BUILDING THE BLUES

The sound of the blues is unmistakable. A type of early American folk song, the Blues first made its appearance in parts of the rural deep South during the late 1800s and was heavily influenced by the traditions of work songs, field hollers, spirituals, and gospel hymns. A musical response to the experiences of African Americans in the rural South during the time of slavery, blues music recognizes pain, suffering, injustice, or the loss of a loved one.

When discussing the blues, it is important to be familiar with some of the basic elements that make Blues music unique. Like most types of music, blues has a specific musical form with two basic components: a lyric form (or vocal form) and a harmonic form. These components work together to create what we know as blues.

Lyric Form

Most blues lyrics follow a certain formula:

Each of the above three sections are four measures/bars each. The resulting total of which is a 12 measure form, hence the term twelve-bar Blues (it is important to note that the terms bar and measure can be used interchangeably).

When talking specifically about the lyrical content, each of the above sections represents a stanza. The first stanza states a problem. The second stanza restates the problem and the third stanza resolves the problem. This is often likened to call and response or conflict and resolution. For example:

Statement: My dog ate my homework and now I gotta stay after school

Restatement: My dog ate my homework and now I gotta stay after school

Resolution: Now he’s the world’s smartest dog, but he treats me like a fool

Note that the last word of the third stanza rhymes with the last word of the first two stanzas.

The lyrics and harmony work together to make blues music unique, but not all blues songs have lyrics. This is one reason why it is important to understand the harmonic form also.

Harmonic Form

The harmonic form of the blues is based off of three chords and, although there are many variations on this form, we will only be dealing with a basic blues. These three chords are built off of the 1st, 4th and 5th scale degrees of a major scale. These three chords alone don’t automatically mean that a song is a blues, but the way they are organized which helps us define the harmonic form, giving us a blues.

Much like the lyric form, the harmonic form is organized into three sections of four measures each. As was stated in the previous paragraph, there are three chords in a blues and, as you will see below, each of these chords will begin one of the three sections. The chords are organized as follows (the chart below corresponds with the chart on the accompanying handout):

GOAL

Students will identify the origins of the blues and recognize its cultural significance in America. Students will also investigate the basic harmonic and lyric forms of the blues.

LEARNING TARGETS

1. Students will recognize the Blues as a musical response to the experiences of African Americans in the rural South.

2. Students will distinguish the Blues from other musical forms.

3. Students will recognize how music can be an outlet for self-expression.

4. Students will recognize and recreate the harmonic structure and lyric/vocal form of the blues.

5. Students will define and apply musical terms such as bar, measure, blues, chord, call and response, rhythm, scale, 12-bar blues, and form.

VOCABULARY

Bar: The division of music into a consistent number of beats; also known as a measure.

Measure: The music contained between two bar lines.

Blues: The foundation of most popular music, it is an African American music form developed in the South during the mid-1800s.

Chord Call and Response: A type of musical conversation where vocalists and/or instrumentalists answer one another.

Rhythm: The organized motion of sounds and rest

Scale: An ascending or descending progression of notes organized in whole and half steps to form a specific pattern.

Twelve-Bar Blues: The basic structure of a blues.

Form: The organization and structure of a piece, including the harmonic structure.

EDUCATIONAL EXTRAS

Dig a Little Deeper
To take this lesson just a little further, here are a few ideas:
After explaining the lyric form and completing the listening activities, find your own examples of blues with lyrics. Play them for the students and have them identify the “statement”, “restatement” and “resolution” for each.

Online Connections
For ideas on enhancing this lesson with free online resources, check out these helpful links:

1. http://www.pbs.org/theblues/ – TPBS’s companion site to The Blues, a series of seven feature-length films that “capture the essence of the blues while exploring how this art form so deeply influenced music and people the world over.” The Blues Classroom section contains downloadable lesson plans, biographies, discographies, and video clips.

Real-World Applications
Critical thinking
Cultural awareness
Active and objective listening
Reading comprehension
Deductive and comparative reasoning

Show-Me Standards
Performance/Process: 1.2, 1.5, 1.6, 1.9, 2.1, 2.2, 2.3, 2.4, 2.5, 3.1, 3.2, 3.3, 3.4, 3.6, 4.1, 4.4, 4.5, 4.6, 4.7, 4.8
Knowledge/Content: SS1, 2, 5, 6, CA1-7, FA1-5, M4

National Music ED Standards
1-7

MISSION

Jazz St. Louis is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization whose mission is to lead our community in advancing the uniquely American art of jazz through live performance, education and community engagement.

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