The Blue Tritone
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.
In that insistent riff, George Harrison is playing with four notes: the major third (3), the septimal minor third (7b3), the 2 and the 1. He bends the 2 and makes a 7b3, or a 3, or both.
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.
Next: More Blue Tritones