What is Blues Music?

This article is a collaborative effort, crafted and edited by a team of dedicated professionals.

Contributors: Andranick Tanguiane, Fred Lerdahl,


What is blues music? According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, blues is a style of music that originated in the African-American communities of the southern United States around the end of the 19th century. It is characterized by a unique combination of African musical elements with Western musical traditions.

Origins of the Blues

The blues is a genre of music that originated in the African-American communities in the United States around the end of the 19th century. The term “blues” refers to the blue notes which are used in the music. The genre developed from the work songs and spirituals of African-American slaves.

The Mississippi Delta

The Mississippi Delta is often cited as the birthplace of the blues. It is here, in the flat, fertile alluvial plain that stretches from Vicksburg to Memphis, that many of the genre’s earliest pioneers settled and found work in the region’s cotton plantations. The Delta’s humid climate and its history of slave-based agriculture helped to create the perfect environment for the development of this new style of music.

The first major figure in the history of the blues was W.C. Handy, a African-American composer and musician who wrote “The Memphis Blues” in 1912. This song was widely popularized by a white bandleader named Tom Shaw, who recorded it with his Orchestra in 1914. “The Memphis Blues” became one of the first truly national hits, and it helped to establish the 12-bar blues format that would become so central to the genre.

In the years that followed, a number of other important blues performers emerged from the Delta, including Sonny Boy Williamson II, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, and Robert Johnson. These artists created a new sound that was heavier and more guitar-driven than Handy’s earlier composition. This sound would go on to define what we think of as classic blues music.

The Piedmont

In music, the term “Piedmont” refers to a style of blues that developed in the Appalachian foothills. Characterized by its use of ragtime piano and slide guitar, this style is often considered more urbane than other forms of rural blues. The Piedmont sound is named for the Piedmont plateau, a region that extends from Virginia to Alabama.

Characteristics of the Blues

The first thing that you need to know about the blues is that it is a feeling. It’s a way of life. It is the music of the soul, of the heart, and of the mind. When you listen to the blues, you can feel the pain, the happiness, the love, and the anger.

The 12-bar blues

The 12-bar blues is by far the most common form of blues song. If you listen to any popular song that has a “bluesy” feel to it, chances are it is in 12-bar form. The 12-bar blues is so common in fact, that when many people think of the blues, they are actually thinking of 12-bar blues.

The 12-bar blues is a very specific chord progression that is played over and over again for the duration of the song. The chord progression consists of 12 bars, or measures, each of which contains four beats. The first two bars usually contain the same chord, followed by a different chord for the next two bars. This pattern then repeats itself for the rest of the song.

The most common chord progression in 12-bar blues is:

I – I – I – I
IV – IV – I – I
V – V – IV – I

This translates to:

the 1st chord (I) being played for 4 bars
the 4th chord (IV) being played for 2 bars
the 5th chord (V) being played for 2 bars, followed by
the 1st chord (I) being played for 1 bar

The call-and-response

The call-and-response is a democratic musical form that originated in the field hollers of slaves working in the cotton fields of the American South. In this form, a solo singer would sing a line (the “call”) and the other workers in the field (the “response”) would sing back. This back-and-forth between the solo singer and the group became a central characteristic of blues music.

The blue note

In music, a blue note (sometimes called a depressed note) is a note that—for expressive purposes—is sung or played at a slightly lower pitch than usual. Typically, the practice of singing or playing blue notes is associated with the music of Africa and the African diaspora, as well as with features of Southern United States culture such as the blues. Blue notes are often seen as akin to soulfulness and sadness in music.

The following notes are considered blue notes: flat 3 (b3), flat 5 (b5), and flat 7 (b7). In major keys, these black keys on a piano correspond to the following scale degrees:

Root Major 3rd Perfect 5th Major 7th
I iii V VII

A typical 12-bar blues progression in C would use the following chord progression:

C7 F7 C7 F7
G7 C7 G7 C7
A♭7 D♭7 A♭7 D♭7
A♭7 D♭7 A♭7 E♭

Styles of the Blues

There are many different styles of blues music. The most common are Memphis blues, Texas blues, Chicago blues, and Mississippi blues. Each style has its own unique sound and history.

Country blues

The Country blues is a form of blues music that originated in the rural southern United States in the early 1920s. It takes its name from the fact that it arose in rural areas rather than the cities where other forms of blues were popular. The style is also sometimes known as Rural blues or Deep blues.

Country blues began to develop in the 1920s, when African-American musicians in the Mississippi Delta region started to electrify their acoustic guitars and harmonica. They used a variety of techniques, including slide guitar (a style of playing in which the musician slides a metal or glass object along the strings while fretting), to create a unique sound.

The first country blues artist to achieve widespread popularity was Robert Johnson, who recorded only 29 songs before his untimely death in 1938. Other notable country blues artists include Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Johnny Shines.

In the 1940s and 1950s, country blues gave rise to a new form of music known as electric blues, which was popularized by artists such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Electric blues was later adopted by white musicians such as Chuck Berry and British bands such as The Rolling Stones and Cream.

Urban blues

The jump blues of the 1940s is a direct precursor of rock and roll. Developed in cities such as New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago, Kansas City, Detroit, and St. Louis, urban blues featured solos backed by a horn section and a rhythm section playing boogie-woogie bass figures on electric guitar, electric bass guitar, and drums. The urban blues sound was characterized by amplified electric guitars (often played with slide guitar techniques), amplified electric bass guitars, saxophones, and pianos. The term “jump blues” came from the up-tempo style of the music, which often featured saxophone or piano solos with extended improvised sections; “jump” referred to the tendency of the music to make dancers jump up from their seats.

Rhythm and blues

Rhythm and blues, commonly abbreviated as R&B, is a genre of popular music that originated in African American communities in the 1940s. The term was originally used by record companies to describe recordings marketed predominantly to urban African Americans, at a time when “urbane, rocking, jazz based music with a heavy, insistent beat” was becoming more popular. In the commercial rhythm and blues music typical of the 1950s through the 1970s, the bands usually consisted of piano, one or two guitars, bass, drums, saxophone, and sometimes background vocalists. R&B lyrical themes often encapsulate the African-American experience of pain and the quest for freedom and joy. Lyrics focus heavily on personal or social issues of black people in America.

Styles of R&B developed directly from the rhythmic style of jump blues recordings such as those by Louis Jordan and his Tympany Five which combined poll-parroting horns with infectious rhythms featuring guitar riffs that have come to be identified with R&B.

The Influence of the Blues

The blues is a genre of music that has its roots in African-American culture. The blues originated in the southern United States in the late 19th century. The term “blues” refers to the feeling of sadness or melancholy that is often associated with the music. The blues is often considered to be the earliest form of popular music.

On other genres of music

The blues has been a major influence on later American and Western popular music, finding its way into jazz, big band, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, country music, folk music, and gospel. Over time, blues has also influenced the development of gospel music and jazz.

The influence of the blues has been found in almost every type of popular American music, including jazz, rock-and-roll, and country.Rhythm and blues (R&B) was originally a combination of the blues and other African-American musical styles such as gospel. Today, R&B is a general term used to describe any popular music that has its roots in the African-American experience. In the early 1950s, a style of R&B known as doo-wop became popular with white audiences as well.

Some of the most important and influential blues musicians include Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson II, T-Bone Walker, Robert Johnson, and John Lee Hooker. The blues continues to be an important source of inspiration for musicians all over the world.

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