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Blues Music: Characteristics, History and Artists

Gustavo Ramirez, Robert Huntington
  • Author
    Gustavo Ramirez

    Gustavo Ramírez is a Biologist and Master in Science specialized in Physiology and Ecology of mammals by Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. He has taught subjects such as Biology, Biochemistry, Human Physiology, Ecology and Research Methodology in high school and college levels and participate as private tutor for high school students and science professionals

  • Instructor
    Robert Huntington

    Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

Learn about blues music including its musical characteristics, history, and artists who popularized it in society. See the instruments used in blues music. Updated: 07/04/2022

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What is Blues Music?

Blues music is a genre that originated in the southern United States by African-American communities in the early 20th century. Blues emerged as a fusion of religious music and work-song from the agricultural fields, blending with the English, Irish, and Scottish lyrical traditions. In its structure, the blues songs reflect in their vocal, instrumental, and lyrical style, expressing the melancholy and the yearnings of the African-Americans that suffered slavery and segregation for more than 200 years in the United States.


The blues is a musical genre that comes from the African-American communities of the United States.

vintage photo of a blues band


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  • 0:01 Understanding the Blues
  • 0:21 Blues Patterns
  • 1:42 History of the Blues
  • 3:15 Blues Performers
  • 4:53 Blues Influence
  • 5:41 Lesson Summary
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Characteristics of Blues Music

The name of this musical genre comes from the word blue, whose etymology alludes to sadness. The musicians refer to their style as "the blues", as in the blue devils , which are depression and sadness. Blues songs reflect the anguish in the lyrics through the use of the voice of the singers and the instrumental performance. One of the main characteristics of the blues style is the inclusion of lamenting guitar moments. When songs include vocalizations, musicians perform them in the form of laments, dialogues, or call-and-response patterns between two or more singers who complement each other's vocals. The use of 12-measure units, known as blues chords, characterized the musical structure of blues and are made up of three chords. This structure would later influence other musical styles, popularly rock and roll.

Flattened third, fifth, and seventh notes, known as the blues notes, distinguish the blues melodies. These are usually accompanied by sliding guitar and adding grace notes to the melody, giving songs their characteristic wailing or crying sound. Finally, their lyrics express the harshness of real life. In the beginning, the songs referred to the hard life of enslaved people and farm workers, the cruelty of white masters and the police, as well as poverty and personal difficulties, such as lack of love, nostalgia for the abandoned home, or the death of loved ones. Later, the lyrics would begin to speak about life in the streets and the poor districts of the cities. Commonly, the lyrics are interpreted in the form of a narrative with strong vocal expressions that reflect crying and sorrow.

Instruments Used in Blues

Two of the musical instruments that are permanently associated with blues are the acoustic guitar and the harmonica. Both were cheap and easy-to-carry instruments for journeymen and early blues band musicians. They gave the wailing sounds to songs and accompanied the singers' performance. On several occasions, the musicians built instruments from buckets, rods, and other work tools that provided rich sound to the songs. Over time, more sophisticated instruments were added, such as the clarinet, which created a more prominent wailing sound. The double bass, the saxophone, and the electric guitar opened up a whole new world of possibilities for the blues, which continues to mark the pattern of the genre to this day.


The clarinet was an instrument that added a new sound to the blues, complementing the acoustic guitar and harmonica.

vintage portrait of a blues musician holding a clarinet


Blues History: Where did Blues Originate?

The blues genre stems from the songs of enslaved African and farm laborers from the southern United States in the early 20th century. Later, the gospel musical style was added, and blues was performed in churches where black workers worked under white landowners. Arguably, these were the two elements that started the blues style-- the characteristic songs in the form of a lament and the lyrics that made references to sad situations, where the singer addresses God to expose his regrets. Blues would appear almost simultaneously with jazz, although the latter would have more of a festive intention. That made it widely accepted by non-African-American audiences, which would help popularize it worldwide.

W.C. Handy, Alabama-born performer, composer, and arranger, is considered the Father of the Blues since in his 1912 song, "Memphis Blues," where he first used the term the blues, referring to sadness. Later, between 1917 and 1923, W.C. Handy recorded the theme "St. Louis Blues", which would become one of his best-known themes. It was recorded in 1925 by Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, who also made an only-instrumental version of the song in 1929. These three artists marked the pattern of the musical style of blues during the first half of the 20th century.


Mamie Smith was one of the first great female blues stars.

vintage photo of Mammie Smith


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Frequently Asked Questions

What kind of music is blues?

Blues' origins can be found in African-American communities' religious and work songs. It started in the rural parts of the southern America at the beginning of the 20th century. Blues expresses the melancholy and the yearnings of the African-Americans that suffered slavery and segregation for more than 200 years.

Who are the famous blues musicians?

Notable blues musicians include W.C. Handy, who is considered the Father of the Blues, Mamie Smith, Bessie, Smith, and Louis Armstrong. Other artists who enjoyed great popularity were B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix, Ray Charles, and Billie Holiday.

Is blues happy or sad music?

The blues arose from the songs African-American laborers sang in the fields to express the hardship of their lives. Therefore, it is a style of sad music that expresses emotions such as depression, loneliness, and lack of love.

What is the characteristic of blues music?

The characteristic of blues music is a melancholic musical style expressing harshness of everyday life. In this genre, musicians use guitars and harmonica, a 12-measure melodic structure, and lyrics that talk about issues such as poverty, hard work in the fields, and violence by the police and white people.

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