The 12 Bar Blues: Where to Start

Hello, this is Tanya from Teaching Music: Tanya's Kodály aspiring blog.

This is my favorite time of year to get into the Blues genre with my 6th graders.  And, oh yes!, my 6th graders really do have the Blues these days. They are tired of being in elementary school and yearn for their summer freedom. Most school districts have K-5th grade elementary school but mine includes 6th grade. There are definitely positives and negatives in keeping 6th grade in elementary school!

We have a rich tradition and history of the Blues in the United States. My 6th graders are already familiar with call and response songs, spirituals, and work songs, which lay the ground work for the Blues.
There are many online resources teachers can turn to when looking for blues resources.
Here are just a few:

Association of Cultural Equity:
Founded by Alan Lomax, this association is a cornerstone of the history of american folk music. This site is a must! Start at the Research Center and you'll find lots of information.

Smithsonian Folkways Tools for Teaching:
Christopher Roberts has wisely pointed Kodály Corner  readers to this comprehensive website in a previous post. You can lose HOURS by pursuing this site if you're not careful! Start with the lesson plans page for ideas on the Blues.

Gullah Music:
This interactive site focuses on the influence of West African music in the US. The site focuses on the journey of enslaved Africans who were brought to the Sea Islands of South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida. This is one you can use with the students to review work songs, the importance of drums in african music, the use of songs in the Underground Railroad.

Desktop Blues:
A fun and simple interactive site. If you don't mind sticking with the key of EM, you can turn the little radio on and hear a guitar strum through 12 bar blues ad naseum. Click on one of the little boxes play 4 beat guitar licks, vocal licks, or guitar/vocals licks. My students accompanied with boom whackers for the chord roots while one student added licks at the SMARTBoard. (Warning: the third from the end purple vocal box sings "I'm a drunk and hard man." I've been able to avoid it in class, just be strategic!)

The Blues: Listening 
First, of course, we listen, become familiar with, and sing a few 12 bar blues songs.
Here are some student favorites:

Folsom Prison Blues - Johnny Cash
Good Mornin’ Blues - Leadbelly
Crossroads - Robert Johnson
Sweet Home Chicago - B.B. King
C-jam Blues - Duke Ellington
Stormy Monday- T. Bone Walker
Before You Accuse Me (Take a Look at Yourself) - Eric Clapton
Joe Turner's Blues 

Lyric Form: AAB
I've found it best to first focus on the form of the lyrics. Students right away understand the AAB lyrical form after hearing and singing a few blues songs. 

Good morning blues, how are you.
Good morning blues, how are you.
I'm doing all right, good morning, how do you do?

We spend a little time writing our own in class in small groups. I used to have students write their first verse by brainstorming subjects they're "blue" about. They often got stuck on just writing the first line, (and often they did not write good rhyming words at the end of their first lines!)
Now I randomly hand out strips of sentences suppling a first line. (I am all about scaffolding for faster success!) 

Here are some 1st lines my students have started with, a few are from already written blues songs:
  • Look out that window at the rain pouring down.
  • Each night I lay down but I can’t sleep.
  • If you see me walking down the street.
  • Some folks have everything they need.
  • I ain’t got no diamonds, I ain’t got no gold.
  • I think about the good times I’ve had.
  • What a dream I had last night.
  • I have to say what I’ve got on my mind.
  • Black night is falling, my pain’s coming on again.
  • Oh everyday I have the blues.
  • I try to do right and do what’s best.
  • My friends tell me I’ve been a fool.
  • Every day I feel so low.
Notice the easy-to-rhyme with ending words!

12 Bar Blues Harmonic Form: 
Back in 3rd grade, we spent some time transferring our solfa to absolute pitches (letter name notes.)
Each student gets a pack of blue solfa cards and yellow letter name cards to practice relating the letter names to their solfa pitches. They have been playing melodies on the Orff instruments but by using the cards, (and being away from the instruments,) they are able to focus on what letter sol is if C is do. 
Disclaimer: when I do these transferring lessons with 3rd graders, I do not initially talk about key signatures. My first concern is for students to understand building the letter names of the scale and understanding the relationship between solfa and letter names. 
In 3rd grade we then practice this new knowledge at the barred instruments or keyboards. (HERE is where I can emphasize the necessity for sharps and flats.)

Now the 6th graders learn about the roman numeral chords and label the chord roots in different keys. Here's F major:

Then we can build the 12 bar blues harmonic form and label the chord roots in different keys:

It's great fun to take this to the Orff instruments and play along with recordings, first just on the chord roots playing the rhythm tim-ka, tim-ka, tim-ka, tim-ka. Jamey Aebersold's Blues in All Keys is available in iTunes. (I do not have an Orff instrument for every student, so I double-up students on one instrument and we play blues in C major.) You can also try to play a-long with Duke Ellington- C Jam Blues.  I have one student tap and point along the chord changes on the SMART Board. This year I have smaller 6th grade classes and each one had their own instrument. We were able to play chord roots in CM, FM, and GM:

From here you can build triads from the chord roots, (and include accidentals if you venture beyond CM!). If you are well stocked with mallets, students can play with 3 at a time to create chords. You can break up the chords and have students add a walking bass line.

Putting it together: Harmonic and Lyric Forms
My visual students have really benefitted from laying the sentence strips of Good Morning Blues right on top of the 12 Bar Blues form. The biggest benefit I've experienced from going visual here is the students see and understand when to sing the next line.

Call and Response Improvisation
What really makes any simple blues interesting is what a instrumentalist or singer can improvise over the form. When it comes to improvising in the second semester of 6th grade, I must back up the train, I mean scaffold, to ensure those vulnerable students are successful, (they were confident soloists at the end of 5th grade but things are different now; I blame it on the hormones).
"Hmmm... students, do you see how there's a couple of bars where we're not singing? Why don't we improvise a simple rhythm on do in that space?" (Vocally or on instruments.) Everyone improvises first, all at once. Then a smaller group, then brave soloists.
Next we add more notes to choose from in their improvisation. I've learned the hard way that when I don't provide a framework of limited choices, many are overwhelmed.

There are a few jump starts for beginning the 12 Bar Blues! From here we learn a little jazz and include some rock and roll. Some year I'll figure out how to include more before the end of the school year. I'd like to make a more solid connection to more current music. (Kodály hip-hop anyone? Is that included in our "mother tongue" music at this point? Oh no, that sounds like another philosophical post!)
Do you have any blues-related things you love to use? Please share!


  1. OOoh! Love this post! Thank you, and I can't wait to use some of your ideas! I have a free resource (my first TPT post) that is just a super simple "Write your own blues" worksheet. I haven't gone back to fancy it up just yet, but it really helped some of my students organize their blues and rhyme the words at the end of each line.

  2. I also end the year teaching a blues unit to my 6th graders! Yes, they definitely need something to get them through the final weeks of elementary school. I've used some of the same resources but Desktop Blues will be a new one for me. I like to start the blues unit with "Blues Journey" by Walter Dean Myers (the CD is a must) to review the history behind the blues. It's also an excellent way for the students to hear the progression of country blues to city blues. It is no longer published, so you'll have to do a little work to find it. We also study the Great Migration in this unit so our blues musicians include Charley Patton, Son House, Robert Johnson, Sonny Boy Williamson II, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, & Koko Taylor. (We're located in a Chicago suburb so the close proximity helps them feel connected to these individuals.) If you want to visit the "birthplace" of the blues, the National Endowment for the Humanities has a week long study of the Mississippi Delta during the summer. Thank you for your post! I'm looking forward to trying some of your ideas out on my students!

    1. Thanks, Sharman, for the additional "Blues Journey" resource mention. I would like to track that down; I'd like to include more history in my unit. That week long study by the National Endowment for the Humanities sounds like fun.

  3. Tanya,

    This page is a fabulous. I am trying the 12 bar blues with my 5th graders. I love the SMART Board images from above. Is there any chance I could download the SMARTboard file to use in my classroom? That would be awesome!
    Nick Spector

  4. Tanya,

    This page is a fabulous. I am trying the 12 bar blues with my 5th graders. I love the SMART Board images from above. Is there any chance I could download the SMARTboard file to use in my classroom? That would be awesome!
    Nick Spector

  5. Thanks for the awesome lesson, Tanya! I'm taking jazz appreciation at my college and needed some extra help with writing lyrics in aab form, this post really helps me!


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