The Scales of the Sea: Introduction to Blue Notes
April 29, 2020
Despite the importance of marine systems in global ecological networks, we know relatively little about them, which can make ocean conservation difficult. Through a range of literary, historical, scientific, and practical approaches, this series explores how oceans encourage us to expand and blend traditional forms of knowledge. Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4 will be posted in the coming weeks.
In jazz and folk music, a blue note is a tone played at a non-standard pitch for emphasis or expression. Often registering as mildly dissonant, blue notes – which can be produced by bending the strings on a guitar – are not part of the major or blues scales associated with a work of music, instead falling between the notes of these scales. To the listener, a blue note may inspire a sudden shift in perception, as we become aware of a much larger spectrum of musical possibilities.
Blue notes offer a fitting metaphor for the ways that oceanic systems can destabilize our perceptions of the world. The sea can also bend sound (and light), and requires us to think using multiple scales – from phytoplankton to baleen whales, from tide pools to global ocean currents. Above all, oceans can expose the limitations of our conceptual frameworks, and can suggest more fluid ways of studying natural and cultural systems.