Secular musical form incorporating a repeating harmonic structure with melodic emphasis on the flatted or “blue” third and seventh notes of the scale. The specific origins of the blues are not known, but elements of the music of former slaves include the call-and-response pattern and syncopated rhythms of spirituals and work songs. The codification of the structure of the blues occurred in the early 20th century, most commonly as a 12-bar phrase using the chords of the first, fourth, and fifth degrees of the major scale. Its origins as a primarily vocal form induced instrumental performers to imitate the human voice with “bent” notes. Lyric stanzas are usually in three lines, the words of the second generally repeating those of the first. The elaboration of the rural blues from Texas and the Mississippi delta established both lyric and instrumental traditions, often featuring speech-like inflection and guitar accompaniment. The bandleader W.C. Handy's compositions brought blues elements to the popular music of the first decades of the century. The first blues recordings, in the early 1920s, featured singers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith using jazz accompanists; their style would become known as classic blues. The highly personal interpretations and improvisation of the blues, combined with elements of its structure and inflection, served as the foundation for jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock music.

This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise.
For the full entry on blues, visit

Seen & Heard

What made you look up blues? Please tell us what you were reading, watching or discussing that led you here.