Music education always & always looking forward.

Introducing Uncharted Territory: Tritone Interval in the Jimi Hendrix Experience's "Purple Haze"

The opening tritone that heralds something new.

White people did not invent rock & roll. Schools cover black history to some degree, and students of every demographic are supposed to have an understanding of the contributions of particular black folks to the cultural, social, and technological progress of the United States. But we don't use the above statement often enough in schools. We treat that fact as something that kids should just absorb, without so much as speaking it. 

But sometimes kids don't just absorb it through popular culture. Students who immigrate to the US might not have the pop culture background to understand the roots of popular music before they start consuming it en masse. Or, what I find even more commonly, people in general simply consume music without thinking about what they're listening to. My goal in life is to get people to at least think about the music they're consuming, where it comes from, and give more people the capacity to more fully understand what's going on in the music they enjoy, rather than writing it off as magic. 

I've had (black) students ask me before, "Miss, why don't black people like rock & roll as much anymore?" It's a loaded question, and one that I'm not at all qualified to answer. The best I can give them is that they should like what they like, no matter where they come from or what music their friends like, and it's my job to expose all of my students to as much music from as many different places as I possibly can.

Kids want to learn.  And regardless of who I am demographically, as their music teacher, it is my task to teach them about music, and especially how the genres they loved developed.  There's no guarantee that anyone else will.  

Anyway.  Stories aside, if kids don't know about Jimi Hendrix and understand who he was and why he mattered, they need to know. No matter if they're music appreciation, elementary orchestra, or high school madrigal choir kids.  

“Purple Haze” - Jimi Hendrix

Intro: Widely known as one of the greatest guitarists in popular music and a pioneer in alternate techniques, Jimi Hendrix had a short but tremendously influential career. His debut album, Are You Experienced?, released under the band name the Jimi Hendrix Experience, sold one million copies within seven months of its release in May of 1967. The album is widely considered to be a defining work of American rock and is listed on the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry. “Purple Haze” was the opening track on the North American version of the album, and is widely considered to be one of the most significant guitar tracks of all time.

Analysis: The first interval heard in the song is a tritone, which repeats as the first guitar riff of the song is played. As the tritone interval is repeated, it is doubled in the bass guitar. Hedrix returns to the tritone as he starts the solo for the song, almost using it as a harmonic reference point. 

Considerations for Teaching: Jimi Hendrix having died at age 27 likely due to a drug overdose, his music and legacy has been tied inextricably to drug and alcohol use. Many claim that the lyrics in “Purple Haze” refer to being in an intoxicated state, a claim that Hendrix denied, instead stating that the lyrics of the song were influenced by a woman who he had met and by a science fiction story. Regardless, the literal lyrical content of the song contains no inappropriate language, however strange it may be for someone to ask for a reprieve while he kisses the sky.

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