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Maybe this is a stupid question, but I quite like the sound of common blues patterns - however I find it hard to see how one might use them in a church context where one is expressing praise, worship, awe, thankfulness, etc.

Can any form of music really be said to be sad/happy/whatever? Or would the definition of blues mean a joyful blues song is a contradiction in terms?

(I don't mean using "bluesy sounds" like throwing in lots of 7ths or blues-rock influences, but something like a classic 12-bar and/or AAB song).

  • blues & gospel come from a common base. The 'split' is usually attributed to Thomas Dorsey Try americasmusic.tribecafilminstitute.org/session/view/… for a potted history – Tetsujin Jan 5 '15 at 12:21
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    Sure, why not? You don't have to be in a minor key or a dirge tempo to be playing the blues. For an analogy: lots of "Country" songs are about disasters in one's life, but there are any number of comedic songs as well. – Carl Witthoft Jan 5 '15 at 12:35
  • BB King's Better Not Look Down is pretty happy: tinysong.com/Ogl0 – Nathan Long Jan 5 '15 at 15:06
  • I don't know if this is thorough enough to qualify as an answer, but a lot of early rock n' roll (including surf rock, my current obsession) uses common blues patterns, particularly the 12-bar form. If you are primarily looking to write worship songs in such a format, go for it! – Sandalfoot Jan 5 '15 at 20:36
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I suspect the confusion might be in what "Blues" means:

Blues is a comment on the feel of a piece of music, rather than necessarily its structure.

It's very common of course for blues songs to use the 12-bar chord progression (which is thought to have arisen from slaves singing while working in America), but not exclusively.

Exceptions: For eaxmple "Need your love so bad" by Fleetwood Mac could be described as a blues song but it doens't follow 12-bar, and Kelly Marie's "It feels like I'm in love" is a 12-bar structure but decidedly not a blues song.

So answer to your question: "Can any form of music really be said to be sad/happy/whatever? Or would the definition of blues mean a joyful blues song is a contradiction in terms?"

Music can of course be happy or sad but this is as much about the gist of the lyrics (iuf there are any) and the way it's played/sung as it is about the notes and structure.

A Joyful blues song:

If you define blues as a mournful rendering of hardship, then joyful blues does seem like a contradiction.

If you define blues as just a chord progression and set of scales, then yes you can have joyful blues, but it can sound remarkably like 50's rock 'n roll ;-)

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    Do you have a source to cite for "blues is a comment on the feel of a piece of music, rather than necessarily its structure"? In Jazz, I hear "12 bar blues progression" very commonly used to describe the structure of a song, while when I hear "blues" used to describe the overall feeling of a piece, it's mostly by listeners who lack the analytical tools to give a more nuanced description. – microtherion Jan 5 '15 at 13:27
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    Hm - you seem to be implying I'm of the latter more lacking group. Maybe I am. How would I know ? My source would be my own experience of some 25 years of playing guitar around and about in several bands, plus some solid examples of blues not involving the 12-bar progression, plus some documentaries I've seen on the origins of popular music (via blues origins). – user2808054 Jan 5 '15 at 13:34
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    essentially .. "12 bar blues progression" doesn't imply that this is the only progression used in blues – user2808054 Jan 5 '15 at 13:35
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    @microtherion LOL re Bono reference .. I see your point there. – user2808054 Jan 5 '15 at 14:22
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    @microtherion I'm not sure what you mean though - you seem to be agreeing with me ? – user2808054 Jan 5 '15 at 14:27
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Yes! While blues often deals in hardship, that’s not universal. Early blues were often comical or raunchy. Songs like Led Zeppelin’s “The Lemon Song” continue that tradition. And some blues are downright joyous like Stevie Ray Vaghan’s “Pride and Joy,” or pure fun like the old standard “Jump Jive and Wail.” The common thread in blues is that it’s very personal. Of course, for many blues musicians, personal means unlucky, but it isn’t always the case!

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The problem with a question like this is that "Blues" is just a word, and when you use a word, it means whatever you want it to mean. In some fields, some words have very well-defined formal meanings, but the field of giving names to styles of music is generally vauge and informal.

One person might have the firm belief that if you take a loping slide guitar riff and change the lyrics from "Woke up this morning, got no reason to live" to "Woke up this morning, my heart was full of joy", then it ain't "the Blues" any more. That person is right, according to their own personal definition.

But listen to Howlin' Wolf's "Killing Floor". Although the words aren't jolly, the music is upbeat; approaching gospel. A record store would probably file it in the Blues section. More specifically, it is "Chicago Blues".

So if someone says "That's too upbeat, it's not the Blues", who's right and who's wrong? Nobody, because it's just a word.

At risk of riling blues snobs, the movie soundtrack of The Blues Brothers is full of upbeat, jolly dance songs -- and although you could argue that a lot of those are soul songs, you could also validly classify most of it as Chicago Blues.

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There are plenty of upbeat 12 bar blues songs, e.g.:

  • Many of the songs Little Richard wrote (although they may not be suitable in a church context either ;-), e.g.
  • Muddy Waters "Got my Mojo Working":
  • John Lee Hooker "Boom Boom" (although he takes lots of liberties with the form):
  • Harry Edison "Centerpiece":
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Well, I remember some blues, cannot find the source right now, that was about somebody whose girl left him and that ended somewhat like

"Gonna walk down to the railroad put my head right on the track yeah gonna walk down to the railroad an lay my head right on the track

when that old train is a-coming Im gonna pull my head right back."

Now that's the blues.

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    This is a comment, not an answer – Carl Witthoft Jan 5 '15 at 12:36
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Have you learnt the major blues? That makes it much more upbeat and cheerful than when you play with a standard blues scale.

To do this, play the blues scale whose tonic is the 6th of the key you're currently in.

For example:

  • For the 12 bar blues in C, play with the A blues scale.
  • For the 12 bar blues in Eb, play with the C blues scale.

Hopefully the difference will be apparent, and mindblowing (as it was for me).

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To say that words can mean whatever you want them to mean is incorrect. ("That's Glory for you.") If that were true we would not be able to communicate. However, what IS true is that "Blues" does have more than one definition or meaning. One is a general term in our culture, while the other is a music term with specific meaning in the music culture. "Blues" in general, means depressed. "I got the blues" never means " I was overjoyed." Music styles DO affect the emotions. Some are better for expressing certain emotions, while others are better at expressing others. This is subjective, but a shared subjective experience for most people. Certain musical techniques are well known for their ability to elicit n emotional response. We use the term "upbeat" in common parlance to mean happy, but it is actually a musical term, indicating the emphasis of notes in a rhythm (the upbeat) that generally makes a song sound happier, or "upbeat". "Downbeat" is also a musical term, but when translated into common parlance, it means "not emphasized".

Lyrics can go contradictory to the style. Ella Fitzgerald sang a piece called "The Happy Blues" just to show that off. On the other hand, with a slight twist, the whole piece can sound sarcastic, and promote sadness again.

SO, generically, blues means sad. Musically, Blues is a scale and chord progression that expresses the emotions of being depressed very well, but it CAN have happy lyrics.

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