Last time, we looked at Janelle Monae’s self description as “the random minor note you hear in major songs” and hinted that was somehow related to the artificiality of the even-tempered Western European scale. But what’s the connection?
To explain that, we need to go back over a hundred years ago, and follow a rather extraordinary man named W. C. Handy as he traveled around the South during the first decade of the 1900s.. A black American musician and musicologist, Handy was highly educated in European classical music theory and performance, yet without losing his high level of respect and affection for the music of the rural black folk tradition. That unique combination of characteristics made him the perfect person to pay attention, one day, when he heard what he described later as “the weirdest music I had ever heard.”
A large part of what made this, and many of the other rural black songs Handy heard at this time sound odd to his European-trained ear, was that the third and seventh notes of the scale were sung seemingly somewhere between the minor and major keys. In actuality, this characteristic pattern represented the survival of the traditional West African pentatonic scale within the black American folk tradition. In contrast to the synthetic European equal-tempered scale, the African scale was still based on the natural mathematical ratios and resonances of pure notes. That led its notes to be different than the ones you could play on a piano, which was particularly noticeable on the notes most distorted by the piano, the third and the seventh. This fact was not known to W.C. Handy. In contrast, however, to a listener who might either have just dismissed this as a mistake, or even missed it all together, he was intrigued.
For a long time, he played around with the idea of somehow adapting this distinctive African sound into mainstream popular music. But how could you play “between the notes” of the piano? Was there any middle ground to be found between the white and black keys?
It was over a decade later before he solved the problem. But when he did, it changed the face of world music forever. The song was called the “St Louis Blues” and it was perhaps the single most influential song of the entire 20th century. In format, the song wasn’t so much different from the other early “blues” that Handy and his contemporaries had adapted from the rural black tradition. But what made this one so distinctive was those third notes of the scale. They alternated between major and minor, often within a single bar, and thus approximated that note in between, the one from the African scale, the one the piano couldn’t actually play.
And people couldn’t get enough of it. They may not have known what they were missing and why, but it touched them deep in their souls. Copies of “St Louis Blues” flew off the shelves, and musicians lined up to play it. It was a worldwide hit, and it made Handy an international superstar. It was the beginning of the blues as a form of mainstream popular music, which in turn led to jazz, rock and hip-hop –all the dominant popular music forms of the American century. It’s not much of a stretch to suppose that what people responded to in the blues was the African scale, but not just the African scale. It was the creative way the African scale had been recovered on the European instrument.
It’s interesting that the West African forerunners of the blues were not perceived as mournful. What made the blues sound sad in America, perhaps, were intervening the years of slavery and oppression, and the way the blue notes had to fight for survival against an alien and hostile scale. Another generation forward, however, and the blue notes were no longer crying in pain, nor fighting for bare survival. They had become fully naturalized citizens on the piano in the form of the sophisticated and elegant sounds of jazz. Later, they even regained a bit of swagger, as the magic behind the pyrotechnic guitar riffs of rock and roll.
So that’s the full story behind the “random minor note.” As a metaphor for a little bit of African culture not only surviving but thriving in a Europeanized context, for a funky, organic sensibility finding its way within an artificial and synthetic matrix, it couldn’t possibly have been chosen better.