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Discovering music: the blues
Discovering music: the blues

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At the beginning of this free course, Discovering music: the blues, it was suggested that a musical tradition was a cultural glue that gave a community a sense of identity and unity, and that a tradition could be used as a point of reference by others. You have learned that the defining characteristics of the blues may include a performance style with a particular vocal quality, lyrics expressing feelings about personal situation, and underlying musical techniques including specific ways in which scales and chords are used. These underlying structures include formulations of chords that have been used in music for several centuries. The chords themselves do not define the blues, or indeed any type of music, but the specific way in which those chords are used is a defining characteristic. In music, the terms style and tradition are easily confused. In this course, different blues styles (Delta blues, down-home blues etc.) have been described, but these all fit within the blues tradition because they all reference the same musical idiom in different ways.

Another element of a musical tradition is that it exists over a long period of time and constantly reinvents itself, becoming a recognisable point of reference, not just for the generations of musicians that follow but also for musicians in other styles and traditions. Cover versions are just one way in which musicians align themselves with tradition. More importantly, musical techniques may be borrowed and reworked in a way that engages with a new audience. You will find elements of the blues in music as diverse as that of Ravel, Gershwin, Miles Davis, Queen and the Rolling Stones.

Music emerging in economically depressed and marginalised communities in the early twenty-first century has parallels with the way early blues developed in its social environment. While hip-hop and rap music tends to be harmonically and melodically static, artists such as Kanye West and Jay-Z have used samples extracted from blues songs as the basis for new music. The lyrics too, are similar to early blues, commenting on personal situations, unjust societies and disillusionment with the urban environments in which the musicians live.

An important point is that music does not exist in isolation. It is deeply connected to the environment in which it is created, performed and listened to. The blues emerged at a particular time, in a particular place as a response to social and economic conditions. Those conditions were very different from the environment in which Mozart’s music emerged just as they were different from conditions today. However, blues music remains an important influence in Western popular music.

This OpenLearn course is an adapted extract from the Open University course A111 Discovering the arts and humanities [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . Take a look at the trailer for this Open University course:

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