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The Orchestra Swings with Form

Aim: How does form help musicians swing?
Summary: Students establish an understanding of form and explore A-A-B-A form in “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” and 12-bar blues form in “Duke’s Place,” and write their own blues songs.
Standards: National 2, 4, 7, 10; NYC 1, 2, 3
Vocabulary: blues, bridge, chord, chorus, form, harmonic changes, measure, scale

Musical Form

In music, form is the road map for any piece, providing the overall layout or structure and defining how one section connects to the next. The form helps the musicians stay together and know where they are in the music. Some musical forms are specific to certain styles or periods of music; other forms span many styles and eras. In jazz, as the form repeats and the rhythm section maintains the beat, the other musicians can play the melody and have the chance to play improvised solos.

  • What are some examples of how form is used in your life (e.g., following a recipe, map, or schedule)?

Exploring A-A-B-A Form in “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)”

Taking a Chorus

In jazz, the A-A-B-A form is repeated multiple times; one time through the full form is called a chorus. When a jazz musician “takes a chorus,” it means that she or he improvises a solo over the form of the piece. For example, when you and your students have sung through the entire basic part of “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” you have taken a chorus. In the final concert, we will hear and perform this chorus several times.

Play the track “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” (Washburne) below. You will hear the singer take a full chorus at the beginning, followed by the piano, saxophone, trumpet, and drums each taking a half chorus (the A-A or B-A sections, respectively). To end the song, the singer takes it from the second half of the chorus and “tags” (or “takes us out”) by singing the “doo wah” lyrics three times.

Using Movement to Understand A-A-B-A Form

  • Ask students to sing the A section of “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” and create a movement for that section. Do the same with the B section, eliciting a contrasting movement.
  • Split the class into two groups and have the first group sing the A section while the second group moves, and have the second group sing the B section while the first group moves, switching parts for each chorus.
  • Play the track “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” (play-along).
    • Let’s try it out with the music. Sing along and perform your corresponding A and B movements.

“It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” was one of the first compositions to include the word “swing” in its title. Duke Ellington composed the piece during an intermission at a big band dance performance in Chicago. Legend has it that no one was dancing until he enlivened the mood by introducing this song. The track below—“It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” (Armstrong complete)—features Ellington’s big band along with famous trumpeter and singer Louis Armstrong.

Musicians Play with A-A-B-A Form

  • Play the track “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” (Armstrong complete) below, as performed by Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Find out more about Armstrong and Ellington in Jazz Artists at Carnegie Hall (PDF).
    • Follow the melody in the “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” Sheet Music (PDF) while you listen to how the musicians play with the A-A-B-A form in this version of “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” featuring Armstrong on vocals. (You will hear an introduction before the A-A-B-A pattern, or chorus, begins.)
    • How is the melody different from what you see on the page?
    • Does knowing the form of the piece change how you listen to the music?

Learn About the Blues

  • The blues is the foundation of most American popular music. With origins in the American South, it developed out of many types of African American music, including work songs, hymns, and spirituals sung during the time of slavery. The blues is traditionally a way of singing about your feelings and sharing your story. It has a specific musical form, which is 12 measures long and defined by a set of harmonic changes. The blues is a unique form of musical communication that gives musicians freedom to improvise and swing.
  • Discuss the concept of the blues.
    • What does the word “blues” mean to you?
    • What do you know about the blues in music?

Exploring 12-Bar Blues Form in “Duke’s Place”

  • Play the track “Duke’s Place” (Armstrong excerpt) below. With your students, count out loud the 12-measure form while listening to the piece, modeling for them where each measure starts.
    • The 12-bar blues form consists of three sections of four measures each, totaling 12 measures of music.

Go Deeper

An additional lesson on the blues, “We’ve Got the Blues,” is available in the Music Educators Toolbox.

Composer and bandleader Duke Ellington loved to write music that featured his orchestra members soloing, and “C Jam Blues” is one of those compositions. With the lyrics added, the work is known as “Duke’s Place.” Many famous jazz musicians sang this song, including Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.

Exploring Harmonic Form in “Duke’s Place”

  • Play the track “Duke’s Place” (harmonic changes) below.
  • Direct the students to identify when they hear a harmonic change by raising their hands.
    • Throughout all of these harmonic changes, the melody stays the same.
    • What else do you notice about the music? What about the music is changing?
  • Using the chords found in the activity “Duke’s Place” Listening Map (PDF), introduce the students to the chords that are found in this song.
    • We identified changes in the harmony, or changes in the chords, when we raised our hands just now.
    • Chords are built from a single note, called the root.
    • In “Duke’s Place,” we will hear four different chords, based on the root notes C (I), D (ii), F (IV), and G (V).
    • These chords are played in a repeating pattern called a harmonic progression, or harmonic changes.
  • Play the track “Duke’s Place” (harmonic changes) below while students follow along using the “Duke’s Place” Listening Map (PDF).
  • Play the track again. This time, sing or play the root of each chord for one whole note per measure as you follow along on the “Duke’s Place” Listening Map (PDF).

Go Deeper

Split the class into two groups. The first group can sing or play the “Duke’s Place” melody, while the second group sings the roots of the chords, similar to what the bass would play as part of the rhythm section.

Go Deeper

Discover great blues artists by searching for recordings online and sharing examples with your students. A few suggestions: Bessie Smith, Buddy Guy, Robert Johnson, B. B. King, Muddy Waters, and Ray Charles.


My Musical Form

My Musical Form

  • Choose a time signature and work with the class to create two contrasting rhythmic patterns, labeled A and B, in the activity My Musical Form (PDF).
  • Have the students practice clapping the rhythms while keeping a steady beat with their feet.
  • Divide the class into two groups and assign each group one of the rhythms.
  • Write patterns on the board or in My Musical Form (PDF) (e.g. A-A-B-A, A-B-A, etc.), and have the students perform the patterns, playing their section of the rhythm.

My Blues Lyrics

My Blues Lyrics

  • Students will compose their own blues lyrics, working individually or in groups.
    • Blues are a way of expressing a particular feeling through music. Blues lyrics usually tell a story about everyday life, often presenting a difficulty or problem, and then resolving or commenting on it.
    • Each of the three sections of the 12-bar blues form features a vocal phrase. In the first section, the problem is stated. In the second section, the phrase is repeated. In the third section, the phrase is a response or resolution and rhymes with the first two sections.
  • Using the activity My Blues Lyrics (PDF), review the following instructions with your students.
    • Think about a topic that you want to write your blues about. It could be something hard in your day or something that has been bothering you.
    • Come up with two phrases: one that describes your topic and another that comments on it or resolves it. Make sure that your two phrases rhyme.
  • Example: “Too Much Homework Blues”
    Phrase A: I’ve got so much homework, I’ve got no time to play.
    Phrase A: I’ve got so much homework, I’ve got no time to play.
    Phrase B: Now that it’s the weekend, I can play all day.

Go Deeper

For an added challenge, have students sing their new lyrics along with the track “Duke’s Place” (play-along) below, or with your student-created rhythm section.


Do Your Own Blues Project

Do Your Own Blues Project

  • Composer Courtney Bryan was commissioned by Carnegie Hall to write “Do Your Thing,” a work for orchestra and jazz ensemble, for The Orchestra Swings concerts. Her composition was inspired by the African American ring game “Little Sally Walker,” and features the 12-bar blues. Bryan invites students—individually or as a class—to compose their own 12-bar blues in the key of G.
  • Watch the video Do Your Own Blues Project: Invitation from Courtney Bryan and 12-Bar Blues Demonstration.
Do Your Own Blues

Courtney Bryan introduces her original blues “Do Your Thing,” then provides a backing track for your own blues. Sing along as the band plays! If you play an instrument, watch for the chords in the subtitles as you swing and jam along.

For added fun, record your blues and share it with linkup@carnegiehall.org!

  • Students may opt to include lyrics from the activity My Blues Lyrics (PDF) and may feature any variety of instruments available to them. Below is a basic suggestion for how you might begin to create a blues piece with voice, recorder, or Orff instruments.
    • What instruments will play your blues? Will you use voice, and will your blues have lyrics?
  • Refer to the Blues in G Chord Chart (PDF).
    • As we noticed in the video, the blues in G features harmonic changes with the chords G, C, and D.
  • Play the track “Do Your Own Blues” (play-along) below.
    • Let’s begin by playing or singing the root of each chord on the downbeat of each measure along with the harmonic changes. Let’s now create a rhythmic pattern with the root of each chord and play along with the harmonic changes. If your blues has lyrics, try singing them on the root of each chord.
  • Explore the G blues scale with your students: G, B-flat, C, D-flat, D, F, G
    • What additional notes might we add to our melody?

Downloadable PDFs

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