It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing

Today is the Fourth of July, and I can’t think of anything more patriotic than a post about our most significant contribution to world musical culture: swing. The title of this post refers to the classic Duke Ellington tune, sung here by Ray Nance. Check out the “yah yah” trombone by Tricky Sam Nanton.

The word “swing,” like the word “blues,” has multiple meanings, depending on context. Swing is both a genre and a technical music term describing a certain rhythm. The two are related, but the rhythm has long outlived the genre.

Swing, the genre

In addition to Duke Ellington, the usual reference points are Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Django Reinhardt. People sometimes use swing to mean big band jazz, but there are plenty of small groups who play swing. Also, there some noteworthy big bands that play non-swing styles, like the one led by Dizzy Gillespie, and the ones on the Miles Davis/Gil Evans albums.

As for singers in the swing genre, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald are the two leading lights, though Ella absorbed a lot of bebop into her style as she went along. Louis Armstrong made his name in Dixieland but sang plenty of devastating swing-style music later on. The albums he made with Ella Fitzgerald are, well, words fail me, just listen.

In the late 80s and early 90s, there was a style of hip-hop-inflected R&B called New Jack Swing. It has nothing to do with jazz except for a shared affinity for swung eighth notes — more on that in a second. Think Janet Jackson, Michael Jackson from Dangerous onwards, Prince, Teddy Riley, Babyface, basically everything I liked on the radio in junior high school.

Swing, the technical music term

When musicians talk about swing, they’re referring to something specific: alternately making eighth notes longer and shorter. The idea is related to (or possibly descended from) notes inégales in classical music. To swing, you make the first eighth note in a given pair longer, and make the other one shorter. The further you stretch the eighth notes away from their metronomic values, the more you swing.

We popularly associate swing with soul and feeling, so it may come as a surprise to you to learn that drum machines can swing. All drum machines (and their software equivalents) have a setting labeled “swing” or “shuffle.” When the knob is at 0%, you get straight (metronomically even) eighth notes. If you set the knob to 100%, you get a swing feel so exaggerated that the first eighth note in each pair is twice as long as the second. If the swing knob is at 50%, the first eighth note in the pair is one and a half times as long as the second.

This all may seem abstract when described verbally, but it jumps right out when you hear it. First, listen to a hip-hop pattern with the swing set to zero:

Now, here’s the same beat with the swing knob set to 70%.

The difference becomes even more clear when you see a side-by-side comparison of the two drum patterns as they appear in the MIDI sequencer. Each red box is a drum hit. The top row is the kick drum, the middle row is the snare, and the bottom row is the hi-hat. Because the hi-hats play on every eighth note, their swing is especially obvious.

Sixteenth note swing

Notating swing

Classical music notates swing like this:

Classically notated swing

This notation shows the sound of the swing knob on the drum machine set to 100%, so the first eighth note is twice as long as the second. That’s the most extreme form of swing, and in real life, you rarely use that much. Even the 70% swing I used in my example is a little over the top for my tastes. But classical music notation has no formal method of acknowledging different levels of swing.

Since swing is critical for most jazz styles, you’d think that its practitioners would have developed a more sophisticated notation for it. Instead, jazz handles the problem by just not notating swing at all. Swung eighth notes are written exactly the same as straight eighth notes. The chart might have a direction written on it like “light swing” or “medium swing,” but more likely it just won’t say anything. You’re expected to be able to apply the right amount of swing by ear. The notational ambiguity in jazz can be an advantage, since different musicians swing by different amounts, even when playing the same material. Historically, the trend since the 1930s has been to use less and less swing. Count Basie used more swing on his rendition of “April In Paris” than Thelonious Monk did.

Some jazz styles don’t use swing. Latin and bossa use straight eighth notes just about exclusively. There are a lot of straight eighth notes in funk too.

The emotional meaning of swing

Musicians don’t just stretch their eighth notes for no reason. Swing has a specific emotional effect. It’s hard to put into words, so here’s an example. First, check out “Dance Of The Sugar Plum Fairy” from The Nutcracker.

This is as straight as music gets. Now here’s Duke Ellington’s version, swung heavily.

What’s going on in Ellington’s version that isn’t in Tchaikovsky? Duke is more soulful, but that word won’t help you if you don’t already know what it means. Duke’s version is also sexier, but while sexiness and soul are closely related concepts, they aren’t identical. Duke’s version feels more “African-American,” but that isn’t very edifying either. Plenty of white people swing just fine — country music uses just as much swing as jazz does. There’s even a whole subgenre of country called Western swing, as exemplified by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys.

So why do I like Duke’s music so much better than Tchaikovsky’s? I think the answer has to do with the rubberiness and stretchiness of swing. Listen to the drums at the beginning of Duke’s tune. They sound like a heartbeat. This is no accident. Your pulse swings, especially when it’s slower — in its “lub-dub” rhythm, the “lub” is longer than the “dub.” Perfectly straight eighth notes sound mechanical. Nothing biological keeps time steadily and accurately. Swing feels more like the rhythm of life.

This is not to say that only swinging music is good. I did feel that way during certain points in my jazz education, but am past it. I like plenty of mechanical-sounding music exactly because it’s mechanical-sounding. And good jazz musicians keep tight metronomic time while they swing — the eighth notes might be stretchy, but the quarters are usually right on the grid.

Or are they? My buddy and sometime jazz collaborator Leo Ferguson maintains that the best jazz musicians swing their quarter notes too. He says that Charles Mingus sounds so much better playing walking quarter notes than your average bassist because Mingus subtly alters their timing to produce a kind of meta-swing. I’m sure Leo will weigh in with some thoughts on this in the comments.

Swing is not syncopation

Non-musicians sometimes use the words swing and syncopation interchangeably, but they’re totally different concepts. Syncopation means accenting surprising beats within the bar. For example, you expect to hear accents on the downbeat; you can syncopate by playing accents an eighth note before or after the downbeat. Swing is something you apply to every beat in the bar, not certain specific ones.

People mix the two concepts up because musicians who use the one will frequently use the other. Ellington, Basie and the rest of the musicians mentioned above all use syncopation heavily. But you can have swing without syncopation and vice versa. Freddie Green, the guitarist in Basie’s band, hardly ever used syncopation — he played a steady “chunk chunk chunk chunk” on every quarter note — but he swung like crazy. Meanwhile, if you go see an Afro-Cuban band, you’ll hear wall-to-wall syncopation but probably no swing at all.

Future swing

The big band sound is mostly relegated to history, but swing is alive and well in electronic music. House music is defined in part by its swing. Old-school hip-hop used a lot of heavy swing —  an example is “The Show” by Doug E Fresh and Slick Rick. Hip-hop producers have been dialing back the swing since the mid-90s, and the eighth notes are mostly straight now.. But even when the drum machine is set to 0% swing, rappers will frequently swing a little in their flow anyway.

I’ll close with “Swing Set” by Cut Chemist of Jurassic 5.

See also a post about groove.

9 thoughts on “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing

  1. “The further you stretch the eighth notes away from their metronomic values, the more you swing.” I must respectfully disagree (and you might too, since I feel this statement contradicts what you said about swing not being syncopation). In my opinion this is exactly what I don’t think swing is. Take the limit as deviation approaches infinity and one eighth note becomes non existent and the other one becomes a quarter note, assuming pairs of eighth notes are constrained to sum to a quarter note, and then you have exactly just quarter notes played in straight time which is not swing.

    What you referred to as swing when giving examples of 65% swing etc. would be what I call lilt, which is just giving paired eighth notes different values which are constrained to sum to a quarter note value. Drummers who deviate too far are said to have a “lilt” in their playing and are failing to swing. If you fail to deviate at all, you are playing straight again and not swinging. If you deviate in the limit then you’re back to straight and not swinging. Just deviating more doesn’t make you swing.

    Deviating exactly the RIGHT amount so that it makes the music FEEL as good as possible is what swing is to me. The deviation that corresponds to the best feel and the most swing is situation-dependent, and is influenced by factors like tempo, audience expectation, and other things which I can’t seem to formalize, like the feelings one interprets from other band members and the audience.

    In short, I’m saying contrary to what Leo wrote above (and really, who am I to disagree), there is only one category in my opinion, which is the way of life category he described above. In my humble opinion, there is only the feel-centric improvised swing. In music this is mainly a rhythmic thing. In life it’s the “flow” of connecting with another human, or executing the perfect mountain biking line, or getting in the zone to solve a tough problem at work, or when a surgeon makes the perfect set of decision during an emergency surgery, or whatever it is Messi does when he’s playing soccer. Swing, funk, flow, (as the wikipedia article talks about) are all part of the same category here. In jazz, swing specifically just refers to constantly fine tuning your rhythms in real time and in response to the other musicians and the audience. Just my humble two cents.

  2. 100% swing notation has the first eighth note being 3 times longer than the second eighth note. 50% is 2 times longer.

  3. That Janet Jackson video you posted isn’t an example of swing beat. They’re all straight subdivisions.

    • I guess that’s true. It swings some but not a lot. I’m going to swap it out with some Bobby Brown or something.

  4. Pingback: Ethan Hein on “Swing” | Leo Ferguson

  5. Ok, here we go! SWING!!! No topic could be closer to my heart.

    First off, brilliant as always. I won’t even bother detailing all that I love here. Just assume it’s everything. 

    I’ll quibble slightly with the inclusion of Billie Holiday as a “swing” singer — but that’s neither here nor there. I would add Chick Webb to the list of seminal swing artists (yay drummer-bandleaders!) as well as the WWII-era swing bandleaders, Glenn Miller chief among them. But also Fletcher Henderson, Harry James, Lionel Hampton, Lucky Millender, etc.

    Another important side note is that the rise of swing coincided (or was responsible for) with the meteoric rise in popularity of jazz. And thus a large influx of money, and with it a more pronounced racial animus and resentment as white artists gained national acclaim and earned fairly vast sums, while black artists were often limited by ghetto-ized and segregated distribution channels and performance venues.

    Ok, enough about the genre! On to the good stuff.

    Swing, with a capital “S.”

    So, Ethan, you are very deliberate in teasing-out swing from other confusing factors such as syncopation. (And equally precise in separating “sexiness” from “soulfulness.” Fanstastic!)

    And that is a great and valuable foundation for me to slop all this stuff back together. You point out the difference between “swing” the genre and “swing” the technical term. I’d like to insist on a third category. A category that I’d argue is perhaps the most important. “Swing” as a way of life. Swing, the Transcendent-Quixotic. Swing, the reason to have jazz at all. Swing, with a capital “S.”

    So, swing, along with the blues and improvisation, are the defining characteristics of jazz. It’s not that every piece of jazz has each of these element. But by and large, jazz as a genre is defined by music that at least refers to these elements. (Btw, by the blues I mean not necessarily the chord progression, but the blues scale and [harder to define] “blues feeling.” See:

    I think that most jazz musicians would agree with this. But when we musicians talk about swing being the underpinning of the art form, we’re talking about a goal, rather than a technique. Our goal, in playing good jazz, is to Swing. Hard. A lot. Ideally, more than anyone else ever has or ever will again. Until we get up and do it all over again.

    And swinging a lot doesn’t mean playing our eighth-notes really, really far apart. So immediately, we are dealing with another animal entirely. This third meaning of the word is the one I’m talking about from here on in. And it’s the one that I think most jazz musicians and appreciators mean, instinctively if not deliberately, when they use the term. I don’t think that what Duke intended by that song was, “It don’t mean a thing if it doesn’t have have two eighth-notes played in the time of a triplet.”

    Swing with a cap “S” is swing writ large. It is the propulsive, exciting feeling that gives jazz its raison d’etre; that separates “good” jazz from “bad” jazz and that frankly makes me want to get out of bed in the morning. 

    Swing in this sense has a variety of technical components operating at any given time. But what makes it so utterly beautiful is the incredible more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts-ness of it. Just as jazz is itself more than just a collection of musical phrases being played simultaneously by a band, Swing is an endless roller-coaster of tension and release, naked energy and interior blues-yness, cool and strain, mediated by a whirling feedback-loop of excitement from on and off the bandstand.

    And, like all genre-feels — my weird term, for lack of another, for the exciting texture, specific to a style of music (swing in jazz, “dude, that rocks!” in rock, the funkyness of funk, the in-the-pocket dance-yness of a great hip-hop beat) — like all genre-feel, it can be an acquired taste. We often have to become acclimated before we can become excited. Though once it’s in us, it becomes second-nature and, as far as I know, it’s impossible to un-learn.

    So what are the components of swing writ large? In this context, swung eighth-notes are just one tool in creating that propulsive feeling. In addition, musicians rely on syncopation (placing emphasis in unexpected rhythmic spots), cadence (essentially the creative use of cliche and expectation in melody) and blues-based licks and riffs, which convey a special feeling intimately linked to swing in a jazz context. All of these elements are deeply intertwined — in any given two or three measures of music, a soloist may swing her notes with great feeling in a bluesy cadence ending with an accent on an unexpected beat. 

    As a musician plays, they make thousands of tiny and large decision a minute. Like the eyes of a driver, we cannot actually take in everything around us at once. So we flit from concern to concern — developing a melody or phrase; creating an overall feel or tone; adjusting our volume or tempo to fit with the rest of the band; and adjusting our accents and eighth-note feel to maximize Swing. And like the mind assembling a picture of the road from a driver’s darting eyes, these shifting priorities blend together a few beats at a time, coalescing into a cohesive, logical musical statement that swings. Ideally.

    This is what I meant about Charles Mingus (or Art Blakey) being able to swing quarter-notes. They were constantly pushing or pulling the tempo, slightly adjusting the timing of their beats to create the most possible tension given an ostensibly steady pulse. In Mingus’s case, he also had cadence working for him. And he had just about the most “swinging” style of cadence (what a bassist might term “note selection”) any bassist has ever demonstrated. He seemed to be able to divinely intuit the precise note or sequence of notes to produce the most swinging effect.

    But this idea is key: (good) jazz musicians are thinking about swing constantly. And in the rhythm section (the drums, bass and piano or guitar playing underneath a soloist), we probably think about swing a couple times a second. Seriously. Or at least we should. We are engaged in a constant, fluid feedback loop — trying new ideas and seeing if they make the music swing more or less, and then adjusting.

    So that swing becomes almost a platonic ideal: easy to envision but impossible to achieve. A gleaming plane of perfect jazz, shimmering like a mirage; dangling bait-like; always just out of reach. Every bar we reach for it, and every bar we fail. And each time we have so much fun that we hit the downbeat thrilled to try again.

    Let’s look for a moment at those technical underpinnings. So, we know that small “s” swing is about unequal eighths. The drum machine-as-explicator is especially useful here. Think of a drum machine’s grid running underneath a jazz musician’s solo or a drummer’s ride cymbal pattern. The precise spacing of those notes, and the consistency with which a musician adheres to that grid plays a huge role in defining an individual musician’s style of swing. 

    In the example in your post, you use a 2:1 ratio for a swung eighth as a starting point. But that precise ratio is as much an individual fingerprint of a jazz artist as the tone of their horn or the weight of their touch on a keyboard. And for a drummer, the choice is particularly interesting, since our inherently staccato instruments really take the note-inegales part out of the picture. We are simply talking about how far apart we play our short, sharp notes — not how long the first is compared to the second. Two examples with diametrically opposed approaches are Elvin Jones and Tony Williams. They’re interesting in part because though their ages differ, they both came to prominence at the same moment, Tony with Miles’s quintet in the 1960s and Elvin with John Coltrane at the same time. But also, where many jazz players slip back and forth subtly between straight (unswung) eighth-notes, triplet eighths and dotted-eighth-plus-a-sixteenth rhythms (especially at different tempos), Elvin and Tony adhere almost slavishly to their respective grids.

    Elvin’s time was almost entirely based on a triplet grid. Everything he did maps onto an ongoing stream of eighth-note triplets. However, he delighted in ornamenting and contradicting this triplet feel to the point that it became an iconic, utterly personal rhythmic landscape, unique to Elvin Jones and instantly identifiable. He inserts layer after layer of nested tuplets, injecting duple and sometimes odd subdivisions back into the mix. And even more nefariously, he often uses the hi-hat and bass drum to imply a constant triple meter underneath 4/4 time, or a duple meter underneath 3/4 or 6/4 time. The result — that triplet swing with the constant intrusion of “unrelated” or “chromatic” subdivisions — is like a schizoid boogie-woogie undergoing electroshock. (

    By contrast, Tony Williams, heavily influenced by his teacher Alan Dawson, builds his swing on a bluntly sixteenth-note based grid. Tony was not as tied to his conception as Elvin — his mercurial creativity would never stop him from trying whatever sprang to mind for a particular tune. But when he played triplets, they were barely triplets. And it was almost as if he were triplet-phobic — far more likely to play un-idiomatic  quarter notes or straight-eighths than bend to jazz convention. Forever locked in an even more explicit battle with be-bop drumming than Elvin, the excitement of Tony’s playing often stems from his tremendous judo match with swing. Determined to swing, but almost completely unwilling to do it using the expected bag of tricks. 

    Listen to Tony’s playing on the classic Wayne Shorter composition, Footprints, on the Miles album, “Miles Smiles.” ( At the very start of the tune Tony displays his incredible triplet-phobia. He starts with broken but almost comically straight eighth-notes on the ride cymbal, rapidly switching (0:24) to a rhythm that mocks the triplet ride beat by mashing a splattered, bouncing series of grace notes in where the “triplet-y” part of the triplet would go. He alternates between these two approaches for a while.

    When the band double-times the “B” section at 0:59, Tony just plays his “normal,” completely metric high-tempo sixteenth notes. Not a triplet to be seen. By 1:36 or so into the song he is playing straight-eighths on the cymbal and quarter-notes on the toms.

    But it is at the 1:56 mark that Tony hits upon his masterstroke for the song — the ultimate subversion of traditional swing. As the song is in 6 — a triple meter — Tony smoothly modulates into a polyrhythmic 4 on top of Ron Carter’s quarter-note bassline. The effect is electric. And crazily swingin’. 

    And an intellectual tour de force. The ride cymbal pattern he settles into is a perfect inversion of triplet-based swing. Having merely avoided it for the beginning of the song, here he demolishes the very concept. Where Elvin’s swing (or Philly Joe’s or Kenny Clarke’s, etc.) is based on a grid of triple time laid on top of four  beats that implies a 6:4 polyrhythm, Tony creates the perfect bizzaro world version. His beat adds an even four atop the composition’s six, creating a pulsating 4:6 polyrhythm (or technically 8:6 I guess) in which Tony can swing his ass off without ever having to play a cursed triplet. Not one!

    Ok, I can’t spend too much more time now, and I’ve spent too long off in this cul de sac of my favorite drummers of the ’60s. So I’ll just sum up. These guys — and not just drummers but every member of a jazz group — uses a variety of techniques to achieve Swing. In addition to crafting beautiful and emotive melodies, they imbue those melodies, basslines, comping riffs and ride cymbal patterns with swing feeling. And through group effort the whole band swings. Swung eighth-notes — whether a triplet or more distended sixteenth note pattern — are a key part of that. But it is a constantly evolving combination of rhythmic and melodic intuitions and devices that create the full Swing effect. 

    Driven, most importantly, by the Will To Swing! The powerful, gut-feeling desire to constant push the energy up and up like a great dj at a dance party, a rapper freestyling progressively denser, dope-r rhymes or Jimmy Page mutating a riff into ever more baroque and badass form. This “need for Swing” is the real key to swing feeling. If for no other reason than it makes people like me listen to jazz, as opposed to some other form of music. Without that desperate desire to shake-booty instilled in me by Louis Armstrong and his descendants, nothing anyone does on the bandstand means a thing.

    • Wonderful read!

      I’m just starting to appreciate jazz and it was hard for me to put the pieces together and your post really put things into perspective.

  6. Pingback: Ethan on Swing | Leo Ferguson

  7. Pingback: links for 2011-07-04 « links and tweets

Comments are closed.