Blues Music Theory and the Songs of Robert Johnson: Ladder, Level and Chromatic Cycle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Colleges, School and Institutes


The blues is a complex and subtle musical language that warrants careful analysis and sustained debate. There are legitimate concerns with the application of music-theoretical paradigms to blues music, but we should not allow such concerns to undermine all attempts to address the blues as a serious and coherently structured music. This article explores the notions of ladder, level and chromatic cycle as an insightful set of theoretical tools in analyzing the music of Robert Johnson. Key sources in developing this analytical approach are the scholarship of Gerhard Kubik on Africa and the Blues and the spatially-oriented analytical methods of neo-Riemannian theory. The notions of ladder, level and chromatic cycle are explored with close reference to Johnson’s ‘Kindhearted Woman’ and through a more general consideration of the scale-degree content of his vocal parts.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)245-273
Number of pages29
JournalPopular Music
Issue number2
Early online date30 Apr 2015
Publication statusPublished - May 2015