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What is blues music?

Our guide to the blues music genre, its origins and pioneers

What is blues music?

What is blues music?

Blues is both a musical form and a musical genre. Blues gets its name from its original association with melancholy subjects and sounds: when we have ‘the blues’, we’re feeling sad. However, blues has since developed to address other subjects and emotions, adopting a wider purpose of ‘chasing the blues away’ with music.

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The main features of blues include: specific chord progressions, a walking bass, call and response, dissonant harmonies, syncopation, melisma and flattened ‘blue’ notes. Blues is known for being microtonal, using pitches between the semitones defined by a piano keyboard. This is often achieved on electric guitar using a metal slide for a whining effect. As a result, blues can be heavily chromatic.

The blues scale – from which most of the melody, harmony and improvisations are composed – is a six-note scale that consists of the minor pentatonic scale plus an extra flattened fifth note. There are also longer variations of the blues scale that use further chromaticism, most notably flattening the third, fifth and seventh notes.

The most common blues form is the twelve-bar blues, though musicians will sometimes favour the eight or 16-bar blues forms. The twelve-bar blues uses a basic chord progression of: I I I I – V V I I – V IV I I. This is normally accompanied by an AAB structure for its lyrics, utilising the popular call-and-response element that blues originated from.

As blues has developed over the years, it has encouraged a number of subgenres to flourish, often including hybrids with other genres, including blues rock and country blues. Other subgenres are defined by their development within a certain place, such as Chicago blues and Delta blues.

When and how did blues music originate?

Blues originated in the Deep South after the US Civil War in the 19th century, evolving from the oral tradition of African American work songs and spirituals, which featured the call-and-response patterns that are still prominent in blues today. It came into mainstream popularity in the 1920s when it also developed its common AAB lyric pattern. Blues songs were centred around the pain of loss and injustice but also expressed the victory in outlasting these painful experiences. The music also originated with a slow tempo that has since become faster with its increase in popularity.

What’s the difference between blues and jazz?

Blues is a predecessor to and foundation of jazz. While there are some elements that overlap, jazz and blues use similar features in different ways. Both styles of music use improvisation but in blues this is reserved for a soloist in a set number of bars and over a strict chord progression, whereas jazz ensembles often improvise together and for an unlimited amount of time. Generally, jazz is less strict and more polyphonic than blues, using a wide variety of chord progressions. It is also more likely to be purely instrumental, while blues most often centres a vocalist who leads call-and-response and articulates the music’s subject matter. There is also significant overlap in the instruments typically used in both genres, though again jazz tends to create more diverse ensembles.

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What instruments are played in a blues band?

More often than not, blues bands feature the following instruments: guitar (usually electric), drums, double bass (pizzicato), piano, saxophone and brass instruments (often with mutes). This ensemble usually accompanies a leading vocalist, but they also have the opportunity for instrumental solos.

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Top image shows American blues musician and singer Muddy Waters (1913 – 1983) in concert, circa 1970. (Photo by Val Wilmer/Redferns/Getty Images)