09 - Definitions of Boogie Woogie

by John Tennison — History of Boogie Woogie

The New Harvard Dictionary of Music2, 1986, defines “Boogie Woogie” as “a piano blues style featuring percussive ostinato accompaniments” that involve “steadily repeated bass patterns, one or two bars long” that “delineate the 12-bar blues progression, sometimes with IV in measure 2 or 10.”  This dictionary also states, “Melodies range from series of repeated figures reinforcing the explicit beat (including tremolos, riffs, rapid triplets) to polyrhythmic improvisations.”

In 1987, Smithsonian music historian Martin Williams wrote (page 50)38: 

“Boogie woogie is a percussive blues piano style—no one knows how old—in which an ostinsato bass figure, usually (but not always) played eight beats to the bar, is juxtaposed with a succession of right hand figures.”

Like all succinct attempts to define Boogie Woogie, these are, by necessity, limited in detail.  Yet, they provide a starting place to approach Boogie Woogie, and from which to consider instances that defy these definitions.  (For a more detailed consideration of Boogie Woogie’s formal musical characteristics, see my “Eight Elements of Boogie Woogie” section below.)

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© 2004-2008 John Tennison — All Rights Reserved

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