VI. Jazz

Blues Melodies and the Blues Scale

Megan Lavengood

Key Takeaways

  • In a blues song with a sung text, the lyrics consist of a line that is repeated, then followed by a contrasting line (aab). The melody often follows this structure as well.
  • Blues melodies often leave large gaps to allow for call-and-response between the melodic instrument and other instruments.
  • The blues scale is like a minor pentatonic scale with an additional chromatic passing tone: do–me–fa–fi–sol–te [latex](\hat1-\downarrow\hat3-\hat4-\uparrow\hat4-\hat5-\downarrow\hat7)[/latex].
  • The blues scale can be rotated to begin on its second note, creating a major blues scale: do–re–ri–mi–sol–la [latex](\hat1-\hat2-\uparrow\hat2-\hat3-\hat5-\hat6)[/latex].

This chapter discusses some of the trends in blues melodies that shaped the blues as we know it today. As an example, this text will focus on one of the earliest recorded blues songs, “Gulf Coast Blues” by Clarence Williams, as recorded by the enormously commercially successful blues singer Bessie Smith in 1923.


Example 1. “Gulf Coast Blues” (1923), recording by Bessie Smith and Clarence Williams.

Phrase and Lyric Structure

Much blues music is sung, and so lyrics play an important role in this genre. The four-bar phrases that make up the 12-bar blues are commonly matched with lyrics that have an aab structure: the first line is stated and then repeated (sometimes with some alteration), and the third line contrasts. “Gulf Coast Blues” by Clarence Williams (1923) is one example of this (Example 2). The repeated lyric will often be set to a repeated melody, mimicking the aab structure of the lyrics, though this does not happen in “Gulf Coast Blues.”

structure lyric
a The man I love, he has done left this town
a The man I love, he has done left this town
b And if it keeps on raining, I will be Gulf Coast bound.

Example 2. Lyrics of “Gulf Coast Blues” by Clarence Williams.

Another essential part of blues phrase structure is the notion of call-and-response, a feature likely inherited from the work songs of enslaved Africans and African Americans. The vocal, lyricized melody takes on the role of the “call” while an instrumental filler takes on the role of the “response.” Notice that in “Gulf Coast Blues,” each lyric labeled with an a is sung entirely and exclusively in the first two measures of the phrase. Example 3 annotates a transcription of “Gulf Coast Blues” to show this call-and-response relationship.

Example 3. Call-and-response in the melody of “Gulf Coast Blues.”

The Blues Scale

Much as the harmonies of the blues tend not to stick to one diatonic key, flouting the norms of tonal music, the melodies are similarly chromatic to match. The blues scale, notated in the upper staff of Example 4, attempts to generalize blues melodic practice into a scale on which beginning improvisers can base their melodies. The blues scale is essentially a minor pentatonic scale with an added chromatic passing tone leading up to sol [latex](\hat5)[/latex].

Example 4. The C blues scale creates stylistic clashes with the I and V chords of C major.

This blues scale is used in both major and minor blues tunes, despite the clashes with the underlying harmony. When this scale is combined with the chords of the major blues—I, V, and IV, or C major, F major, and G major in the key of C—the characteristic clashes between mi/me [latex](\hat3/\downarrow\hat3)[/latex] and ti/te [latex](\hat7/\downarrow\hat7)[/latex] are especially notable.

These clashes often produce blue notes—notes that are not really flat or natural, but somewhere in between. Blue notes seem to split the difference between mi/me [latex](\hat3/\downarrow\hat3)[/latex] or ti/te [latex](\hat7/\downarrow\hat7)[/latex].

The “major” blues scale

Some improvisers find it helpful to think of a major blues scale. The difference between a major and minor pentatonic scale is identical to the difference between the major and minor blues scale: the major blues scale is a rotation of the blues scale of its relative minor. Begin the blues scale on me [latex](\downarrow\hat3)[/latex], and you will get a blues scale for the relative major. These relationships are summarized in Example 5.

Example 5. Rotating the blues scale to begin on its second note yields the major blues scale.

Compared to the minor blues scale, the major blues scale is less dissonant with major chords. When improvising, it can be helpful to think of improvising with the major blues scale over the major chords of the blues progression. But remember that using the blues scale (with flatted thirds and sevenths) over major chords is also a perfectly normal practice.

  1. Blues scales worksheet (.pdf, .mscz). Asks students to spell scales and transcribe a melody that uses the blues scale. Worksheet playlist
  2. Improvising with the blues scale (.pdf, .mscz). Video assignment. Asks students to pair off and create videos with call-and-response improvisation. Backing track available here.
  3. Blues composition (.pdf, .docx). Asks students to synthesize information about blues harmony and blues melody.


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OPEN MUSIC THEORY Copyright © 2023 by Megan Lavengood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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