Music Theory For Non-Musicians
…if there was ever an art where breaking the rules is one of the rules, it’s music.redditor u/COMPRIMENS
This occasional series is about how music is made, and it’s for people who don’t already make music. It’s part music appreciation and part music theory.
I hope to cover rhythm, melody, intervals, chords, inversions, genres, and more. Maybe we’ll get into extended chords and modes. Let’s see!
S2:E1 – What Makes This That?
In an off-site conversation, our friend thegue asked me three questions.
Excellent questions. So much so that they have spurred me to make Season 2 of Theoretically Speaking about:
That’s what I’ll try to cover over the next several weeks.
As with everything involving music, there are exceptions to everything I’m going to say throughout this entire series.
I haven’t even written it yet, and I know much of it is going to be contradicted by example after example of whatever genre I’m talking about, breaking each of the ironclad rules I’m about to lay out.
I’ll try not to say, “Generally speaking…” too often but I will be speaking generally. Take this entire series as only vague guidelines.
Let’s start with the basics:
What makes the blues… the blues?
The blues is one of our simpler genres musically and I’ll get into the music theory side of it, but the blues is mostly a feeling. Whether the song expresses joy or sadness or love or desperation, it’s heartfelt.
It’s honest. Good musicians can play the blues well technically. That comes from the brain. Great musicians play the blues from the heart.
This is, of course, true with any genre. However, hardcore blues audiences know when a musician is feeling it.
If you’re singing “The Thrill Is Gone” with a smile on your face, you’re doing it wrong.
Generally speaking, the blues is based on three chords and five notes. The usual chord structure is a “1-4-5,” or a “12 bar blues.” Here’s what each of those mean.
Back in my article about the Nashville Number System, I talked about how the root chord of any key can be called the “1” chord. The chord based on the fourth note of the scale is known as the “4” chord and the chord based on the fifth note of the scale is the “5.”
So it follows that a 1-4-5 structure uses those three chords. However, saying, “It’s a 1-4-5” also implies that it’s a 12 bar blues.
So then, what’s a 12 bar blues?
No, it’s not what you feel after drinking in twelve different bars.
When you’re counting the beats in a song, you go, “1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4,” etc. You don’t count from 1 to 1384, or however many beats the song has, you just repeat “1, 2, 3, 4.”
Each group of four beats is called a measure.
In standard sheet music, a vertical bar indicates the start of the next measure. So musicians use “measure” and “bar” interchangeably. A 12 bar blues is a repeating pattern of 12 measures.
Let’s say we’re playing a 12 bar blues song in the key of C. If you remember that the C scale is all the white notes on the piano, those notes are C, D, E, F, G, A, B, and C.
So the “1” chord will, naturally, be a C chord. The “4” chord will be based on the fourth note of the scale, so it’s an F, and the “5” chord will be a G.
In a “1-4-5” in “C”, the chords will be C, F and G. They can be major or minor depending on the song.
That’s up to the songwriter.
- The first four bars of a 12 bar blues are, generally speaking, the 1 chord.
- The next two bars are the 4 chord.
- Then it goes back to the 1 chord for two measures.
- And then: there’s a bar of 5, a bar of 4 and two bars of 1. That’s a total of 12 bars.
In the key of C, those 12 bars look like this:
That’s the most basic structure of a 12 bar blues. There are all sorts of variations. The most common variation may be the one with a 4 in the second bar, and quickly changing chords in the last two bars in what’s called: a turnaround.
It’s also quite likely that those will be 7th chords, meaning the seventh note up from their root note, and usually flattened, is added. The three notes in a C major chord are C, E and G. In a C7 chord, we add a Bb, too.
While most genres use four line stanzas, it’s three lines in a 12 bar blues. That makes sense because each line gets four measures and four times three is twelve.
Additionally, the first line is usually repeated. Then the last line rhymes with the first two. For example, here’s the verse from Muddy Waters’ classic “Got My Mojo Working.”
Once the 12 bar pattern is established, it’s repeated for the entirety of the song. There might be a different set of chords for a bridge… but probably not. Most blues songs use the same pattern throughout, and nothing else.
So what happens over those chords? Whether it’s the vocal melody or an improvised instrumental solo, the notes used are usually limited to a pentatonic scale.
You may remember from Season 1 that the major and minor scales are made up of seven notes. The major scale is do re me fa so la ti do. (Yes, that’s eight notes but “do” is repeated, so it’s only seven.)
We say the blues uses a pentatonic scale, but that’s a little misleading. The “penta-” prefix means there’s only five notes, but we sometimes throw a bonus note in there. In the key of C major or major-ish, the notes are C, Eb, F, F#, G, Bb, and C.
The eagle-eyed among you will notice that some of those notes aren’t in the key of C. If the C scale is all the white keys on the piano, what are the Eb, F#, and Bb (which are all black keys) doing in there?
This is what makes it “the blues.”
If you’re playing a C major chord, which has an E in it, and singing an Eb, there’s going to be some dissonance. Those two notes will grind against each other in the air, if only for a moment.
And look at those notes in the middle. F, F# and G. The F# is the bonus note I mentioned. Three adjacent notes are extremely uncommon in western music. These notes are also going to be dissonant against each other and over almost any chord they’re played over.
We’re breaking all the music theory rules that Bach taught us about harmony. We’re playing the wrong notes, but we’re playing them in the right way. That’s what makes it bluesy.
The dissonance comes and then goes away.
There’s tension, and then release.
Conflict – and then there’s peace.
There’s hope that things will be better in the end.
That’s the blues.
The blues started in the fields of the southern United States. Slaves sang the African songs they remembered to give themselves hope that things will be better in the end. Once freed, however, they weren’t really free. The white society around them didn’t want them to be free. So they still sang to give themselves hope, and as the music evolved over a few generations, the blues was born. Jazz, too… but that’s another article.
Almost every major city and quite a few small ones have blues societies, and most are affiliated with the Blues Foundation, a non-profit based in Memphis dedicated to keeping the blues alive. The blues is part of our history, a reminder of our own ugliness and the resilience of people finding hope in music.
One of the Blues Foundation’s annual events is the International Blues Challenge. I’m generally against “battle of the band” scenarios because music is an art, not a sport. Competition shouldn’t enter into it. But the International Blues Challenge is more than that. It truly does help keep the blues alive.
If the blues is just the simple 12 bar format with a limited set of melody notes, you’d think that judging a five day blues competition would get boring. Not so. The judges listen to artists from around the world for six to eight hours at a stretch, looking for the performers that bring their emotions to the stage. Who works within the blues’ framework to make the world a better place, and who does it best?
I’ve been lucky enough to participate at the IBCs twice with Eight O’Five Jive. We made it to the semi-finals both times, but the real joy was in hearing the other bands. When you think of where the blues came from, you wouldn’t expect to hear greatness in musicians from Ventura County, Melbourne, Warsaw, or Montreal.
And yet, there they were. Keeping the blues – and hope – alive.
Robert Johnson – Sweet Home Chicago (1936)
Louis Jordan – Let The Good Times Roll (1946)
Elmore James – Dust My Broom (1951)
Freddie King – I’m Tore Down (1961)
Koko Taylor – Wang Dang Doodle (1965)
BB King – The Thrill Is Gone (1969)
The Allman Brothers Band – Statesboro Blues (1971)
Stevie Ray Vaughn – Pride and Joy (1983)
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