Real Girl has several examples. The clearest is a guitar lick in the chorus:
That 7b5 is tasty over the bVI chord. For an instant, it makes a “barbershop seventh,” the 7th harmonic of the root.
Here is a vocal example from the same song:
The melody visits the blue tritone on the way up, and again on the way down. I especially like it on the word “like,” the blues flavor of the septimal note comes through loud and clear without it being strictly blues at all. For me, this fusion of septimal notes to the European collection is the great contribution American music has made to the world. I wrote an early article on this, with some examples, here.
These bits of melody that visit the 7b5 are very similar to the ones that incorporate the 7b3. The septimal flatted third is the melody note of major blues tonality. It functions as the seventh harmonic of the IV chord, just as the 7b5 is the 7th harmonic of the bVI chord. Here’s an example from Flying Dream:
Hear the similarity? Try going back and forth between this video and the guitar lick in the first video.
One of the beauties of the lattice is that the patterns repeat everywhere. If you move a pattern to a different part of the lattice, the new notes will have the same relationship to each other, but the musical context will change and it will convey a different feeling. This is a splendid compositional tool, and helps me greatly in understanding harmony.
I have a favorite note. Don’t tell the others. It’s the septimal flat five, or septimal tritone. I call it 7b5 on the lattice.
There are many reasons why I love this note. One is that Jimi played it, and he’s my favorite musician of them all. Another is that this note is rarely discussed in music theory (try googling it and you will find a few references), which allows me to sort of plant a flag in it. But the biggest reason is that the 7b5 opens up a whole world of melodic and harmonic possibility, and unlocks the minor blues.
The ratio of the septimal flat five is 7/5. It’s a tritone, a note smack in the middle of the octave, between the 4 and the 5. Tritones are famously dissonant. There are three of them in the inner lattice — the 7b5, the #4+, with a ratio of 45/32, and the b5-, whose ratio is 64/45. The 7/5 blue tritone is the most consonant one, by which I mean it has the smallest numbers in its ratio.
Most traditional blues are built on major chords, the I, IV and V, with septimal, or blue, notes in the melody. The 7b3 is especially important — there are entire songs that hang out forever on this note. These blues are major in character — everything happens above the central spine of the lattice.
The 7b5 is different. It lives in the minor part of the lattice, below the central spine, which allows for a whole different set of chordal harmonies. The 7b5 is a blue note that works with songs in minor keys.
Here are a couple of striking examples. First, I invite you to listen to a bit of Dizzy Miss Lizzy, by The Beatles. This is a major blues, played with I, IV and V chords.
George is exploring a delicious melodic zone that includes four major/blues melody notes in a tight group: the 2-, 2, 7b3, and 3, all in the span of two piano keys. As the I-IV-V progression rocks back and forth from left to right, between dominant and subdominant territory, the melody subtly shifts with it.
Listen again to the intro of the song. The riff repeats, but it’s not always tuned the same. The first two repeats are over a I chord. The riff is sharp, major-third-ish. On the third repeat, the chord changes to a IV, and I hear the tuning fall down into the pocket of the 7b3. It feels to me as though the IV chord allows George to lock into the 7b3, because that note is its seventh harmonic, a beautiful, consonant note. At that point the song goes blue.
Throughout the song, George goes back and forth between that major feeling (the 3) and that blue feeling (the 7b3), over all three chords. Ear candy.
Now listen to Jimi Hendrix exploring the same kind of space, but around the septimal flatted fifth (7b5). This is a minor blues. The chords are i, bVI and bVII.
There is an insistent riff in Voodoo Child (Slight Return) as well, and it’s a lot like the one in Dizzy Miss Lizzy. The pattern is the same, only moved down and to the right on the lattice.
George Harrison is bending the 2, to get the 7b3 and the 3 notes. Jimi Hendrix is bending the 4, to get the 7b5 and 5. It’s another compact, tasty melody zone. Hendrix explores it incredibly well on this song. He cooks up about a half dozen yummy tritone dishes in the space between 0:30 and 0:60.
If I go back and forth between the two songs, the distinction becomes clear. Dizzy Miss Lizzy is major, and the riff centers around the 7b3. Voodoo Child is minor, and the riffs center around the 7b5. Please do click back and forth between the videos.
Want to hear Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood explore the same territory? Here’s a ridiculously good version of Voodoo Chile (the long one from Electric Ladyland) from 2010.
Reading this blog might give you the impression that I’m “against” equal temperament and “for” just intonation, or untempered music.
True, discovering untempered music has been like sailing to a new world. It’s delicious to have 20 or more notes to work with instead of 12, each with its own individual personality.
Equal temperament, however, is a fabulous invention. The lattice of fifths and thirds does not quite repeat. If you start with any note and go in any direction, you will soon encounter almost the same note again, but it will be off by a comma, a small interval, from the original note.
Equal temperament flattens out the lattice just a hair so it does repeat. Now there are only twelve notes to work with, and they imply the untempered ones in the ear. This innovation makes lots of things possible in music. Beethoven and Mozart could not exist without it.
It’s sometimes said that equal temperament and just intonation are incompatible with each other, because the notes will be out of tune. I say they can get along fine, you just have to show ’em who’s boss.
I submit for your consideration: Ray Charles.
Ray Charles’ piano is an equal tempered instrument. Ray Charles’ voice is most certainly not. He is singing the exact resonant notes, those blue notes, all tuned just like a gospel choir, which is what he grew up loving. Ray is boss. His voice establishes the tonality of the song. The backup singers, the horns and the standup bass all agree, this song is in the harmonic pocket, and it resonates.
That leaves the piano slightly out of tune, but who cares?
Notes that are slightly out of tune don’t necessarily sound bad — that’s the basis of the “chorus effect.” No two singers in a choir are exactly in tune with each other, and the resulting complexity is a huge part of the sound of the choir.
So if the tonality is established in the ear, maybe the equal tempered notes, which are only a bit off after all, will just enrich the sound a bit.
Listen to how “Hit the Road, Jack” starts off. First the piano intro. ET. Then the horns kick in, and they start to establish the soul of the tune. Then come the backup singers, that gospel choir. When Ray’s voice finally joins them, the pocket is waiting for him, and he proceeds to own it. The piano is now a background instrument.
I think that’s the secret. Put untempered instruments up front, and ET instruments more in the background. This asserts the untempered tonality in the ear.
Playing acoustic guitar and singing is a great playground for this. The acoustic guitar is, in its bones, an equally tempered instrument. Fretted instruments drove the adoption of ET in Europe, even before keyboards did. The voice is the archetypal untempered instrument. It can do anything.
If the guitar is boss, the song will be in equal temperament. If the voice is boss, you can establish any tonality you want (blues, Gypsy, whatever), and the guitar will tag along. You can retune it in the ear, just like Ray retunes his piano.
Here are some tricks for making friends with acoustic guitar (or any tempered instrument):
1) Sing solidly in tune, with the tonality coming from you, and not from the guitar. Don’t follow the guitar, lead it. The song is the melody, it is your voice, and you are accompanying that voice with guitar notes.
I like to think of the guitar as playing the grid lines on the map. The guitar notes are perfectly equally spaced, and are excellent reference points. The guitar tells me where I am. We completely agree on one note, the tonic. I use the tonic on the guitar as my true home base.
My voice is playing the actual territory.
2) Sing louder than the guitar.
This isn’t all that easy. The guitar is projecting outward, so it sounds louder to the audience than it does to me. The voice is right there in my head, so it sounds quieter to the audience than it does to me. If I sound balanced to myself, the audience will hear way more guitar than vocal. I hear this all the time at open mics.
I’ve found that in an acoustic setting, I have to sing twice as loud as my guitar (from my own point of view) for it to sound balanced out in front of me.
It gets easier with more JI instruments. In “Premature Nostalgia,” the fretless bass and backing vocals are all in strict just intonation. The guitar is truly a backing instrument, and the tonality of the song feels secure.
3) There is a third, more subtle thing you can do to bring the guitar closer to just intonation. The most clearly out-of-tune note on acoustic guitar is the major third. It’s already 14 cents sharp even when perfectly tuned, and the slightest unintentional string bend will take it into some really grating territory. Choose chord voicings that de-emphasize major thirds, and your guitar will sound a lot sweeter. I wrote an article illustrating this effect, here.
My new song video, Real Girl, contains many examples of consonance and dissonance, tension and resolution. In my last post, I extracted a phrase from the song and slowed it way down to illustrate how the bass and melody dance, creating and resolving tension in several different ways. Here is the last half of that analysis.
When we last left our heroes, they were on the 4 and b6, quite consonant relative to each other, but still unresolved because the ear remembers where the tonic is. Here is that clip:
Now the melody moves back to the 7. This interval, against the 4, is the dreaded tritone, the devil’s interval, and it’s dissonant indeed.
Then the bass moves up to the 1, lessening the dissonance, and the melody soon joins it, and all is consonant.
But there is still a sense of incompleteness, even though both the bass and melody are smack on the tonic, the most consonant interval of all. What’s up?
The answer is that the ear remembers that the root is still the 4, and we aren’t quite home yet. Getting there requires a cadence, or final resolution. Notice that in this next clip the bass note never moves, but the harmonies and the melody signal that the root has now moved to the 1 and we are home. The bass note has magically changed character.
This melodic passage occurs many times in the song, and it contains a rather dizzying series of tensions and resolutions. My friend Jody Mulgrew, who has an exquisite sense of pitch, experienced actual nausea the first time he heard the song. He told me, “I was wondering how to tell my friend Gary that I didn’t like his new song. Then, before the chorus, it started to sweeten up, and when the song was over I immediately hit the ‘replay’ button. I realized it was just tension and resolution.”
I think my friend was experiencing what I call tonal vertigo. His comment spurred some of my thinking on the nature of harmony, how it may be a byproduct of our orientation software. The “100 girlfriends” section is a roller coaster ride in the tonal gravity field. Here it is in its original form:
Now to slow it way down and take it apart.
The first dissonant melody move is to the 7. The interval is a major seventh, down a half step in pitch, and the harmonic distance is great enough (3×5=15) that the note is quite dissonant. But the bass, alternating between 1 and 5 as so many bass lines do, quickly moves to resolve the dissonance.
Note that there is still an unresolved, unfinished feeling. Even though everything you can hear is beautifully consonant, the ear still remembers that the real root of the chord is the 1. This memory is crucial to tonal music.
The next move creates a different kind of dissonance. This is the tension of reverse polarity.
First the melody moves to the 1. This note is right next to that 5 in the bass, and beautifully harmonious. But there is tension, because it’s a reciprocal note. The way to get from a 5 to a 1 is to divide by 3 — it’s one move to the left on the lattice.
And, in two moves, the melody has covered a lot of harmonic territory, all in the reciprocal, Southwest direction. No wonder Jody felt nausea! It’s an E-ticket ride.
Once again, the bass moves to save the day. The chord changes too — that 4 in the bass is the new root. The melody note magically becomes a minor third, not fully consonant, not fully resolved, but a lot better.
In the next post, the famous tritone! Then full resolution.