Harmonic Form of the Blues

Materials: handout

  1. Begin this section by explaining that the melody and lyrics of a song help to dictate its form. Since the lyric form comprises twelve-bars, so does the harmonic form and together, they work to make a blues. It is also important to note that just because a song is twelve-bars long, it is not necessarily a blues. Just like the lyrics are in a specific order, the chords that make up the harmonic form follow a specific pattern, too.
  2. To continue, it is important that the students have an understanding of the definition of a chord and that the chords in a Blues are based off of the 1st, 4th and 5th scale degrees of a major scale. Demonstrate and then have them sing a major scale in a comfortable key. As they sing up and down the scale, emphasize the 1st, 4th and 5th scale degrees, dropping out notes until you are left with only those three scale degrees. Advanced students will be able sing the scale degrees on demand.
  3. To demonstrate the harmonic form, sing the root-movement using the scale degree number as the lyric and a quarter note as the rhythm. Do this through the entire twelve-bar form (“one, one, one, one, etc…”). To help students connect more easily with the root movement, have students do different body movements with each different scale degree. For example, students could pat their shoulders when they are singing the 1st scale degree, snap their fingers when they are singing the 4th scale degree, and pat their knees when singing the 5th scale degree. Be sure to refer to the diagrams on the accompanying handout. This will give you a visual aid for the exercise.
  4. You can also have the students play the roots of the chords of a blues using classroom instruments. Boomwhackers and orff instruments work well, as you can eliminate all but the three notes you need.
  5. Now listen to “Homework Blues”. Explain to students that the first verse follows the STATEMENT – RESTATEMENT – RESOLUTION format (they should remember the lyrics from the lyric form of the blues activity), but the second verse does not. Have them follow along with the listening chart below and on the accompanying handout. Note that it does not follow the basic three-chord harmony, but it is still a blues. Can your students hear the form?
    Homework Blues
    Homework blues listening chart
  6. To conclude, tell the students that not all Blues songs have lyrics. Have them listen to and follow along with the listening chart on the accompanying handout “Bistro Blues”. This tune is a blues, too, but one without lyrics, yet it follows the same STATEMENT – RESTATEMENT – RESOLUTION format as a blues with lyrics. The only difference is that the statements made are by the melodic instruments rather than a vocalist. “Bistro Blues,” like all twelve-bar blues songs, follows the same general harmonic form, albeit with some embellishment. Have students listen for similarities and differences between this example and previous ones played.
    Bistro Blues
    Bistro blues listening chart
  7. The final activity for the lesson is the fill-in-the-blank activity on the accompanying handout. Be sure that you have covered all of the terms and definitions they need to complete the activity (answers are listed below). Some definitions are in the paragraphs at the beginning of the Teacher’s Guide for this lesson, but all are located on the glossary page.

Activity Answers

  1. The blues is most often played in a twelve bar form.
  2. Three is the number of chords in a basic blues.
  3. The blues uses the device of call and response.
  4. The blues is made up of three sections of four.
  5. The first vocal stanza states a problem.
  6. The second vocal stanza restates a problem.
  7. The third vocal stanza resolves the problem.
  8. A major scale is made up of eight notes.
  9. Call and response is similar to conflict and resolution.
  10. A scale is made up of a specific patter of whole-steps and half-steps.

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