Estimated Time: Four to five 50-minute class periods


The blues is built using a simple 12-measure chorus comprised of three chords, which allows for an infinite number of variations. In these infinite improvisations we can hear the African-American call-and-response used in the cotton fields, and stories of great suffering. The blues were sung to help people express sorrow, to make the listener feel better, and to tell a story. In New Orleans, with the instruments left over from the Civil War, musicians began to accompany blues singers to deepen the message of the blues. The blues were the underground aquifer that fed all of the streams of American music, including: jazz, r&b, soul, and rock and roll.

Students will learn that improvisation is an acquired skill which will improve with practice. Students will use the 12 bar blues format as a vehicle to gain fluency with improvisation, creating a melodic line in the 12 bar blues structure. The lesson will culminate with students recording and transcribing their 12 bar blues solo.

You may wish to use this lesson as a follow-on to the lesson “Improvisation and Short Stories.”


  • To perform on an instrument, alone and with others.
  • To practice improvisational skills while playing the 12 bar blues.
  • To practice compositional skills by transcribing a blues solo.
  • To listen to, analyze, and describe music.
  • To evaluate music and music performance.

Materials Needed

  • Voice, band or orchestra instrument
  • Recording device (could be any of the following: tape deck, writable CD player, digital disk recorder, keyboard sequencer)
  • Staff paper and pencil
  • Computers with Internet access


  • This lesson correlates to the national McREL standards located online at


    • Demonstrates competence in performing on instruments, alone and with others, a varied repertoire of music
    • Demonstrates competence in improvising melodies, variations, and accompaniments
    • Demonstrates competence in composing and arranging music within specified guidelines
    • Demonstrates competence in reading and notating music
    • Demonstrates competence in listening to, analyzing, and describing music
    • Demonstrates competence in evaluating music and music performances

    Language Arts

    • Demonstrates competence in speaking and listening as tools for learning


    • Knows the characteristics and uses of computer software programs including the Internet

Procedures and Activities

The following is a simple example of the 12 bar B-flat blues that can be used with flexible instrumentation. The Roman numerals indicate the scale degree that the chord is built on. In other words the first scale degree in B-flat is B-flat, and the fourth degree E-flat. The triad with the flatted 7th is built upon each of the scale degrees.


C instruments or voice:

B-flat instruments:

E-flat instruments:

F instruments:

C bass clef instruments:

Have the students play each of the chord members as four quarter notes in each measure through the 12-measure phrase. If a rhythm section in not available, substitute a swing rhythm sequence from an electronic keyboard or a swing rhythm on a conga.

Pick one of the following rhythms as a repeated swing pattern to play in each measure. If the rhythm has two notes, have the students play the root and third (bottom two notes of the chord) for each measure. If there are three notes, use the root, 3rd, and 5th (bottom three notes of each chord). Vocal students could sing the same notes on “Do Bee.”

While other class members are playing the repeated pattern as described in #3, have each student take turns soloing over the top of this accompaniment. The soloists may experiment with each of the chord members in a swing rhythm through the 12 bar phrase.

Have the students improvise over the rhythmic accompaniment using the notes of the blues scale below.

C instruments or voice:

B-flat instruments:

E-flat instruments:

F instruments:

C bass clef instruments:


Have students record their improvisations to evaluate their performance and identify which version they will transcribe.

Using staff paper or a computer notation program, students will transcribe their favorite version of their blues solo defining meter, tempo, note values, dynamic markings, and articulations.

Share the students’ blues improvisations with other classes, make digital recordings for the class’s Web site, or perform the blues solos in a community venue.

Ask students to share what they’ve learned about improvisation through class discussion or through writing. Are there “rules” to good blues improvisation, or is it totally free-form? What parts were easy or challenging?


Assessment Suggestions

Students should have completed all assignments, and actively participated in all discussions.

Students may be evaluated on their contributions to class discussion, the creativity of their improvisation, and the accuracy of their transcription/composition.

Extensions / Adaptations

Explore the social and cultural elements paralleled in blues improvisation. Topics could include:

  • How the blues freed African-Americans from minstrelsy.
  • How the blues is like the roux in a gumbo soup.
  • How one might argue that the blues is a form of civil disobedience.


Give historical perspective on the ABA form of head, development, and head in blues improvisation. Compare the classical Rondo Form (exposition, development, and recapitulation) on a micro and macro level to the blues structure of head, development, and head. Why does this form seem to have universal appeal?


Identify parallel cultural examples of the blues form (soft shoe tap contests in a circle, a card game of bridge, New York street singers singing doo wop, etc). Common elements include:

  • A shared motif or structure
  • Individual improvisation or feature participation time
  • A group dynamic and fellowship
  • Each performance or event is unique and different from the last

Discuss how these elements foster the human condition and therefore are replicated time and time again.

About the Author

Brett Smith’s sixteen years of teaching classroom, vocal, and instrumental music, have been broad and varied including each grade level of K-12 students as well as College instruction. Teaching assignments have included suburban and rural settings, with his present duties focusing on elementary classroom music in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. Brett received his B.A. from Gustavus Adolphus College and his M.A. in Music Education from the University of Minnesota. In October of ’99, Brett was named the Minnesota Teacher of the Year, and went on to become one of the four finalists for the 2000 National Teacher of the Year. He is the President-elect of the Minnesota Music Educators Association.

All content in this curriculum provided by PBS. Chiaroscuro is not responsible for the content provided therein. Any questions, contact

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