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Blues 101: Basics


Blues music evolved from its eighteenth-century roots in the work songs and lamentations of enslaved African-Americans to become one of the most identifiable streams in American music. If you grew up in the United States when I did, you heard it on the radio (Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B King, Eric Clapton, Ray Charles), in movies (The Blues Brothers), and on TV shows (1960's Batman Theme). A genre unto itself, the elements of Blues are also fundamental to jazz, rock, contemporary songwriting, and even some orchestral music such as Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. Given its ubiquity in our musical culture, you can be sure your students are familiar with the sound of "The Blues" whether they know what it's called or not.

When to teach Blues

Blues is particularly well suited to improvisation, leading some music educators to teach it early on as a springboard for their students' first off-page explorations. Others introduce Blues only after students understand the basics of traditional music theory. This is because Blues performance practice tends to bend "the rules" as well as the notes. Both philosophies have their merits, so it's your call when to present Blues in your curriculum. When you feel a student is ready, here's how to teach it. 

1. Form first

The most basic form of Blues music consists of a repeating twelve-measure primary chord progression. "Blues Boxes," like those below, offer a great way to present this progression; visualizing the standard twelve-bar blues as three sets of four measures helps students keep track of their place when improvising later on. Start with Roman numerals to lay the foundation for easy transposition. Then convert the numbers to chord symbols in a key you choose. 

2. Practice the progression

Sing the Roman numeral root notes together while listening to a Blues recording, or while you demonstrate the boogie bass accompaniment below 

Boogie Bass Pattern

Next, ask your student to take over the Boogie accompaniment. If possible, set an automated drum track to a "Shuffle" or "Swing" feel to encourage a steady beat. Signal the coming chord changes ahead of time by saying, "Here comes the F chord… G is next…" and so on. 

3. Make a melody

Compose and notate a simple Blues tune together using only notes in the major blues scale. For beginners, limit this pitch set to a five-finger hand position (C, D, Eb, E, G) by omitting the highest two notes. 

Keep the rhythms basic to allow for embellishment later on. Increase confidence by explaining that these "safe notes" will sound good throughout the progression. If a sensitive student objects to a note against a particular chord (the E note with the F chord bothers some ears), suggest selecting a different note from this pitch set. If the creative juices are not flowing, try writing some relevant bluesy complaining lyrics together. Then sing them over a boogie accompaniment to see what notes come out. Here's an example to use as a model, but it's best if you and your student compose your own Blues tune.

Major (aka bright) blues scale.

4. Double duties

Next, ask your student to combine the newly composed right-hand melody with the left-hand boogie bass pattern and voila, a new Blues is born. Encourage memorization so your student will have something portable to play the next time a piano is nearby but music books are not. Next time, we'll look at ways to extend their Blues tunes with variations. Until then, enjoy your creative music-making journey. 

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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