Talkin' Blues: Utilizing Unresolved Harmonic Tension to Create Dark, Eerie Music

Last month we looked at some examples of blues phrasing with chromatic passing tones leading to strong chord-tone resolutions, but such neat-and-tidy phrases are only one side of the chromatic picture. On the other side is unresolved tension, i.e. deliberately delaying or avoiding consonant resolutions to create dissonance that evokes feelings of darkness and danger. This sound entered the realm of American pop music in the Fifties through sexy, smoky epics like the Viscounts’ “Harlem Nocturne” and the themes for TV detective series like Peter Gunn and Perry Mason, which paralleled edgy, urban noir (“black”) trends in fiction and film.

To be effective, unresolved tension must be clearly intentional. Typically, the melody line seems to be heading toward a solid resolution before it takes an unexpected but definitive left turn. To illustrate, the melody in Figure 1 first resolves predictably on the root, but each subsequent variation deliberately veers to a “bad” note with creepy-but- cool results. The full noir effect comes from lingering on the unexpected, so don’t rush through it—let the chill sink in slowly.

Noir is typically associated with minor tonalities, where the basic melodic resource is the minor pentatonic scale(Figure 2A). When added to a minor pentatonic melody, the remaining notes of the chromatic scale (Figure 2B) evoke varying degrees of tension (the major third is excluded here because it’s irreconcilable with the minor tonality in any case). On the most simplistic level, building a noir-style melody is a bit like ordering from a classic Chinese menu: start with a phrase from Column A (“inside” notes) and end with something from Column B (“outside” notes). Figure 3A-C illustrates the idea, keeping the melodic twists grounded in bluesy articulation.

Just about any groove—surf, swing, Latin, ballad, blues, rock—can be given noir treatment. For example, color minor triads with noir melodic tones to create a chromatic chord progression (Figure 4) over a bluesy bass pattern (Figure 5) and set the table for a melody like Figure 6. It takes confidence and a strong ear to nail a bad note and make it stick, but what’s life without a little danger?

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

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