What is Blues Music? Defining a Legendary Genre

What is Blues Music? Defining a Legendary Genre

What is the blues? Blues is a cornerstone of American musical heritage that has influenced music and artists worldwide.

Definition of Blues

Originating in the Southern U.S. close to the 20th century, blues is a musical style with certain characteristics such as soulful melodies, moving lyrics, and unique harmonic progression. It’s a style that has made its mark worldwide and influenced thousands of artists in other genres and places. Its legacy and impact on music is undeniable. 

Historical Roots of Blues

Blues came about as a fusion of African musical traditions, spirituals, and work songs, and also included some European influence. It quickly became a way to tell stories.

To understand the core essence of blues, you have to look at its historical roots. It was born during turbulent times when African Americans faced unspeakable hardships. 

The deeper you dig into the question “What is the blues?”, the more you’ll see that it stems from complex cultural and social elements of the American South in the late 19th century. It began as a way for African Americans to express the pain of the legacy slavery left and as a way to show the resilience of a community that would continue to be marginalized for years to come.

African Music

The predecessors of blues include African traditional music that came to the United States via the transatlantic slave trade. African American slaves used music as a form of solace, cultural preservation, and as a symbol of resistance. Melodies, rhythms, and distinct forms of musical expression all eventually found their way into blues. 

Work Songs

Another important element of blues comes from work songs, which were sung by the slaves to help coordinate their labor in the fields and motivate them to continue working under harsh conditions. Works songs include call-and-response patterns, which are commonly found today in blues music.


The slave’s name for religious songs, spirituals, helped console the African-American community during adverse times. These hymns and melodies were passed down from generation to generation.


Once slavery officially ended and many slaves were freed, the difficulties of Reconstruction united these musical elements together into a new genre of music: blues. 

Despite being free, African Americans continued to face hardships like poverty, segregation, and sharecropping. In turn, these difficulties became music, and blues began to find its unique voice. Blues allowed the community to express both the challenges and the joys of post-slavery America.

European Elements

During the Great Migration, the movement of many African Americans to the North, blues music came into contact with distinct musical traditions. These elements began to blend and fuse to further develop the uniqueness of the blues genre. The guitar was added to the mix, for example, alongside other instruments, and a variety of regional blues styles began to appear, including Chicago Blues, Texas Blues, and Delta Blues.

Characteristics of Blues

Now you know the history behind blues, but what is blues music, in musical terms? 

Blues consists of a 12-bar harmonic structure. Because of this, it is a very flexible genre that allows for improvisation and expression. Flattened thirds, fifths, and sevenths, parts of the blues scale, create a melancholy, pensive sound. Dissonant harmony, melisma, and syncopation all give it a distinct flavor.

As far as lyrical characteristics, blues music usually features themes of oppression, heartbreak, and trials, and is generally raw and honest. This emotion and straightforwardness create a deep bond with listeners, linking the artist to the audience. 

Blues Pioneers and Legends

It’s impossible to discuss the blues and not mention the talented musicians that made the genre blossom. Many legendary artists have contributed to this legacy.

One early artist is Robert Johnson, whose guitar skills and emotive lyrics laid an incredible foundation for future blues. 

The “father of modern Chicago blues,” Muddy Waters, introduced blues to a more urban vibe with amplified instruments. His contributions and innovations changed the blues forever.

B.B. King’s amazing vocals and soulful guitar solos were the first of their kind, leading to the development of modern electric blues.

Evolution and Influence

The blues has even influenced other genres of music, including rock ‘n’ roll. Blues traditions, infused with the unique styles of new artists like Chuck Berry, Elvis, and The Rolling Stones, made rock ‘n’ roll what it is today.

Jazz and R&B are also highly influenced by the blues, and over the years, they've fused into several sub-genres of music that enrich the music world today.

Contemporary Sounds

What is the blues like in modern times? Modern times are marked by rapid advances in technology, and music trends are constantly changing, but blues remains popular as a testament to its classic quality, timelessness, and ability to touch the audience in a way no other genre can.

While blues has been evolving and changing over the years, it’s maintained its essence into the modern era. Gary Clark Jr., Joe Bonamassa, and other artists continue to honor blues while breathing new life into the genre.

Famous Blues Songs

It wouldn’t be right to talk about blues without a list of some of the most iconic blues songs in the history of music. Each has contributed in its own way to the rich heritage of blues music:

  1. "Cross Road Blues" by Robert Johnson
  2. "Stormy Monday" by T-Bone Walker
  3. "Sweet Home Chicago" by Robert Johnson
  4. "The Thrill is Gone" by B.B. King
  5. "Hoochie Coochie Man" by Muddy Waters
  6. "Red House" by Jimi Hendrix
  7. "Smokestack Lightning" by Howlin' Wolf
  8. "Mannish Boy" by Muddy Waters
  9. "Statesboro Blues" by Blind Willie McTell
  10. "I'm Tore Down" by Freddie King

Many artists have covered or reimagined these songs, making these classics in the world of music. These examples show the richness, depth, and innovation of this amazing genre.

A Rich Legacy

So, what is the blues? With its origins rooted deep in the Southern U.S., blues is a classic musical genre that has come to transcend both time and borders and impact people on a global level. The hardship, sadness, and triumph that it represents are universal to the human experience. Its soulful expression and rich history have made it a pillar not only of American music but also influenced musical genres worldwide. 


  • https://www.musicnotes.com/blog/understanding-the-influence-of-jazz-rb-and-the-blues/
  • https://www.loc.gov/collections/songs-of-america/articles-and-essays/musical-styles/ritual-and-worship/spirituals
  • https://www.biography.com/musicians/muddy-waters
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blues
  • https://www.classical-music.com/features/articles/blues-music/
  • https://www.britannica.com/art/blues-music/History-and-notable-musicians
  • https://earlyblues.org/blues-what-is-the-blues/