What Are the Basics of Blues Music Theory?

By: Bryan K.

We've all heard the blues, and its influence on modern music is undeniable. From jazz to rock and roll, the basics of blues music theory have been a major influence on generations of musicians.

But what are the fundamentals of this genre? Join us as we explore the chords and progressions, the 12-bar blues, the blues scale, dominant seventh chords, call and response, and improvisation that make up the core of blues music theory.

Key Takeaways

  • Key signatures determine the tonal centers of blues music.
  • Chord progressions move the song forward.
  • Turnarounds lead back to the beginning of the song.
  • Combining different types of chords creates a unique sound.

Chords and Progressions

When it comes to chords and progressions, the blues is all about combining different types of chords to create a unique sound. To achieve this, musicians must understand key signatures, chord progressions, and turnarounds.

Key signatures are the tonal centers the music is based on, while chord progressions are a series of chords that move the song forward. Turnarounds are chord progressions that lead back to the beginning of the song. The combination of these three elements is essential in creating the signature sound of blues music.

Additionally, understanding how to move between chords, and how to play them in different keys, is a critical skill for blues musicians. With these basics, musicians can take their blues playing to the next level.

A smooth transition into the next section of the article about 'bar blues' marks a good place to end this topic.

12 Bar Blues

We're diving into bar blues now, a common form of blues music. Commonly referred to as 12-bar blues, the structure of the form is fairly consistent regionally, although there are some variations.

Generally speaking, 12-bar blues consists of three chords, the I, IV, and the V. These chords are then divided into a 12-bar pattern, which is typically followed by a solo or chorus. This structure is repeated for the length of the song. 12-bar blues is popular in genres such as blues, jazz, and rock and roll, and is a useful tool for improvisation and songwriting.

Although the structure is fairly consistent, regional variations occur and can give the song a unique flavor. With its simple structure, 12-bar blues is accessible to a wide range of musicians and is an essential part of blues music theory.

From here, we transition into the next section: the blues scale.

Blues Scale

As blues musicians, it's important to understand the origins, function, and variations of the blues scale.

The blues scale has its roots in African-American spirituals and folk music. It's used to play melodies and improvisations that evoke the emotion inherent in the blues.

There are many variations of the blues scale that can be used to add interest and creativity to music.

Origins of Blues Scale

We've all heard of the blues scale, but where did it originate from?

The blues scale has its roots in African music, specifically in the West African music tradition. From there, it developed into different regional styles such as Delta Blues, Piedmont Blues, Texas Blues, and Chicago Blues.

These regional styles, and the music itself, developed differently depending on the region and the people playing it, meaning the blues scale has different variations. This regional variation is what makes blues music so distinct, and it's why we've so many different types of blues today.

The blues scale is the foundation of blues music, and its African roots are still evident in the modern versions of the blues.

Functionality of Blues Scale

Moving on from the regional variations of the blues scale, let's take a look at how the blues scale is used in blues music.

The functionality of this scale is quite versatile, allowing for a wealth of musical phrasing options, even when alternate tunings are employed.

In fact, the versatility of the blues scale allows musicians to use the same notes for a variety of different musical styles. This makes it an ideal tool for musicians who wish to explore a wide range of musical expression.

Additionally, the blues scale can be used to create tension and resolution within a musical phrase, creating a sense of drama and suspense.

The blues scale is also a key component of improvisation, allowing musicians to quickly transition between different ideas and genres.

Variations of Blues Scale

Building on the versatility of the blues scale, there are a number of variations which can be applied to create distinct sounds and textures:

  • Minor blues: A combination of the minor pentatonic blues scale and the blues scale.
  • Altered chords: Introducing altered notes to chords to create a more dissonant sound.
  • Chromatic blues: Adding chromatic notes to the blues scale.
  • Mixolydian blues: Combining the mixolydian mode with the blues scale.
  • Double-stop blues: Utilizing two notes at the same time.

These variations add complexity to the blues scale and open up a world of possibilities for creating unique music. With a combination of practice and experimentation, musicians can take advantage of these techniques to create interesting and intricate sounds.

Dominant Seventh Chords

We use dominant seventh chords to add color and complexity to blues music. | Dominant Chords | Subdominant Chords

:—: | :—: | :—:

Root | 7th | 4th

3rd | 9th | 6th

5th | 11th | 2nd

These chords create a distinct sound and shuffle feel that is common in blues music. The dominant chord is built off of the 5th degree of the major or minor scale, and consists of the root, 3rd, 5th, and 7th intervals. The subdominant chord is built off of the 4th degree of the major or minor scale, and consists of the root, 2nd, 4th, and 6th intervals. Both chords are essential for creating the sound of blues music.

Call and Response

We'll explore the essential components of call and response, such as melodic patterns and chord progressions, which are a key part of the blues music style.

Through a closer examination of these elements, we'll gain a better understanding of the fundamentals of blues music theory.

Melodic Patterns

Our melodic patterns often involve a call and response technique. We employ the blues scale to create a distinctive sound and to achieve a particular mood. Through this technique we use:

  • Subdominant chords to create a tension that resolves to the tonic
  • Swing feel to give the music a bouncy, syncopated quality
  • Repetition of melodic phrases to give listeners something to latch onto
  • Chromatic passing tones to add complexity
  • Embellishments to create a sense of drama

These elements together give blues music its unique flavor.

We use these melodic patterns to create chord progressions that are the backbone of blues music.

Chord Progressions

Building on our melodic patterns, we use call and response techniques to create chord progressions that give blues music its unique flavor. These progressions are normally based on diatonic harmony, which is the use of notes within the same scale or key.

A blues turnaround often occurs at the end of the progression, and it usually involves the quick descent of three notes (typically a third, fourth, and fifth) to the tonic chord. This helps to generate a sense of tension and resolution, a signature of the blues style.

By using the call and response technique and applying diatonic harmony and blues turnarounds, we can create chord progressions that give blues music its distinct flavor.

This transition into the next section of the article, which will be about improvisation.


When it comes to blues music, improvisation is an essential part of the genre. It allows musicians to express themselves and create something unique within a structured framework. To effectively improvise, it helps to understand the basics of blues music theory, such as:

  • Improvisation techniques: Learning how to improvise over a chord sequence by using scales, arpeggios, and licks.
  • Soloing ideas: Breaking down a solo into smaller parts and understanding how each part fits together.
  • Understanding the blues progression: Knowing the different keys and chord changes that occur in a blues progression.
  • Rhythm and phrasing: Being able to play in time and control the dynamics of your playing.
  • Harmony: Understanding how to create interesting harmonies and chord voicings.


We've learned the basics of blues music theory:

  • chords and progressions
  • blues scales
  • dominant seventh chords
  • call and response
  • improvisation.

But it's not just about knowing the notes and chords—it's about feeling the music and connecting with it.

By tapping into the emotion behind the blues, we can create music that's truly unique and memorable.

So don't just think about it—feel it!

After all, that's the beauty of blues.

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