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.
Classical music notates swing like this:
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.
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.
See also a post about groove.