What Makes the Blues Work?

What You Need To Know

-The Blues is its own genre but its form is used in other styles of music including jazz, country, blue grass, and waltz.

-The Blues is a result of the fusion of European and African music cultures in the American south.

-The Blues form is always 12 bars long, usually in 4/4 time, with occasional introductions and conclusions.

-After you listen to the Blues enough, you will memorize what it should sound like and recognize it when you hear it at concerts!


The Blues is a fascinating genre of music. It is a quintessential form of many different styles of music including Jazz. The Blues is also a style of music in its own right. I put heavy emphasis on the understanding and observing of form in my posts. The reason for this is that it is easy to hear and gives your ear and mind a structure to latch on to. Hearing that the Blues uses dominant 7 harmonies takes a significant amount of time at an instrument outlining the chord, playing it, using it in performances, etc. Hearing its 12 bar format should become available to you immediately. Whats fascinating about the Blues is that while its structurally very simple  in terms of its length and phrase, the variation possible within that structure is surprisingly diverse.

The Blues is an American art form created by the blend of African and European cultures. The Blues originated in the American south as a form of folk music for social gatherings, personal entertainment, and as a work song during labor. It is the result of the combination of African style percussive music where time is kept consistent, and European instrumentation and harmony. Listen to an African Drum Ensemble and then a work for piano by Bach or Brahms and you can hear how the two came together. It is a very spiritual music and was often used as means of expressing the difficult situations and emotions experienced by the people who performed the music. The Blues has jazz, folk, waltz, country, and blue grass variations of it (and more, but I can't think of them all!). In addition to all the styles of music it has been incorporated into, the Blues is its own style. Each variation can sound radically different despite very similar underlying harmony and structure. Understanding it will help you relate to its more complex variations in Jazz as well as other styles of music.

I would say the two most important elements of the Blues are:

1) The Blues is always 12 bars long. Occasionally this rule is broken, but its very rare. The most common brakes with that rule are when the performer(s) add an introduction or ending, often comprised of part of the original 12 bar form. Usually it is in 4/4 time (meaning 4 beats every measure). So you should be able to tap your feet to any blues 4 times, 12 times in a row (4x12=48 beats total) and come back to the beginning of the form.This matters because, like AABA format discussed in a previous post, this gives the listener a structure to hold on to and the improvisor a format they can feel regardless of how varied the chords become.

2) The blues has a sound that you will just start to recognize by listening to it enough. So, lets start listening:

An example of early (and very simple) Blues by one of the blues' greatest masters: Mr. Robert Johnson.

There is an introduction and then the first 12 bars is presented at.



As I said, the Blues is a style unto itself, and there are many great artists who are "just" blues players!

Here is a great BB King tune: First 12 bars are 0:00-0:48.

One element of traditional blues you hear in this recording is the classic call and response format where the blues is divided into three 4 bar chunks. You hear "its 3 O clock in the morning and I can't even close my eyes" 2 times and then the "response" "can't find my baby, cant be satisfied". The same thing happens for the next verse "look around me baby". Note that in all these recordings, the underlying harmony and rhythm are nearly identical. Also please observe that the lyrics are an example of the performer expressing emotions about the situation he is in.


One of my favorite Clapton concerts, and a cover of a great Robert Johnson tune


Alright, lets look at some jazz blues

I love Stan Getz! He does not play alot of notes, and he sounds awesome. And this group is one of the best rhythm sections ever. The first full 12 bars are 0:16-0:32


A CLASSIC variation on the Blues on one of the all time great jazz albums: Miles Davis' Kind of Blue album, the track is "All Blues". This still has the 12 bars but its in 12/8 time, so it is in a triple time and feels like a waltz or a "Blues Waltz" because every beat has three subdivisions (123 456 789 101112). After the introduction the first 12 bars goes from 0:22-0:52


Here is a very standard blues but the melody, harmony, and solos are unusual because its Monk


Thanks for checking  this out!