Twelve-bar blues

The twelve-bar blues (or blues changes) is one of the most prominent chord progressions in popular music. The blues progression has a distinctive form in lyrics, phrase, chord structure, and duration. In its basic form, it is predominantly based on the I, IV, and V chords of a key. Mastery of the blues and rhythm changes are "critical elements for building a jazz repertoire".[1]

Typical boogie woogie bassline on twelve-bar blues progression in C, chord roots in red. About this soundPlay 

Standard progressionsEdit

In the key of C, one basic blues progression (E from below) is as follows.[2] (For the most commonly used patterns see the section "Variations", below.)

Different notations
Chord function Number Roman
Tonic T 1 I
Subdominant S 4 IV
Dominant D 5 V

Chords may be also represented by a few different notation systems such as sheet music and electronic music. A basic example of the progression would look like this, using T to indicate the tonic, S for the subdominant, and D for the dominant, and representing one chord. In Roman numeral analysis the tonic is called the I, the sub-dominant the IV, and the dominant the V. (These three chords are the basis of thousands of pop songs, which thus often have a blues sound even without using the classical twelve-bar form.)

Using said notations, the chord progression outlined above can be represented as follows.[3]

The first line takes four bars, as do the remaining two lines, for a total of twelve bars. However, the vocal or lead phrases, though they often come in threes, do not coincide with the above three lines or sections. This overlap between the grouping of the accompaniment and the vocal is part of what creates interest in the twelve bar blues.


Standard twelve-bar blues progressions variations, in C. (Benward & Saker, 2003, p. 186)  Play A , B,  C ,  D , and  E  as boogie woogie basslines.

"W.C. Handy, 'the Father of the Blues', codified this blues form to help musicians communicate chord changes."[4] Many variations are possible. The length of sections may be varied to create eight-bar blues or sixteen-bar blues.

Shuffle bluesEdit

In the original form, the dominant chord continued through the tenth bar; later on the V–IV–I–I "shuffle blues" pattern became standard in the third set of four bars:[5]



Quick to fourEdit

The common quick to four or quick-change (or quick four[6]) variation uses the subdominant chord in the second bar:

Seventh chordsEdit

Seventh chords are often used just before a change, and more changes can be added. A more complicated example might look like this, where "7" indicates a seventh chord:


Bebop bluesEdit

The Bebop blues is:[7]

I7 IV7 I7 v7 I7
IV7 IVo7 I7 V/ii9
ii7 V7 I7 V/ii9 ii7 V7


This progression is similar to Charlie Parker's "Now's the Time", "Billie's Bounce", Sonny Rollins's "Tenor Madness", and many other bop tunes.[7] "It is a bop soloist's cliche to arpeggiate this chord [A79 (V/ii = VI79)] from the 3 up to the 9."[7]

Minor bluesEdit

There are also minor twelve-bar blues, such as John Coltrane's "Equinox" and "Mr. P.C.".[8] The chord on the fifth scale degree may be major (V7) or minor (v7).[8] Major and minor can also be mixed together, a signature characteristic of the music of Charles Brown.[9]

Minor blues[8]
i7 i7 i7 i7
iv7 iv7 i7 i7
VI7 V7 i7 i7


While the blues is most often considered to be in sectional strophic form with a verse-chorus pattern, it may also be considered as an extension of the variational chaconne procedure. Van der Merwe (1989) considers it developed in part specifically from the American Gregory Walker, though the conventional account would consider hymns to have provided the repeating chord progression or harmonic formulae of the blues.[10]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Thomas 2002, p. 85.
  2. ^ Benward & Saker 2003, p. 186.
  3. ^ Kernfeld 2007
  4. ^ Fruteland (2002), p. 18
  5. ^ Tanner and Gerow 1984, p. 37, cited in Baker 2004: "This alteration [V–IV–I rather than V–V–I] is now considered standard."
  6. ^ National Guitar Workshop (2003), p. 34
  7. ^ a b c Spitzer (2001,) p. 62
  8. ^ a b c Spitzer (2001), p. 63.
  9. ^ Perna, Alan di (April, 1991). "Jazzin' the Blues with Charles Brown", Musician: Issues 147-152, p.180; no. 150, p.80. "Brown alternates between an Fmin7 and a B7. Minor to major, just like the man says." Amordian Press.
  10. ^ Middleton 1990, pp. 117–118.


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  • Covach, John. "Form in Rock Music: A Primer", in Stein, Deborah (2005). Engaging Music: Essays in Music Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-517010-5.
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