Onttech2. What is swing?
Two types of swing
Wikipedia: Swing begins its definition of swing by noticing that there are at least two ways in which the word "swing" gets used in music. One basically means a groove has been established that makes people have a visceral response to the pulse of the music. The other use of swing has a more technical aspect where it refers to a rhythmic musical technique of consistently emphasizing the weak beat or off beat.
“In music, the term swing has two main uses. Colloquially, it is used to describe the sense of propulsive rhythmic "feel" or "groove" created by the musical interaction between the performers, especially when the music creates a "visceral response" such as feet-tapping or head-nodding (see pulse). The term is also used more specifically, to refer to a technique (most commonly associated with jazz but also used in other genres) that involves alternately lengthening and shortening the pulse-divisions in a rhythm.”
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Definition of rhythmic swing
“[T]he swing note, strictly defined, is a triple subdivision of the beat against duple subdivisions. . . . In essence, swing is a rhythmic momentum, a pulsing of the beat created by playing notes written in the same duration as a pattern of long and short.” (bold and bold italic not in original)
“Look at this section of sheet music. On paper, these are all eighth notes, so they should all be the same length. However, when this is swung, every other note (the off beat notes, 2 and 4) is played a little bit longer. (bold and bold italic not in original)
“The most basic element of swing is the swing eighth note. In classical music, a set of eighth notes in 4/4 time are meant to take exactly one half of a beat each. This style is called straight eighth notes. Play a C major scale "C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C" in straight eighth notes. If you have a metronome, set it to 96 beats per minute. Those are quarter notes, "one, two, three, four". Subdivide this in your mind, "one and two and three and four and".
A common approximation to swing eighth notes uses triplets. The basic beats are be subdivided in your mind as "one-and-uh two-and-uh three-and-uh four-and-uh", and you play only on the beat and on the "uh". The first note of every beat will be twice as long as the second. This will sound like Morse Code dash-dot-dash-dot-dash-dot- dash-dot and is far too exaggerated for most jazz purposes. Somewhere in between straight eighth notes (1:1 ratio between first and second note) and triplets (2:1 ratio) lie true swing eighth notes. I cannot give an exact ratio, however, because it varies depending on the tempo and the style of the piece. In general, the faster the tempo, the straighter the eighth notes. Also, pre-bebop era players often use a more exaggerated swing than later performers, even at the same tempo. No matter what the ratio, the second "half" of each beat is usually accented, and beats two and four are usually accented as well. Again, the amount of accent depends on the player and the situation.
There is also the issue of playing behind or ahead of the beat. When Dexter Gordon plays, even the notes that should fall on the beat are usually played a little bit late. This is often called laying back. It can lend a more relaxed feel to the music, whereas playing notes that should fall on the beat a little bit early can have the opposite effect. Bassists often play slightly ahead of the beat, particularly at faster tempos, to keep the music driving forward.
Not all styles of jazz use swing in the same way. Most Latin jazz styles and many fusion and modern styles use straight eighths, or eighth notes that are only slightly swung. Shuffles and some other rock styles use very exaggerated swing. Listen closely to recordings in different styles, paying attention to the differences. Do not be fooled into thinking that swing is a universal constant. (bold and bold italic not in original)
Relevant factors for swing
In the very first issue of The Jazz Review (November, 1958) author Mimi Clar explains in "The Negro Church: Its Influence on Modern Jazz" some of the relevant factors for playing jazz music that swings.
“Existing at the core of both modern jazz and Negro church music is the phenomenon known as swing. Basically a rhythmic entity, swing may be thought of as a relaxed, loose, flowing musical force—a liquid movement. This movement is achieved in two ways: first, by retarded entries and delayed attacks of notes (in other words, the performer plays a shade behind the strict metronomic beat of the music so that this beat becomes an exterior force which pulls the music after it;) second, by the simultaneous presence of tension and relaxation in the player—that is, the player makes an effort to relax in order to maintain the loose flow of the rhythm, yet at the same time he is on edge in order to avoid a structural disintegration of the rhythmic and melodic phrases (which would occur were he to play too far behind the beat or were he to anticipate it).”
“The framework most conducive to the swing of Negro church music and modern jazz is that of a steady metric pulse over which have been super-imposed rhythmic and melodic patterns of a syncopated nature. Ideally, the tempo of this metric beat should not be too rapid. The more it is increased the less swing will result. At faster speeds, relaxation becomes overbalanced by tension; so, too, do delayed note attacks and entrances become more difficult for the performer to execute.”
“Swing, however, is more than a technical matter. It is vitally concerned with the state of mind of the player—the feeling and inspiration within him which he is able to communicate to the listener. Were swinging merely a mastery of a rhythmical exercise, the performer would be able to perfect this exercise until it was well within his grasp, much in the manner that a pianist practices and eventually excels at scales. But because a performer swings one night does not guarantee he will do so again the following evening. There is an interplay of the emotions of the player —with those of the listeners, with those of the other musicians, and with the conditions under which the music is being presented—that produces this intangible and elusive quality of swing. When a performer does manage to swing, the rhythm, melody, harmony, timbre and phraseology of his music unite through emotional inspiration to form a coherent whole. During this time, execution becomes effortless and the single elements of the music seem to integrate naturally and logically by themselves.” (bold and bold italic not in original)
Examples of non-swing and swing
For an excellent example of a musical passage first played without swing and then played with swing syncopation that really demonstrates what swing can add to a musical performance, listen to David Megill's examples of Jazz Interpretation.
At the Hepcats website it is claimed that there are artists, songs, or even genres that occasionally can swing, depending on the song, both jazz and non-jazz:
“Jazz Vocalists/Crooners: Many of the greatest jazz vocalists and crooners came from the big band era, to include Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Tormé, Anita O’Day, Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee, et al. Almost all of them toured with big bands and many went on to have major success during the post-war era. Though it isn’t easy separating jazz vocalists and crooners from traditional pop singers, those in the jazz vocalist/crooner arena delivered sophisticated and innovative variations of the material, both in performance and in recordings. They often declined to record the generic pop hits of the day and preferred to work with talented arrangers, such as Nelson Riddle and Billy May.
1940’s/Early 50’s Pop Vocalists: This was a transitional era, bridging the big band sound with popular music before the tidal wave of rock and roll. In some ways, this era was bland, simplistic and void of real artistic merit. The explosion of Rock & Roll ended this era, but many of the artists adapted and continued successful careers not only in music but in television and the movies. The music in this era encompasses a wide range of artists, such as Nat King Cole, Johnny Mercer (also a gifted songwriter), among others.
1940’s/50’s/60’s Rhythm & Blues (R&B): Evolving out of jump blues in the late 1940’s, R&B laid the groundwork for rock & roll. R&B kept the tempo and the drive of jump blues, but its instrumentation was sparer and the emphasis was on the song, not improvisation. During the 1950’s, R&B was dominated by vocalists like Ray Charles and Ruth Brown, as well as vocal groups (sometimes known as “Do Wop” groups) like the Drifters and the Coasters. Eventually, R&B metamorphosed into soul, which was funkier and looser than the pile-driving rhythms of R&B.
Sam Cooke-Greatest Hits: Sam Cooke was one of the most influential soul singers of the late 1950’s/early 60’s. Early in his career he was a very successful gospel singer. He entered popular music with the song “You Send Me”. This song was a huge success, melding the elements of R&B, gospel and pop music into a then new and still developing sound that eventually became soul music. Some of his best songs include “That’s It, I Quit, I’m Movin’ On”, “Twistin’ the Night Away”, and for a great ballad, “Nothing Can Ever Change This Love I Have For You”.
Lou Rawls: Rawls was a very versatile performer. As a singer, he was at home with gospel, early R&B, soul, jazz, blues and contemporary pop music. He had several television and movie roles to his credit and even served as an Army paratrooper (which I can relate to!) in the 1950’s.
1950’s Rock & Roll: The 1950’s in music (or 50’s) often refers to the early but definite beginnings of Rock & Roll music. Early Rock & Roll drew from a variety of sources, to include Jump Blues, Rhythm & Blues (R&B), country, gospel, traditional pop, jazz, and folk. All of these influences combined in a simple, blues-based song structure that was catchy and generally danceable. The first wave of rock & rollers — Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Bill Haley, Gene Vincent and Carl Perkins — set the standard for those that followed.
There was also a “Rockabilly Revival” of 1980’s, dedicated to replicating the style and sound of the classic 1950’s rock and roll. Though there had always been bands that played rockabilly, the Rockabilly Revival didn’t hit its stride until the post-punk era, when a number of new bands picked up the sounds of rockabilly. The first rockabilly revival culminated with the success of Brian Setzer and the Stray Cats in the early 1980’s, first in Europe and then in the U.S.
Chuck Berry: For the 1950’s Rock & Roll (R&R) genre, the most important artist is Chuck Berry. Indeed, Chuck Berry is considered by many to be not only the father of R&R, but its greatest songwriter and one of its greatest guitarists and performers. Many artists, to include the Beatles, Elvis, the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, among many others, have noted the huge influence of Chuck Berry on their music. Without Chuck Berry, there would be no R&R music as it developed and exists today. And as noted earlier, Berry was greatly influenced by jump blues artist Louis Jordan (“I identify myself with Louis Jordan more than any other artist”). What made Chuck Berry so unique? It was a combination of factors. His songs had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of fresh, new lyrics that spoke to a generation tired of the bland and boring songs of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s pop music genre. Berry’s music had a sound that appealed to a cross section of society in the 1950’s, both black and white. His music also had a distinct sound that was not easily copied and covered by other pop singers (i.e. the way Pat Boone copied and covered songs by Fats Domino, Little Richard, etc.). So many of Chuck Berry’s songs are considered classic Rock & Roll, including “Roll Over Beethoven,” “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “You Never Can Tell,” and “No Particular Place to Go.”
Bill Haley & the Comets: Although Chuck Berry is rightly considered the father of rock & roll, Billy Haley is a close second. Bill Haley & the Comets was one of the first groups to successfully combine Rhythm & Blues (R&B) and western swing with a bit of country boogie and jump blues into a rock & roll sound that is now generally known as rockabilly. Haley wrote much of his own material. The group’s classic numbers include “R.O.C.K.”, “See You Later, Alligator”, among others.
Rockabilly, early 1950’s rock 'n' roll: There are a number of recordings on the market that capture the 1950’s rockabilly, early 50's rock 'n' roll music for artists such as Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, among others.
"Modern" Swing Music: includes KJRO, Mora's Modern Rhythmists, the Jonathan Stout Orchestra, etc. (bold not in original)
- Wikipedia: "Swing," 1st paragraph.
- UExcel Introduction to Music: Study Guide & Test Prep, Chapter 9, Lesson 1: "Elements of Jazz: Swing, Syncopation, Styles & History," at Study.com.
- 'A Jazz Improvisation Primer, Marc Sabatella, "D. Jazz Fundamentals 2. Swing," November 1, 1992.
- "The Negro Church: Its Influence on Modern Jazz," Mimi Clar, "Rhythm," Part 1, The Jazz Review, Vol.1, No. 1, (November, 1958), 16-17.
- "Swing Music," Hepcats, click on "Other genres of music with some swing," Mark and Mary Richardson.