Blues music derives its name from “blue devils” – melancholy and sadness. Blues music in all its forms are about hard times, sometimes to express sadness, sometimes to celebrate resilience in the face of such hard times. But from a technical standpoint, blues music can be defined two ways: as a musical genre with a given style, and as a musical form with a given structure.
Blues music as a genre is defined by a few characteristics. One is the instruments themselves, usually grounded in rhythm-based instruments, such as guitar, drums, and bass, though often incorporating other instruments as well. The second is the lyrics, which, again, are often about sadness and resilience, and which reflect the call-and-response scheme of African and African American music. And there’s the walking bass line, which sometimes swings and sometimes moves up and down a progression of notes (or both).
Blues music can also be defined as a cyclical musical form, meaning it has a repeated chord progression. Unlike ballad or song form, which has several different kinds of phrases (e.g. verse, chorus, pre-chorus, bridge, etc.), blues music is one chord progression repeated over and over. Twelve-bar blues is the most common progression, but there are many variations on twelve-bar blues, and there are other common progressions, such as eight-bar blues and sixteen-bar blues.
What I find interesting is that despite the repetition in structure, to me blues is rarely boring or monotonous. For one thing, each chord progression is a little rollercoaster, growing and building and then resolving by the end. And this rollercoaster plays out over the course of the song too: blues songs tend to grow in emotion and intensity as they progress, dropping during instrumentals and picking up for the big finish. And though the chord progression repeats, oftentimes phrases differ greatly in feel and style, mixing lyrics with instrumental solos, playing with rhythm and volume. And even within phrases there are riffs, accents, breaks, and lots of emotion behind the lyrics.
Though more modern songs have variety in the chord progressions, I find they can often feel repetitive, because they are frequently so rhythm heavy and the rhythm is constant, and because they often don’t vary much in volume or emotional intensity. Not true of all modern genres, of course – there are lots of pop ballads that have great variety in emotion and feel – but I find I feel this way about much of the “dance” music we dance to these days.
How do you define blues? What do you listen for in a song that tells you its blues? What do you like or dislike about blues? And how do you think blues music compares to more modern genres we dance to?