I was reading a book and I saw that in a common 12 bar blue chord progression
which is

I7 , I7 , I7 , I7
IV7 , IV7 , I7 , I7
V7 , IV7 , I7 , I7

You're allowed to change other chord except the 5th bars IV7
but that doesn't make quite sense to me..
The fifth bar IV7 can't be the only important part of the 12 bar blues format that makes the blues feel..

so what are the elements that I have to preserve to keep the blues feel if I want to change the chords from the common 12 bar blue chord progression ?

here are some examples that I got from my book

(Using diatonic chords)

enter image description here

(Using Related ii-V) Using Related ii-V

(Using Dim7 chords) enter image description here

(Using SubV7) enter image description here

(Using Modal Interchage) enter image description here

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    Just about every 12 bar blues sequence has that ubiquitous IV7 on bar 5. I asked a similar question a good few months ago - haven't dug it up yet.
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 15, 2018 at 16:17
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    I'm not quite sure I understand what you mean by "what is it about the blue chord progression that makes the blues feel?" - There are lots of blues pieces that don't use this type of 12-bar blues progression, but still have a blues feel. You don't have to use this kind of chord progression at all in blues. Commented Apr 15, 2018 at 17:16
  • @topomorto Then what is the thing that makes that blues feel Commented Apr 15, 2018 at 17:28
  • @HyunYooPark Well, I suppose it depends on every person's idea of what the blues is - here are a couple of tracks that I think are blues, that don't use 12-bar blues progressions - youtube.com/watch?v=HTDjD_UdJYs ; youtube.com/watch?v=Sd2EzQsZteA - do you agree that they sound like blues? Commented Apr 15, 2018 at 17:30
  • Possible duplicate of Chord sequences for 12 bar blues
    – Stinkfoot
    Commented Apr 15, 2018 at 19:42

7 Answers 7


In our conversation in comments, we were talking about a couple of songs that sounds bluesy, but aren't actually 12-bar blues at all...

But then what is it about this songs that makes them sound like the blues ? Scale ? The 7th chords ? What are the ingredients ?

Blues is a 'big' genre with a history of development over many years, and there are a number of different musical elements that characterise the genre. You could even point to a number of sub-genres of blues that sound quite distinct from each other. However, I think the thing that ties them together is the blues scale. This is one of the more interesting scales in Western music as it can't be pinned down to one particular set of notes - instead, it allows ranges of notes. Adapted from my answer here, I see the blues scale as being something like this, in terms of intervals from the root:

  • root

  • a 'window' around the minor third, covering the range down to the major second and up to the major third.

  • the fourth, bending up a little (maybe not as far as an augmented fourth in guitar, but of course on piano one has no choice to play the aug 4th / flatted fifth)

  • the fifth

  • The minor 7th, with scope to bend up a little (but maybe more like a quarter tone - not as far as a major seventh)

When people try to explain the blues scale, I feel it often gets rather over-simplified. This is understandable, because unlike (say) the major scale, it's not really possible to define it as an exact set of notes. The ranges, and the possibility to move a note within those ranges, is essential to the blues sound. This is one reason that piano is not the primary instrument of blues musicianship, but the guitar, as it is able to perform these bends. (of course the human voice is also able to do this!)

For the same reason, slide guitar is particularly suited to blues playing, as in the example we were looking at here:

As mentioned in Stinkfoot's answer, when it comes to blues harmony, another characteristic of blues is the use of the 7th chord as a 'stable' tonal colour, rather than a dissonance to be resolved.

The 12-bar chord progression using these 7th chords is also very characteristic of the blues - just not necessarily as definitive part of the blues sound as the blues scale in my opinion. In comments we also mentioned this example, which essentially sits on one chord throughout the whole song:

It's very easy to hear the some of the wide ranging vocal bends that the blues scale allows; Some smaller bends are also audible in the harmonica work.

Nevertheless, it's fair to say that the 12 bar chord pattern is very common in blues, and a lyrical pattern has evolved alongside - the AAB pattern, Where a single line is repeated twice, and then resolved with a third line:

Backwater rising, Southern peoples can't make no time
I said, backwater rising, Southern peoples can't make no time
And I can't get no hearing from that Memphis girl of mine.

It's a form that is almost always recognisable as 'blues', however you modernise or mangle it:

I went down to Kangnam station, but I forgot my T-Money card
Lord, I went down to Kangnam station, but I forgot my T-Money card
I had to run all the way to Samseong-Dong, Lord, why has life gotta be so hard

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    sits on one chord throughout the whole song . Yes. Even within one chord, which will be generally be a dominant 7th, the interplay of vocals and comp using "blues melody" will make it "blues". It's a form that is almost always recognisable as 'blues' - it seems that there songs that are entitled "blues" that really have only that aspect to merit the title. But the term "blues" has morphed over the years, as I noted here :) Chord sequences for 12 bar blues
    – Stinkfoot
    Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 19:46
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    @Stinkfoot it seems to me that sometimes people put 'blues' in the title of a distinctly un-bluesy song - so it seems that only the title merits the title! Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 19:51
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    blues makes it interesting - a story of some sort - most blues songs have a story line, more often that not a hard luck story. Maybe that's enough to merit the title!
    – Stinkfoot
    Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 20:08
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    @JustinLardinois "This video is not available" where I live! Now I'm sad and depressed... :) Commented Apr 18, 2018 at 7:24
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    @topomorto - I surmise that the genre name "blues" came about because the earliest examples were mostly about sad/mournful situations. But a form was established and the term is now applicable to any music that has something of that form, even if it's "happy". Could also be that "happy" songs are part of the blues because they're saying "At the moment, I don't have the blues!" - many of them actually say that, or allude to it. (instrumentals just imitate the vocal forms.)
    – Stinkfoot
    Commented Apr 18, 2018 at 22:20

The 'blues chord progression' on its own does not make 'the blues feel'. Several melodic, harmonic, structural, rhythmic, timbral (and lyrical, if it's a song) features need to be present to create a 'blues feel'. If you've ever tried to swim one of the wider reaches of the Missisippi with a pack of hell hounds/betrayed women/husbands/prison guards snapping at your rear end, you just may approach an appreciation of just how broad and muddy any definition of the blues has to be. Cases in point may or may not settle the question with any finality, but consider if you will Chain Lightning by Steely Dan.

It sounds as blues as the smack of a broken wine bottle across your jaw/head, at midnight, by the railroad tracks, behind the cotton gin, but the IV isn't a 7th. In fact, the IV is a bIII.

After a century in its present form (whatever that means), the blues has become a rubber man/silly putty creation able to bend and stretch to a remarkable degree yet still remain identifiable. Leaping (like a rubber man) to another metaphor, the blues is like a team playing one man down: the rest of the team take up the burden and play on. In the case of Chain Lightning, we still have the structural skeleton, the tone colours, the twelve bars and the shuffle feel to pull the listener towards the blues.

Interestingly, as with all things Steely Dan, there's more to the story. The rest of our blues 'team' have to work damn hard. Not only do they have to cover for the missing IV7, there's the fact that the melody starts on the sweet sixth degree. The melody is but one phrase, repeated six times, and the chords move, not from V to IV in bars 9 and 10 but from IV to V.

So, the 'blues chord progression' alone cannot create the 'blues feel'. The other 'blues characteristics' can often take up the slack if one (such as the IV7) lights out under the wire and goes missing.


The blues feel?

The term "feel" makes this question highly subjective and the topic is a complex one, but let's take a stab at it, nonetheless.

Note that all the tunes you posted are comprised almost entirely of Dominant 7th chords, and their fundamental structure is I7->IV7->V7, although some bridge and transitional passages are also included.

Harmony and Theory: A Comprehensive Source for All Musicians (Essential Concepts (Musicians Institute)), by Carl Schroeder (Author), Keith Wyatt:

Blues Harmony

Blues is a style that combines elements of African and European musical traditions in a unique blend that defies analysis by classically-based methods.

The three basic chords in blues are the same as the three basic chords in the diatonic system: I, IV, and V. What sets blues harmony apart from traditional Western European harmony is the quality of the sevenths. We have been taught to recognize dominant seventh chords as V chords related to a single tonic, but in blues, all three chords are dominant sevenths; that is, the I and IV chords as well as the V chord are dominant-quality chords. In blues, the fact that all of these chords are dominant sevenths does not imply the existence of three different keys; briefly listening to a blues progression will make it obvious that, despite the chord qualities, there is clearly a single tonic chord, and the other chords function in essentially the same way that they do in diatonic progressions. While the use of the dominant seventh chord outside its diatonic role was first heard by classically-trained musicians as dissonant and unresolved, it is now accepted as normal.

The chords in blues are generally arranged in one of several traditional progressions that evolved around the beginning of the twentieth century, according to available information. The first and by far the most common of these progressions is the twelve-bar blues. This progression remains essentially the same regardless of key or tempo, and is most usefully learned by memorizing the order of chords and the number of bars for each. It can then be transposed into any key on any instrument.

Further there:

Although all three chords share the same quality, the tonality is obvious due to the strong root movement between 17, 1V7, and V7 that points the ear dearly to the correct function. This is true also in other blues-style progressions that may add other chords, use other chord arrangements, and even vary the qualities of the chords (as in minor blues, where the I, IV, and V chords are all minor). The relationship of I, IV, and V is so strong that it binds the harmony together despite these variations.

Blues Melody

One of the unique, striking aspects of blues is the sound of the melody. Again, it breaks the rules we have established regarding the diatonic relationship between the melody and harmony. Just as the blues progression is technically nondiatonic yet sounds nearly as direct and tonal as the harmonized major scale, blues melody is unlike either the diatonic major or minor scale yet also sounds just as tonal. Actual blues melodies defy traditional musical notation by including sounds that literally fall between the notes on the staff, but they can be simplified somewhat and organized into a set of notes called the blues scale. The blues scale most closely resembles the minor pentatonic scale with the addition of an extra note commonly called the flatted fifth. (Also called the "flat five," this note is technically a diminished fifth or augmented fourth, depending on context, but in blues is rarely referred to by those names.)

IMO the answer to your question is here - quoting:

Although all three chords share the same quality, the tonality is obvious due to the strong root movement between I7,IV7 and V7 that points the ear clearly to the correct function.
This is true also in other blues style progressions that may add other chords, use other chord arrangements, and even vary the quality of the chords
... the relationship of I,IV and V is so strong that it binds the harmony together, despite these variations.

Notwithstanding, we do find blues tunes that aren't I7->IV7->V7 . I7->IV7 and I7-V7 are often encountered in older blues forms. Still it is the strong movement and subsequent resolution of I7->IV7 or I7-V7 which create the blues feel.

It's also important to add that although the question focuses on chord progressions, the components of Blues Melody, as mentioned in the above citation, are also of great importance in generating the blues feel. Many noted pop singers, people like Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis JR, Tom Jones, Bobby Darin, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald (straddled between pop and jazz), just to name a few, will sing a straight pop song that's predominantly major and then as the music warms up, they'll "blues ('jazz') it up" by moving their vocals into the blues scales - with the accompanists throwing in some dominants to compliment that. That is primarily the power of characteristic blues melody, helped along by the dominants, as explained above.

This shows that "blues feel" can be present even in music that doesn't necessarily begin with dominants - but the movement to dominants and the "blue notes" impart "the blues feel" on virtually any sort of music.

From a musicological standpoint, it may be correct to say that the music that we call blues today (it's a term that has changed and morphed over the years) originated from the church music and field songs of African Americans, which were characterized by a Call and Response format. That format may be reflected in the strong musical movement we feel in blues progressions, as mentioned. For example I7 can be considered Call and IV7 Response. And perhaps the final climax to V7 can be understood as both caller and responder coming to a climax in unison before the turnaround and start of another cycle.

Call and response is also manifest in the bar to bar vocal structure of most blues: A vocalist sings a bar, then they (or an accompanist) plays a lick for bar, then sings another bar plays another lick, etc. The vocal is "call", the lick is "response". Most soul and RnB also reflect the call and response format.

It may be valid to say that the call and response format also contributes to the "blues feel".

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    This question calls to mind similar questions of what gives something a swing feel. Easy to pick out some likely suspects, but more difficult to really nail down. I'm glad you mentioned melody; I think that this is much more important than, say a 12-bar blues progression (which can be reharmonized and retain a bluesy feel under the right circumstances). One thing that I haven't seen mentioned yet is call-and-response, which seems to me pretty essential.
    – user39614
    Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 4:27
  • One thing that I haven't seen mentioned yet is call-and-response, which seems to me pretty essential - OK well, I actually got on now to add that point to the answer! Look at it now...
    – Stinkfoot
    Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 4:47
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    I was thinking of call-and-response as more of a melodic principle than a harmonic principle; your last edit addresses this a bit. I don't disagree with what you say about I7 and IV7, but I wonder if we hear the call-and-response there due to being conditioned by such melodic structures.... Also, players also use call-and-response with themselves instead of with a singer or an accompanist. BTW, your Call and Response link appears to be broken, for me at least.
    – user39614
    Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 4:59
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    I've taken the liberty of OCRing the text in the image - apologies if I've mangled anything! Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 8:01
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    BTW I think this answer is almost excellent, but I feel that the claim of your source that the blues scale "can be simplified somewhat" to "...the minor pentatonic scale with the addition of an extra note commonly called the flatted fifth" (not your words, I know) is rather oversimplifying things; the 'nebulous third' is essential. Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 8:24

I think you've summed it up pretty well. If a tune is 12 bars long and finds its way to IV7 at bar 5, that's enough to class it as a '12-bar blues'. Not necessarily a classic 12-bar blues, but in the ballpark. I guess it should also get back to I7 at the end, or at least end on a turn-round that gets back to I7 for the start of the next chorus.

SO much music is based on the 12-bar blues. I look forward to hearing where YOU take it!

  • Thanks for your answer ! But then is the 5th IV7 only thing that it needs to be a blues song ..? I still don't quite get it..what is it about the fifth IV7 that makes a blues song..? Commented Apr 15, 2018 at 17:26
  • I've heard it as part of the definition of a blues song. Now, who decides on the definition is another story... Commented Apr 15, 2018 at 19:21

Blues chord progressions are not what gives 'blues' songs their particular feel. It is the overlying melody and therefore I will answer the question in relation to a melody using the blues scale. The reason I say it is not to do with the 12 bar blues is because the 12 bar blues is a progression used in many many styles of music outside blues.

The blues scale is based off the minor scale. This in itself is a 'bluesey' feel due to the sad emotion it enforces.

The differences between the blues and minor scales: omitted 2nd, omitted 6th, added flattened 5th.

By omitting the 2nd and 6th note of the scales you reduce the emotion of the minor scale and make it more similar to a broken chord and a pentatonic scale. The wider gaps as found in the pentatonic scale definitely add to the sound.

The chromaticism increases "blues" feel you are talking about (without it, it is easy to mistake a blues scale from a pentatonic as they are very similar) and originates due to the sliding nature of the voice between the 4th and 5th.

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    I think you mean "omitted 2nd,...." instead of "emitted", and usually we say that notes are flatted, not flattened. Characterizing minor scales as sad always seems like a mistake since it takes more than a minor scale to evoke such an emotion. There are plenty of upbeat, happy blues that use minor scales. I don't think that "jazz feel" contributes to "blues feel" so much, rather the blues is one of the building blocks of jazz. I don't know what "you reduce the emotion of the minor scale" means, but I would agree that the wider intervals found in pentatonic scales contribute to the sound.
    – user39614
    Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 12:02
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    I agree about the 'omitted' thing - wasn't thinking. But in reference to 'flattened' or 'flatted' I have always been taught and am sure that they are synonyms. Perhaps 'flatted' is more specific terminology but 'flattened' is not necessarily wrong. But besides, thank you for the input I would agree with most of what you say.
    – Ben Hughes
    Commented Apr 16, 2018 at 14:10

One think that makes a piece sound bluesy (in my opinion, anyway) is the ambiguity in the third of the tonic chord. When tonic harmony is implied, the third is major; when subdominant harmony is implied, the third is minor. Thus IV 7 shows up. Some singers use a "neutral" third between major and minor when singing either way. Some instrumentalists play melodies with both notes together or successively in various manners.

This progress played quickly doesn't sound bluish though. "Rock Around The Clock" and many other songs use the 12-bar blues chords without sounding bluish.

  • ...and of course, a blues third can be anywhere in between major and minor... Commented Apr 15, 2018 at 20:06
  • And the '12-bar blues' is the basis for a huge amount of music outside the 'blusey' style.
    – Laurence
    Commented Apr 15, 2018 at 22:15

Personally I don't think the "blues feel" lies in the chord progression, but rather in the melody that is played over it.

Specifically, when the melody keeps playing the same tonic "blues scale" tune regardless of how the underlying chords change, even when it leads to jarring harmonic clashes (with maybe an occasional adjustment for the V7 chord), that to me is the blues feel.

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