Well, well, well. I had SO many ideas yesterday, that I didn't get around to posting ANY of them!
So I guess I'll just have to do a double post today. :-)
And since the last few posts have mostly discussed the Lydian mode, I figured I'd spend today writing about two other modes, which are rarely discussed in music theory classes: the major blues and the Mixolydian b6.
The Major Blues in "Carryin' the Banner" (Newsies)
One of the modes that rarely gets discussed in music theory classrooms (because racism) is the blues mode. As the name suggests, it originated with the blues genre in African-American music and then later entered the jazz repertoire along with all the other modes we've been discussing (plus even more - jazz is a galaxy of modes).
Alan Menken's score for the 1992 film Newsies uses the blues mode extensively, setting the scene in early 1900s New York City and characterizing the newspaper-selling orphans as poor, emotionally broken, and transgressive. By contrast, he used the major mode for more "innocent" characters, like mothers and nuns. It's important to acknowledge the racist underpinnings of Western musical culture, which associates a "white" mode like major with innocence and a "black" mode like the blues with transgression, even if this blog isn't the space to dive into that discussion at length. That's why modal contrasts like this are used by film composers, and it's why audiences pick up on them, even if neither the composer nor the audience is necessarily aware of the racist undercurrent driving their musical experience.
Anyway, there are two primary blues scales: the major blues and the minor blues. Since Menken used the major blues in Newsies, that's the one I'll focus on in this blog post.
The major blues scale is constructed like this:
1. Start with a major scale.
2. Grab five of those notes - 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 - to create a "major pentatonic scale."
3. Then add a sixth note - the "blue note" - which is a half-step lower than scale degree 3.
In Newsies, the opening song's verses use a D major blues scale, with a jazzy accompaniment that breaks all the rules of classical music theory. Here's the melody, with the scale degrees labeled and the "blue notes" color-coded:
Things get really interesting, though, in the bridge section. After several verses and choruses featuring the rambunctious newsies singing their energetic, syncopated blues, we suddenly hear a group of nuns solemnly singing in major about Jesus. (Hollywood is as Christian-centric as it is white-centric, but again, that's another discussion.) Then one of the kids' mothers sings the same major-mode melody about how terrible it is that her son ran away to join the newsies, WHILE AT THE SAME TIME the newsies sing their syncopated blues tunes. This contrast is especially poignant in the 2nd measure of the sheet music excerpt below, where the mother is singing F# (scale degree 3 in D Major) at exactly the same moment that the kids sing an F-natural (the "blue" note in D Major Blues):
This is an interesting moment of "polymodality" – having two different modes going simultaneously. But it's also a dramatic moment: the polymodal effect here is not just a stylistic thing, but even more so a way of dramatizing the split between a God-fearing mother and her rebellious, runaway child.
If you'd like to hear an alternate interpretation of the modal harmony in this song, check out Hunter Farris's podcast episode about it. It's also an interesting, if very different, take on both the harmony and its dramatic implications.
Mixolydian b6 (aka "the Wonder Mode")
Samantha Zerin has a PhD in historical musicology from New York University, and has taught music theory at NYU, Brown University, and the Borough of Manhattan Community College. She is also a composer and poet, and teaches private students. To learn more about Dr. Zerin and her work, you can visit her main website, www.CreativeShuli.com