Onttype1. What is the Blues?
The Definition of the Blues
“12-bar form—The standard blues form, which uses 12 bars or measures for each verse. Diatonic scale: the notes from a specific key or scale and the harmony that is derived from those notes. The blues scale is a six-note scale that eliminates the second and sixth scale notes and lowers, or flats, the third and seventh scale notes.
“There are three essential musical elements that usually determine whether a song is in fact a blues song. They are the 12-bar form, the blues scale, and the blues poetic formula. Although it is possible to have a 16-bar blues song or a blues song that does not use the standard poetic formula, these are exceptions. Each of these elements are described below.
The 12-Bar Blues Form: The blues as it is performed today is usually in a 12-bar form with a standardized chord progression. In its simplest form, only three chords are used: the I, IV, and V chords of the diatonic scale. In the key of C, those chords are C (built on the first note of the C scale), F (the fourth note) and G (the fifth note). Over the course of 12 bars, the chord progression unfolds in this manner:
Bar: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12
Chord: C C C C F F C C G F C C
I IV I V IV I
This harmonic structure found in contemporary blues comes directly from European harmonic principles commonly found in European religious music. Although hymns of this nature sometimes have complicated harmonic schemes that include reharmonizations, deceptive cadences, and passing chords, most can be distilled down to only three chords, in fact the same three chords found in the blues: the I, IV, and V.
When you hear a jazz musician play the blues, it will probably sound different than the way a blues musician plays the blues. Jazz musicians add their own interpretations, rhythms, and dissonances that give the blues a uniquely jazz flavor. Contemporary urban blues musicians such as B. B. King and Buddy Guy tend to play the blues in a way that is closer to its original form.
Blues Notes and the Blues Scale: One prominent feature of the blues is the blues scale. The blues scale is a six-note scale (as opposed to the seven-note major scale) that eliminates the second and sixth scale notes and lowers, or flats, the third and seventh scale notes. In addition, a flatted fifth scale note is added beside the existing fifth note. (bold not in original)
- Why Is the Blues called the Blues? Debra Devi's blog (she is a Rock musician and author of The Language of the Blues: From Alcorub to Zuzu) in the Huffington Post.
- The Language of the Blues
- Columbia University's Center for Jazz Studies's Jazz Glossary: Blues
The History of the Blues
- History and Tradition of Jazz, Thomas Larson, 5th edition, Kendall Hunt Publishing, Ch. 2 "African Music and the Pre-Jazz Era," p. 20.