I’ve played both of these styles of music for many years now, and as a teacher and video tutorial creator I have found that there are some fundamental differences between the two styles. From Beethoven to Ray Charles, music has drastically changed over the years to encompass many different types of music from all over the world.
Blues and boogie woogie piano, like many other styles has classical music at its roots, but is very different nowadays from its humble beginnings.
Here are the main differences between classical piano and blues…
Different rhythms and playing styles
One of the main differences between classical piano and blues is the way the rhythm is played. Classical can often be rhythmic but can also sometimes be very free and expressive. Since the genre of classical music can span over hundreds of years with many different composes and styles of playing, there can often be a large difference from song to song.
When we look at blues and boogie woogie on the piano, you will most likely find that the song is extremely rhythmic and revolves around this constant swing, blues or boogie beat. Boogie woogie is a great example of how the stomping left hand boogie is at the heart of the entire style of music, and without it would sound very different.
When you listen to someone like Jools Holland or Jerry Lee Lewis play boogie woogie, you will notice that the left hand does a huge amount of the work. In essence, the left hand is creating the sound of both the drums and the bass, whilst the right hand could be classed as the lead singer or lead guitarist. This is an important aspect of what differentiates piano blues and classical from one another.
Focusing more on the time signatures we can quickly narrow down blues and boogie woogie to four beats in a bar (4/4). This rhythm of four beats per bar is used in at least 90% of blues and boogie woogie songs. Very rarely will you see anything else, as a time like three beats in a bar just wouldn’t move along at the right pace and fit the style of blues.
You can of course play a bluesy right hand melody over the top of a waltz or three time, but this would usually cross over to the realms of jazz piano and doesn’t tend to work.
Another time which can however be used is 12/8. This is a quaver time signature and it means to play a total of 12 quavers per bar (in groups of three). The reason why this alternative time signature works is because there are four lots of three quavers, and like the 4/4 time signature, you have a similar feel of four beats in a bar.
If you are familiar with triplets you could easily describe a 12/8 time signature as being the same as playing triplets for an entire bar of 4/4. So we can clearly see that these two time signatures will fit with the piano blues style because they are both essentially four strong beats per bar.
Classical on the other hand can of course use any time signature it desires, making good use of two, three and four strong beats per bar. The uniqueness of classical music is that you are free to choose any rhythm you like, and it doesn’t have to be a constant metronome like rhythm which is often heard in blues music.
Melodies, riffs and licks
When it comes to right hand melodies, classical is once again hugely versatile when comparing it to blues music. Classical melodies come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from very simple to extremely complicated. Some of the most famous classical piano songs have very memorable melodies, but you will also find that many piano pieces of this genre are very complicated and difficult to follow with little repetition.
What sets blues music apart from classical is that it is often much simpler in nature, and although you can still play both simple and complicated melodies, the notes that you hear are often a repeat of one another. Classical can use a much more diverse range of notes if it chooses to do so, whereas blues and boogie woogie tends to stick to the same notes throughout, and you can find the same licks throughout the years being repeated over and over again – however often changed ever so slightly to reflect the individual style of the performer.
Similar melodies can of course be found in classical music from piece to piece if you look hard enough for them, but only short extracts can be located. Unlike blues music, classical covers such a huge array of styles within itself which means melodies are often more unique from piece to piece.
12 bar blues
Boogie woogie and blues piano often follows a very simple rhythmic shape and pattern known as the ’12 bar blues’. Many thousands of famous blues and rock n roll songs have been written using a total of 12 bars in the time of 4/4, and so this simple but effective structure became so famous that a song can quickly be called a ’12 bar’, and anyone in a band would know how it would go and could play along.
Classical piano will of course have many different variations of bar structures, and doesn’t stick to mainly just the one like blues music does. Blues music isn’t always structured around 12 bars, but even when it does change it is still usually quite repetitive. Classical music does have it’s own repetition but will usually be more complicated and far longer, with some piano songs lasting for as many as 30 pages taking much longer to play an entire piece.
For more information on how to play 12 bar piano blues, here are two great articles: