What Defines a Blues Song?

Blues music is an intricate art form. However, when broken down to its core components it can be easily defined:

Lyrically, blues songs typically follow a typical problem-and-solution, or call-and-response structure. Instrumentation often includes an acoustic guitar (including slide guitar), piano and sometimes bass and drums for completeness in many blues combos.

Table of Contents


As blues is a musical form with roots in slavery, its songs often boast raw, unpolished edges. This can be found both acoustically and electrically; instruments include acoustic guitars, harmonicas, bass drums and piano; while its lyrics often express personal feelings or spiritual experiences in an honest fashion.

Though many associate the blues with sad or depressing music, this isn’t always the case. Blues is often upbeat and optimistic; its songs celebrate human resilience while often featuring humorous phrases or rhymes that stick in one’s memory. Furthermore, its composition can be as simple or complex as desired: just one person with an acoustic guitar can compose their own blues song as easily as full bands can!

Blues songs typically follow an “AAB” lyrical structure, in which each stanza begins with an initial line (“A”) repeated before adding new lines (“B”). Typically, each second line (“B”) rhymes with its predecessor (“A”) but can also use eye rhymes or put an entirely different spin on what was presented by its initial line (“A”). This form of call and response rhyming gives songs their rhythm that fits well with improvised musical structures.

Blues lyrics often address the struggles and hardships experienced by African American communities, including issues like poverty, racism and inequality. While such themes may be considered controversial by some listeners, understanding their roots is key to appreciating this distinct American art form.

Students studying the blues should be encouraged to explore its lyrical content and structure in songs like those by Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, Zora Neale Hurston, Ishmael Reed, Alice Walker and Allen Ginsberg that feature similar poetic styles. This will enable them to gain insight into its social significance and its effect on other genres of music, poetry and writing.


Tone in blues music refers to how it sounds; including pitch, intensity, duration and timbre. Although these criteria may differ between genres of music, these tones help determine how a particular blues track sounds overall and will impact listener emotions while experiencing blues music.

Timbre in blues songs refers to both the instrument used and vocal performance, along with its quality and character. Acoustic blues songs traditionally featured only one vocalist with an acoustic guitar; as time progressed into electric blues music with bass drums piano keyboard and other musical instruments like organs or saxophones added into its style, creating something both familiar and distinct in this genre.

Blues music emerged out of the conditions experienced by African-American slaves during slavery in the South. Although its history may have been painful, blues has had positive social implications as well; giving rise to jazz, rhythm ‘n’ blues and rock ‘n’ roll genres.

Loss, poverty or heartache are among many things that can leave us feeling down in the dumps. While blues songs tend to reflect sadness or disappointment in life and love, their music can still be lively and upbeat regardless of the lyrics expressing emotion.

As soon as a person hears the tone of a blues song, they’re immediately drawn in by its music and message. Its familiar yet distinct tone seduces listeners instantly and stirs emotions they never knew they had; this makes the blues such an effective artform.

Though not true of all blues artists, their songs do speak to an important truth about human suffering. By sharing their “blues”, blues artists allow audiences to share in their pain and suffering – which gives their music its power.


Blues music often deals with emotions related to pain, rejection, rejection by loved ones, rejection from society at large, racism injustice and poverty – among many other sources of anguish and suffering in life. They all convey this melancholic feeling through its form, lyrics and instrumental techniques such as melisma – where one syllable is repeated over multiple pitches – or rhythmic techniques like syncopation.

One of the hallmarks of blues music is improvisation. Early blues musicians typically lacked access to printed musical scores, so they would frequently gather on porches and church pews and jam for hours on end, creating spontaneous music which often took the form of call-and-response conversations among themselves, creating melody lines, chord progressions, lyrics that all came from within in that very moment.

The basic blues chord progression follows a standard 12-bar pattern. The A line (the first four bars sung over the tonic (“I”) chord), subdominant (“IV”) chord and dominant (“V”) chord are each played once; then after repeating each A line several times, singers often embellish it further by using microtonal adjustments, lyrical omissions or embellishments to highlight differences between iterations of A line – often making microtonal adjustments or adding accentuations between iterations of A line between iterations 1. and 2.

Blues music employs the minor pentatonic scale, which differs from the major pentatonic in that its third and seventh degrees are flattened. These flatted notes give blues its characteristic melancholy while adding tension and sorrow to its melodies.

Blues usually features a repetitive verse structure wherein each chorus lasts eight, 16 or 32 bars long and features a turn-around chord at its conclusion, giving soloists ample room to improvise over its chord sequence and add new dimensions to emotions or questions being explored by this particular chorus. As such, each chorus serves as a sort of framework or canvas on which musicians paint musical portraits of blues’ characteristic melancholy.


Instruments often play an accompanying role when it comes to the blues, supporting lyrics that convey feelings of sorrow or loneliness. Blues songs also often improvised without written music – early African American musicians would gather on each other’s porches or churches to jam for hours at a time! Improvisation allows singers and instrumentalists to create new melodies, chord progressions and lyrics as they play or sing the blues – this call-and-response procedure embodies one of its core values- the idea that pain needs to be expressed rather than kept inside oneself.

Blues artists have traditionally utilized accessible, straightforward language in their lyrics. This makes their performances more easily understood by listeners. Furthermore, it helps listeners connect to the subject matter of blues songs which usually concerns suffering or loss – for instance: when singing “My Baby’s Gone, and I Don’t Know What to Do….”

Blues music expresses feelings of both sadness and melancholy; yet can also be both funny or even raucous, especially in songs that address issues like lost love, teenage rebellion or poverty. Furthermore, some musicians incorporate Yoruba mythology into their performances of blues.

Acoustic guitar is one of the key instruments used in blues music, and many blues singers opt to accompany themselves on this instrument as it allows for authentic playing or singing. Furthermore, its popularity stems from being accessible for individuals of varying skill levels and abilities alike.

Other instruments used in blues music include bass guitars, harmonicas, pianos and pianos; however acoustic guitars remain the primary choice as many blues bands consist of them. Furthermore rhythmic instruments such as tambourines or cow bells may also be employed by musicians when performing blues music.

Blues music relies heavily on drum sets; typically a blues drummer will utilize bass drum, snare drum and hi-hat as part of his performance.