” as two examples of a pentatonic mode.

And how well does he treat African music? Well, for one thing he’s clear about the unparseable variety of musics found on that continent and the impossibility of tracing African-American techniques to particular African styles (because of the cultural destructiveness of slavery).

Beyond that, though, the author impressed me with some insights into African-derived style. He mentions “the “false trail” introduction, in which the listener is presented with a rhythm which turns out, once the main beat is brought in, to be something quite different from what it seemed at first.”

Van der Merwe also mentions African “tapering” melodies that settle towards a powerful low “floor” note. “Devil Got My Woman” is a perfect example.

All in all, van der Merwe is not a specialist in African music, but his ideas seemed sound to me. And this is a general trend in the book. He doesn’t have academic rigour, (notably, he doesn’t work in a university or have qualifications as far as I can find) but everything he says is on-the-ball and backed up by examples. This position as outsider scholar frees him up to make bold but attractive generalisations. Out of many examples:

“Most African languages have… a fixed melodic relation between syllables…. This makes ordinary speech musical, and greatly narrows the gap between speech and song.”
“With most classical tunes, if you get a note wrong you spoil the whole. This is not true of the great folk tune patterns.”
“Bad taste, in the arts, is always a sort of failed good taste.”

Van der Merwe’s thinking style, based on bold, sometimes surprising connections, added a lot to the appeal of the book for me. Probably because I have a similar generalising, transcendental (“this thing is really that thing!!!”) thinking style.

Well, I better stop soon. All in all, this book gave me new ways to interrogate so-called Classical music and deepened my understanding of jazz and blues history. The lesson I learned is that connectedness and interchange are much stronger forces than we imagine.

Paradoxically, even though this book revealed a stronger European contribution to black music than I had expected, it still deepened my respect for the black music tradition. This is because I got a glimpse of how absolutely massive and sophisticated jazz and blues are. The mind-blowing achievements of 20th century greats like Parker, Ellington, Basie, Monk, etc., etc. were built off a subtle and complex body of work resulting from many decades, indeed centuries, of previous musicians’ experimentation and transformation.

After thinking about this development process, more and more I’m learning not to look for “roots” of African-American brilliance. Techno, hip hop, funk, bebop, swing, blues, etc. feature African stylistic retentions, but these were consciously developed and improved by black musicians. There is no mystical essence of African-American music filtering down from a forgotten past. Instead, African-derived approaches are constantly being reconsidered and recast to make new music.

To finish, let’s take a van der Merwe-influenced look at this jazz classic.

What do we have?A simple melody likely built off a folk skeleton. (Another famous Rollins track, “St. Thomas”, actually is a folk melody from England via the Caribbean.) Parlour music harmony such as extended dominants and use of the chromatic 5 b5/#4 4 voice movement. Almost banal reliance on the AABA form of popular song. Yet all of these materials are completely transcended by the sophisticated, part-ironic, bluesy, Signifying approach – and the remorseless swinging – that I don’t think could have been matched by any white band at the time.

History Of A Passing Chord

History Of A Passing Chord

Today I’m investigating variations of a parallel chord movement targeting bar 9 of a 12-bar blues: III- bIII- II-. I think it’s been somewhat written out of history. Although I am just a bass player, I’ll talk a bit about harmonisations of the movement, and finally look at some melodic inventions over it.

I’ll start with Satchmo. “West End Blues” (1928) is harmonically old-fashioned by our standards, with two bars of V7 at bars 9 and 10. Although there are hints of the III- bIII- II- movement at 1:10 and 1:46, it only emerges fully in Earl Hine’s piano chorus (1:59). From bar 8 of an Eb blues he plays:

Satch

Although he plays some extra weird bass notes (like E to F#), we can discern a chord progression: I VII7/#II II-, very similar to the better-known I bIIIo7 II-. How does this relate to my III- bIII- II-? They all share this parallel shift of a minor 3rd:

Passing 1 3rds.png
In the key of C

Does this mean anything? Well, I suggest you play just that minor 3rd shift in that spot (last 2 beats or last 4 beats before bar 9) of a blues. It sounds extremely bluesy and, as best I can express it, world-weary. Voice-leading-wise, it can land on the 1st and b3rd of a II- but equally the 5th and b7th of a V7. It’s parallel movement, which, as I suggest in this post, harks back to blues’ basis in overtones, which always move in parallel.

 

More evidence, please! you demand. Let’s look at recordings from two Delta bluesmen.

Skip James uses the chromatic minor 3rds in “Yola My Blues Away” (1931). This amazing song is in his characteristic open D minor tuning. It’s an unusual elaboration of a 12-bar blues, with a V7 on bar 2 and a bVI on bar 6. In the lyrics verses, the V7 is substituted by a bVII targeted with our parallel minor 3rds, e.g. at 0:35 after “in the morning”.

Passing 2 Skip
We’re getting away from my theme here, but out of interest… Skip James’ “Special Rider” uses a similar coloration but with a V root note. I think Skip James used this combined V- and bVII sound as a single modal area with vocal melody influenced by both I and V blues scales, not easily translatable to Western or jazz harmony.

In Robert Johnson’s slicker, almost pop idiom, we also find III bIII II, in his case as a bassline targeting a standard V7 on bar 9. (“Malted Milk” was recorded in 1937.) Actually, it’s not a bassline – the tune mostly doesn’t use bass notes – but rather a single-line movement to the 5th of a V7 which then uses a low open A string as a strong bass note. You can perhaps see what I mean better if I notate it:

Passing 3 Johnson
Okay so we’ve seen the movement in early jazz and early(ish) blues. What about performers straddling that border? Nat King Cole’s lovely “Easy Listening Blues” (1944) is a great jazzy instrumental blues, that features the III bIII II movement from piano, bass and guitar – but at different speeds, leading to clashes.

Check out 2:16 – the guitar and bass imply the movement over the last two beats of the bar, but Cole gives two beats of the bar to III- and bIII- respectively (using some syncopation). A similar thing happens in the first chorus between bass and piano at 0:23. Are the clashes a bad thing? Not at all in my opinion. We’re merely seeing the dominance of directionality – as long as the paths converge on the same goal, it’s fine to use different paths or the same path at different speeds. The moments of tension are a consequence of three players navigating the form together, and contribute to the blue feeling of the piece. Note as well that Cole plays |II-7 V7|II7 V7 |, similar to Earl Hines’ progression, with a tasty inner voice movement to #4 during the II7.

Charles Brown’s classic “Driftin’ Blues” (1945) is harmonically simpler. Here the whole band agrees on a one-chord-per-beat III- bIII- movement targeting II-, for example at 1:46, in the 2nd chorus of guitar solo. Even soloist Johnny Moore outlines the movement. He superimposes some really hip clusters in the rest of the song, for example the descending idea at 2:09, or this outside, but very bluesy, superimposition of 9th chord upper structures on top of the bass’s III bIII II movement.

Passing 4 Charles
Top staff chord symbols show guitar’s implied harmony, bottom staff piano/bass’s implied harmony

Note the trickiness: the chromatic movement seems like it will land on A9, not the usual chord but one with a strong blues identity and also somewhat related to the expected F#-7 subdominant (A6)… in any case, instead of A9 the third chord leaps to form the upper structure of an F-6!

Moore also uses the exact same basic descending minor 3rds idea we’ve been finding all along as an approach to an implied V-7 (II chord of IV) in bar 4 of the blues form, at 1:30.

Both of these performances, as well navigating the form with elegance, navigate the idioms of jazz and blues with ease. Nat King Cole uses grace notes and drone notes to create blues effects in the lead while using sophisticated harmony below. Charles Brown contrasts simple minor pentatonic fills with Johnny Moore’s hipper guitar (which still depends strongly on ultimately African-influenced parallelism/timbralism)!

Okay I want to finish now with some classic Charlie Parker blues to show how the III- bIII- II- movement worked in bebop. Our first example has Dizzy Gillespie playing a literal A-7 Ab-7 G-7 every single time on bar 9 of the form! The bass player gets it after the first chorus.

Finally, a composition whose progression is now named after Parker… but we know now that the A-7 to Ab-7 to G-7 movement has a long history. Parker takes the III- bIII- II- progression that we’ve previously seen at the rate of two beats or one beat per chord, and gives four beats to each chord. (On the recording, they’re not played as II Vs by the pianist).

 

Passing 8 BFA Chords.png
Harmonic sketch of “Blues For Alice”

Check Parker’s melody in the head and in the first two choruses of his solo on bars 7-8:

BFA All

He doesn’t sequence downwards or baldly state the chords. His solutions are far more melodic, guided by diatonic-ish intervals and simple guide tone movements. To my ear, the one in the head seems to imply a negative dominant resolution to V (so, Ab- to C), the next one implies a negative dominant resolution to II- (A- C- to G-) and the next a different minor 3rd colour switch from A- to A major (or F#-) before settling as an Ab-9.

I’d love to hear about your own ways of navigating the blues form! Sorry for the late post and see you next weekend!

The Real Blues Scale? Part 2

The Real Blues Scale? Part 2

 

In part 1, I talked about blues melody and how it relates to timbre/overtones. Today I’ll look at blues harmony and its relation to timbre. Rather than presenting any grand thesis, I’ll go through a bunch of timbre-harmonic techniques, with examples, and make some tentative connections.

I also thought as I was making this how odd it is to approach music in such an analytic way. My main motivation here is that these are really beautiful songs, in case you were wondering!

Drone
Delta blues commonly features guitar notes that function as a constantly sustained drone. This tends to pull away from tonality and towards modality and timbralism (explained in part 1), for a few reasons. The dominant V7 chord function (i.e. the tendency of G7 to resolve to C) is obscured because the droned tonic note obscures any seventh-to-tonic voice movement. Notes tend to be heard in the context of the drone rather than as forming chord progressions – this means that certain notes, and certain intonations of those notes, will be much stronger than others.

In Skip James’ “Cypress Grove Blues”, the drone note, D, only stops briefly for a switch to a V root (e.g. at 0:30). And even there, James doesn’t use a full V7 chord and the drone note slips back in after three beats of the V root. During most of the verse, the accompaniment consists only of the drone and a simplified version of the vocal melody.

Here, in Bukka White’s “Fixin To Die Blues”, the tonic and fifth (F# and C#) are both used as drones. The pull of this home key is so strong that there is only a suggestion of the standard IV7 and V7 chords – the roots of those chords are sounded against the continuing tonic and fifth drone notes. If you’re familiar with blues, you’ll notice that the melody implies the IV7 and V7, not with chord tones but with standardised pentatonic movements with cliched meanings.

Boogie Riff
The boogie riff is a basic element of blues. In downhome guitar styles I think the simple root-and-fifth to root-and-sixth alternation is most common. This riff fits neatly into Kubik’s blues scale concept: the root-and-fifth (and root-and-flat-seventh if used) parts are from I harmonics, and the root-and-sixth part is from IV harmonics. Robert Johnson provides a canonic example in his famous “Sweet Home Chicago”. Listen to the vowel sounds as well – I’ll be talking about those in a bit.

(If you’ve heard Robert Johnson before, notice how much more natural the voice and tempo sounds in these speed-corrected versions compared to the faster ones that have always been circulated on CDs etc.)

Compared to Robert Johnson’s almost pop arrangement, it’s much harder to discern the boogie riff here. It’s not literally played, but the feeling of the I to IV alternation is there in the guitar comping, and at times an actual IV chord appears on those alternate beats, for example at 0:36 or 1:10.

De-emphasising the V7
Like Skip James and Bukka White, ‘Big Boy’ Crudup’s “Black Pony Blues” avoids the conventional V7 chord at the 3rd phrase of his blues verses. (Instead he uses a sparse shape with first, fifth and blue/neutral third tones). Gerhard Kubik, in his book Africa and the Blues, claims that the V7 chord is widely de-emphasised in African-American music. He claims that African-derived pentatonicism and use of overtones fit well with the I and IV chords from the European system, but not with the V. Kubik advances this as an explanation for the replacement/substition of V7 sounds in bebop.

This track, “Left Alone Blues” by Ishman Bracey, is a really interesting example. Bracey plays a full V7 at 1:49 and quite possibly elsewhere in the tune – however a variety of strategies de-emphasise its sound. The second (lead) guitar and voice play V blues scale melodies, not V7 chord tones. The V7 chord is quiet and tends to get overlapped by surrounding chords. The root note of the V is chromatically voice-led upwards to the 3rd of the IV, a non-cadential movement. The result is that it doesn’t matter whether a V7 chord or some other partial chord (say fifth and flat seventh tones off the tonic) is played.

“Nobody’s Fault But Mine” shows that even on a non-12-bar form, Delta players avoided the V7. Melodically, bar 4 of each verse is clearly a V function. Blind Willie Johnson plays a skeletal I chord there instead. A V triad is used in the slide guitar break, however. This underlines that these players could and did play V chords – but the functional requirement for its voice-leading 3rd and 7th has been completely undercut.

Tommy Johnson’s classic “Cool Drink Of Water Blues” demonstrates all of the tendencies I’ve mentioned so far. The tonic note and the neutral 3rd (between minor and major) have a drone-like presence throughout the whole piece. Often there is a strong alternation on every beat between the fifth and sixth note in the low register, e.g. at 0:34 – an echo of the boogie riff. And we note that the V7 is not used at all, not even suggested melodically in this case.

Parallelism
Contrary motion, suspension and key modulation don’t have much of a role in Delta and Chicago blues, but parallelism is quite common. I can think of a few different types: harmonica effects, slide guitar, guitar moving with a vocal melody, and (typically more urbanised & in standard tuning) guitar comping patterns.

At 1:11, the turnaround of his first solo chorus in his hit “My Babe”, Little Walter repeatedly bends the third and fifth of the key simultaneously (B and G), for distinctive wailing sound. This is possible because the draw (sucked) notes on a 10-hole harmonica form a chord and can be bent downwards by altering air pressure. So, if a player has the ability to bend a note, unblocking an adjacent hole very simply adds a parallel voice to to the bend. This limited form of parallelism is a basic sound of downhome and Chicago blues.

The first chorus of “I Feel Like Going Home” is a masterclass in the timbre-harmonic possibilities of slide guitar. Minor 3rds then major triads are used in parallel. Muddy Waters does some cool stuff with the upper notes in his timbre-harmonic clusters, giving them a heavier vibrato at 0:04 or re-plucking them at 0:16. It reminds me of how great blues singers hone in on particular overtones in their long notes, and has a similarly beautiful, ghostly effect. I’ll come back to that at the end of this article.

Okay I’ll try be quick in describing the third kind of parallelism – guitar comping patterns. Sonny Boy Williamson II’s Chess recordings are an absolute goldmine for these. In “Fattening Frogs For Snakes” the guitarist plays minor 3rds that are part of the standard blues 7th chords, but he uses a double chromatic approach to each one.

Fattening Frogs Minor 3rds Parallelsim

I really like that sound.

In “Decoration Day” we get chromatic parallel shifts of an entire C9 chord at 0:23 and 1:08 (played by Buddy Guy). I think harmonically-oriented music education can make us disregard these effects as trivially simple – yet in this context it sounds amazing.

Here’s a great example of parallel chords… white blues-rockers Canned Heat build a burning version of B.B. King’s “Sweet Sixteen” over Alan Wilson’s deeply-researched guitar shapes. I think what fascinates me about these sounds is how, emotionally speaking, they embody blues’ paradoxical mix of cool and sad and sensual, and, technically speaking, they have a simultaneous melodic, harmonic and a groove role.

Like Alan Wilson, I believe that “the blues essentially is vocal and various instrumental simulations of [vocals]“. And I think this is down to the huge timbral possibilities of the human voice.

This stuff is hard to talk about, even though, along with microtiming, it’s the main expressive channel in blues – and one without which electronic dance and rock wouldn’t exist (i.e. without wah wah, bends, power chords, parallelism and distortion – all timbral techniques popularised by blues).

How can something that influential be so hard to discuss? I’d say:

  1. Our hearing system automatically assembles harmonics into the impression of a “tone quality”, meaning we usually don’t consciously perceive them.
  2. In the Western world we are typically acculturated to focus on the fundamental tone of a note rather than its overtones.
  3. Jazz and rock/pop education tends to focus on the more easily measurable chordal and melodic aspects of music over microtiming, group interaction and timbre.

Well, I won’t get into a rant about this, but suffice to say our vocabulary for describing timbral music is inadequate. But I’ll try anyway.

Muddy Waters’ “Country Blues” is a really, really fine track. The vocal displays remarkable control of harmonics throughout, but I’ll point out some identifiable techniques. Muddy Waters has a mannerism of letting his lyrics break down completely into an open-voweled wordless expression, and he uses it at the same point in each verse, 0:22, 0:56 and 1:29, and elsewhere, e.g. “child” at 1:32. This effect creates a trembling 3rd harmonic (which is an octave and a fifth above the sung note). But actually this kind of expression is present throughout the song, for instance the whistling accentuated harmonics in the words “ole” and “now” in the line “well that’s a misery ole feeling now” at 1:08.

Muddy Waters also uses breaks into a higher register of his voice, e.g. in the very next line at 1:12. This technique is taken to a yodeling extreme in Tommy Johnson’s “Cool Drink Of Water Blues”, embedded above.

There’s loads more to say about that Muddy Waters track but I should wrap up now. Listening to all these tracks really brought home to me that there’s a whole other way of listening to blues, which, despite a lifetime’s exposure to the music, I never really did before. It is to listen to the overtones.

Doing this helps to explain bending, melisma, use of vowels, use of vibrato, and more. I even think it may connect with the widespread use of parallelism. Slide guitar and harmonica allow parallel notes to follow the same exact microtonal contour – just as an accentuated harmonic in the voice follows the microtonal contour of the fundamental.

Thanks for reading and enjoy the holidays! As always, comments and criticisms are very much appreciated.