I’ve been transcribing a lot of beats for the MusEDLab‘s forthcoming music theory learning tool. Many of those beats require swing, and that has been giving me a headache. In trying to figure out why, I stumbled on a pretty interesting shift in America’s grooves over the past sixty or so years. To understand what I’m talking about, you first need to know what swing is. Here’s a piece of music that does not use swing:
Here’s a piece of music that uses a lot of swing:
To create swing, all you need to do is alternately lengthen and shorten your beats. In the Tchaikovsky above, the eighth notes are “straight”–all the same length. In the Ellington arrangement, the first eighth note in each pair is quite a bit longer than the second. That rubbery, sensual feel is one of the core achievements of American music. Here’s a more detailed discussion of swing:
Usually we associate swing with jazz, but it’s everywhere in American vernacular music: in rock, country, funk, reggae, hip-hop, EDM, and so on. For that reason, swing is a standard feature of notation software, MIDI sequencers, and drum machines, though computer swing is more robotic and less groovy than human swing.
Noteflight, the fabulously useful browser-based notation editor, allows you to apply swing at either the eighth or sixteenth note level. This is great, because to my knowledge, no other notation program allows you to do that. Sibelius, Finale and the others only swing eighth notes. This is a problem.
I’ve never had problem with swing when I use sequencing tools like Ableton Live, Reason, and Logic. I looked at those programs more closely, and realized that they all default to sixteenth-note swing. Some of them let you swing eighth notes too, but if you want that, you have to specify it.
What’s going on here? I connect it to a larger movement in America’s African-descended music: a shift of the basic pulse unit from eighth notes to sixteenth notes, a great implicit subdivision of time.Before rock and roll, American popular music drew its rhythms from jazz. Early rock songs continued to use eighth note swing for a good long while. But all pop music from my lifetime draws its beats from funk and R&B, which uses sixteenth note swing. To help you hear the difference, here are two Jackson 5 tunes. The first has an eighth-note pulse, and it sounds like the fifties:
This one has a sixteenth note pulse, and it sounds much closer to the present:
No wonder everyone in pop is so confused as to how long a bar is! The implicit pulse is different depending which era you come from. It’s especially confusing in rock, which spans multiple eras of black rhythm.
If I had to pick a specific date for the tipping point of The Great Cut-Time Shift, I’d go with the release of James Brown’s “Cold Sweat.” Nelson George identifies it as one of the earliest funk songs.
Before “Cold Sweat” (BCS), black music used relatively fast base tempos. After “Cold Sweat” (ACS), the tempos are slower and use finer subdivisions. Miles Davis’ “So What” feels pretty laid back, but it has a base tempo of 135 bpm. That seems remarkably fast to my DAW-trained eyes. By contrast, “Get Ur Freak On” by Missy Elliott feels way higher-energy, but is at only 89 bpm. In more current hip-hop, the base tempo is getting down past the 70s and into the low 60s. Meanwhile, the basic pulse is quickly shifting from sixteenth notes to 32nd notes.
As with so many developments in popular music, the makers of music notation software have not kept pace with the Great Cut-Time Shift. The Sibelius help forums say that if you want sixteenth note swing, you need to just convert to cut time, thus making your chart unreadable.
Many years ago I played in a funk band, and I helped the frontwoman write and arrange the tunes. We worked them out in the computer using loops and samples, and then I made charts and handed them out to the band. The bass player, a much older and more experienced musician than the rest of us, complained that I was writing everything in cut time. I had no idea what he was talking about–I wanted the music to swing, so I wrote it in eighth notes. I did notice that I had to use twice as many measures for the same piece of music in notation as I did in the sequencer, but I chalked that up to my weak notation skills.
I haven’t given the cut-time issue much thought because there’s so little overlap between my notation-based and DAW-based musical lives. But now that I’m transcribing a ton of hip-hop and funk and rock for the first time, the issue is front and center. No wonder rock and pop musicians hate learning to read and write even basic chord charts. It’s confusing as a mofo to know how long a bar even is! The dance world figured out their own solution long ago, which is to sensibly do everything in 8/8 time; thus their “5, 6, 7, 8” countoff. I use “5, 6, 7, 8” with rock musicians a lot, because it clears up the confusion of whether I mean cut or common time.
So what do you say, notation software makers? Want to give us sixteenth note swing? Or better yet, will you take a page from Ableton and Logic and let us swing whatever note value we want? Or should we just continue to not notate our beats and grooves?