To begin with: I’m white, from Brooklyn, of Southern Italian descent — both sides of the family.
I mention this up front because ‘blues’ is a term that is associated with the African-American experience, for reasons good and bad, which I’ll get into, but the more I work with different musicians, the more I’ve come to understand ‘blue’ as a musical gesture that can be found across all cultures.
As of right now, when we think of ‘blue’ music, something like this is most likely what comes to mind:
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You’d be right, of course. That is so blue. But what’s happening, and why does it feel, well…blue? Let’s back up — all the way up — to a definition of what sound is.
As you might remember from physics class, sound is a spectrum of waves that moves through a range of frequencies, from high to low: high frequency, high notes; low frequency, low notes. It’s not unlike light, which moves through the range of colors, from red to violet. In the same way our eyes can’t perceive the entire range of light — we just don’t have the tools for that — our ears can only pick up a slice of these frequencies. There are the highs that only dogs can hear, lows that whales can hear, and all kinds of crazy stuff in the universe that various astronomical gathering instrumentation can detect. So, what we really have is a window into this frequency range called sound.
O.K., physics class is over. All we needed to know is that there’s some math involved. But we also know that people just love to mess around with math. Here’s where music comes in.
Different cultures have broken this band of sound waves into steps, known as notes, in the same way Crayola determines “a color” by deciding on a point along the spectrum of visible light and making a crayon that says, say, “red.” A lot of times, combinations of these steps, known as “scales,” have something to do with subdividing the math of the frequencies, but like I said, physics class is over. The interesting part — to me, anyway — is that what constitutes a “scale” varies from culture to culture, and has changed over the centuries, even as that sound spectrum has remained fixed.
In the west, the piano has 12 tones that cover the span of an octave, even though there are different ways to tune them. Some Arabic scales have 24 notes per octave; some Japanese scales have five; and from there, you’re pretty much off to the races as to how you break up the frequencies we can hear.
A “blue note” is more elusive than all this subdividing, but knowing the scales in a given piece of music is critical to understanding it, because, from what I’ve gathered in my experience, “blue” is about context. So, you could think of those scales as the house in which blue lives.
To me, blue notes exist in the cracks between these scale tones. To stretch the “house” metaphor, they are the notes that sulk under the staircase, sit on the roof all night, and compulsively check under the bed for monsters. You know these notes intuitively, not because you know the scales, necessarily, but because you’re human: You grew up in this house, and you know how it feels. These are the notes that give music an ache, an empathy, and the kind of grind that makes you scrunch up your face, draw up your shoulders and stretch your open hands skyward. I’m sure you know the feeling. If not, we may have to check your pulse.
How does that happen? Again, bringing it back to the scale tones, it happens by playing something that exists slightly outside the lines drawn by whatever scale you happen to be in. Warning: Being outside those lines does not mean that everything is blue and achy and humanly beautiful — some of it is God-awful, out of tune, and face-scrunching in the GAH, how long has this milk been in the fridge!? sense of the term.
Using our 12-tone approach, “blue notes” are most commonly a lowered third, fifth, or seventh. In some cases, they’re technically “wrong,” in that they don’t belong in a given scale, but even so, musicians know that any sound can work with any framework, if it’s handled right.
There are many ways into this grind. It is most easily achieved with fretless instruments that allow for all the colors between given notes — the human voice is the best example, but the violin, viola, and cello do a great job of it. On fretted instruments, like guitars, notes are bent to get in between the scale tones. Some blues guitarists place a short glass or metal pipe, called a slide, on a finger of the fretting hand, negating the frets along the guitar neck and allowing for greater pitch flexibility. Even modern keyboards have a “pitch wheel” that allows for all the variety between keyed notes.
As to where to find musical examples of this achy, “bluesy” grind: I feel like they’re everywhere. I can hear it in koto music, with its contrast between clear scale tones and the swooping bends that pass between them. For me, it’s not as important that the gesture lands on a note as it is that it passes through the spectrum of unassigned tonalities over a given time — it is the totality of that arc that gives the bluesy ache that I am describing.
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In this particular example, I would also say that the silence — the act of spotlighting a note as it loses its energy and “decays” in volume — is also a grind against established scale tones. It’s another harmonic alternative, after all, and I get the same ache that I get from a “blue” note, because that silence also relates to my human experience with the same kind of abstraction.
Even though so much can be created within our scales tones, there’s a fascinating, and so-very-human counter-impulse to draw outside the lines. Life, as we know, is not perfect, and when our art mirrors that, we identify and connect. Sometimes, the “right” note just doesn’t cut it.
Unfortunately, in much of today’s popular music, that flow in and around the “right” note is something that is endangered. Auto-Tune and pitch correction software can “fix” anything, making singers land dead on melody notes without the human gestures in and out of pitch. To counteract some of the staleness that results, engineers push the volume on the intakes and outflows of a singer’s breath, so a listener is reminded of a singer’s humanity without having to sacrifice the sanctity of a given melody note. Also, there is an emphasis on “vocal fry,” or the small, fashionable growl that singers can incorporate into their vocals. As for the notes themselves, though: they’re tuned up to perfection. It’s like an exercise in vocal Photoshop, and just as our eye becomes acclimated to altered images of models in fashion magazines, we are also getting used to that “perfected” sound.
I’ve always felt there is a strange disconnect between blue, the color and blue, the music. People with synesthesia (the ability to “see” music as color) might disagree, but to me, blue is just as easily associated with clarity, imagination, or space, with undertones of calm, peace. But other interpretations of “blue,” as in “sad,” date as far back as 1385, and Chaucer’s poem, The Complaint of Mars. In it, Mars, the god of war, and Venus, the (married) goddess of love, attempt to have an affair, but it gets completely botched by Phoebus, the god of the sun, who shines his light on their shenanigans, making it impossible for them to ever see each other again. As you can imagine, Mars has a ton of complaints, and crawls across the heavens outlining them all, “wyth teres blewe and with a wounded herte (with tears blue and with a wounded heart).” In enumerating all the ways that love and fate can make a living hell of man’s time on earth, he’s basically singing a tortured, celestial version of the blues.
Maybe blues, the music, is neither a note nor a color, but more of an action — the gesture, if I could choreograph it, of someone planted firmly in the earth and stretching toward a placid blue sky, as if blue were simultaneously our spiritual ideal, and the agonizing distance from it. Perhaps blue is an emotional circuit that remains permanently in motion — it never resolves, as one might on C natural, because it’s an outlier in the harmonic framework. It stretches and moans. It “wants,” it “cries,” it “begs.”
The word gets convoluted further when music industry marketing comes into play. In the late 1940s, Jerry Wexler, a white Billboard writer who later became a partner at Atlantic records, coined the term “Rhythm and Blues,” or “R&B,” to replace the then-used term “race music.” In effect, R&B became a blanket genre for black artists, and the convention has largely remained today. This has to skew our sense of what “blue” actually means. Wexler himself wasn’t even wedded to the term: He later regretted not calling it “R&G” or “Rhythm and Gospel,” because so many of the elements of gospel are the ones that later translated to pop music (the group singing, handclaps, and the many stars that came directly out of the church, including Sam Cooke and Al Green, to name just two).
The act of putting art into marketable baskets extends to individual artists, too — real originality is harder to define, which makes it harder to sell, so businesses take the route that listeners are most attuned to.Usually that route includes promoting an artist who sounds like something listeners already know, and who are able to pass mimicry off as art.
I hate to single anyone out, but: Consider Justin Timberlake. He’s fantastically talented, a great singer, dancer — maybe most of all, a great comedian — but his transformation has always had an odd smell to it. No one seems to remember that this urbane blue-eyed soul singer was once a Mouseketeer — a child actor in the Disney machine who went on to slang his way through R&B-tinged jams alongside the biggest names in music. That’s not really even a knock on him — it’s just a question as to whether he’s singing his own blues, or someone else’s. This, to me, is especially sad, because there are so many unique stories available between the notes. We’ll always know what Timberlake listens to, but we may never really know who he is. Even asking that question — who is the real Justin Timberlake? — sounds kind of like a joke, because we suspect, at a subconscious level, that he is appropriating someone else’s form of expression. What is Justin about? Can we really say we know him, from what he’s told us, musically?
And that’s when blues appropriation becomes an affront: when it’s not yours. You’re essentially telling someone else’s story instead of doing the deeper work of asking yourself what you are all about.
Of this, I am guilty, and the first to raise my hand. While a wide range of singers certainly influenced me, on my debut record, I was marketed as “Dave Matthews meets Stevie Wonder.” This was crazy talk. I do have almost every Stevie Wonder record, but exactly zero Dave Matthews records, and that only makes the randomness of the marketing play more obvious. The question I was too naïve to ask at the time was: “So where are your stories, Mike? Where is your blues?”
During the making of that record, I was lucky to meet Ben Mink, a producer I fell in love with through his collaboration with country-torch singer kd lang. In those recordings, I heard a strange combination of blues that included the clear influence of Patsy Cline, but also a kind of mourn I couldn’t place. kd lang’s voice swooped in and out of the melodies like the best of the tortured country singers, but so did the pedal steel guitar and the violins (and the bass!), each in ways that pulled in another interpretation of that word I’m calling “blue.”
Ben’s parents were Eastern European Jews and holocaust survivors who fled to North America with ingrained musical knowledge of liturgical, folk, and yiddish theater styles. Following the family interest in music, Ben got deep into Klezmer music.
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You can easily make out the aching sweeps of violins bending through the minor scales here. When I told Ben I was writing this piece, he pointed out that Louis Armstrong lived with a religious Jewish family as a kid, and you can hear it in “So Black and Blue,” a song with a pretty obvious klezmer influence at the turnaround at 2:32.
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Musicians who have done this kind of historical research know how much styles and cultures influence each other, and with kd, Ben married his family’s Eastern European tonality to her country torch singing. The result is Ingénue, an original mix of takes on “blues,” arrived at honestly. It became a huge smash.
While working on my record, Ben and I decided to co-write a song. I had lyrics together, and some musical ideas, but we needed a melodic line to glue the arrangement together. Ben tasked me with finding a line, and I reached into my appropriated Stevie Wonder bag (I had no Dave Matthews bag) for sounds and licks that were bluesy, cool, and ultimately, not my own.
Instead of accepting my initial, appropriated ideas, Ben challenged me by asking, “Where are your people from? I mean, before Brooklyn.” When I told him they were southern Italian, he asked if I’d ever done any excavation of those sounds. I told him that we had a mandolin with worn-out frets on our mantel that a great-uncle used to play in Naples; that my grandmother was an opera singer; and that this music, to an extent, reverberated through my childhood.
We talked about Enrico Caruso:
And Ennio Morricone:
And Ben told me to look there for something that was more in line with my own story. The result was “1000 Miles,” a song that touches me in a way very few of my other songs can.
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Now, as a teacher, I find myself asking my students the question that was asked of me: What is your “blues?” Are you just retelling stories that have already been told, or are you finding the way into your own story of the ache of what it means to you to be alive?
That may sound like a dramatic question, but then again, these are the stakes involved when you ask people for their time and attention. You owe it to them to have done the work to find out the unique story you have to tell. I hope that when you are playing, writing, and living, you are asking these same questions, and finding the honest answers within yourselves.
[This is an excerpt of a talk I gave at Yale in the fall semester of 2015 for a class entitled, simply, “Blue.” Articles about the class, created by Jessica Helfand, are here and here. Also, I’ve added the playlist of all the songs I played in class that day. Enjoy.]
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I’d love to speak at your school, too. Hit me up, let’s talk.
Mike Errico is a recording artist, writer, producer, music supervisor, and lecturing professor, with both critically acclaimed releases and extensive composition credits in film and TV. He has taught songwriting at Yale and Wesleyan, and is currently teaching at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music. In addition to his music career, Errico was senior online editor of Blender magazine, and is a contributor to Guitar World, ASCAP’s Playback magazine, and Cuepoint. Please keep in touch by signing his mailing list.