The Great Cut-Time Shift

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.

Radial syncopation

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?

9 thoughts on “The Great Cut-Time Shift

  1. Hi Ethan, I loved your videos “play with your rythm”. Where can I find the links you mention in the videos? I don’t see them at the bottom/ under the video.


    Wim , The Netherlands

    • Hi Wim. Those videos were originally created for an online class, and we have been rearranging the pages. So I’m not totally sure where those links are, to be honest. I’m happy to point you to any specific resources you want to check out, or questions you want answered.

  2. Listen to the old bassist. It’s not confusing if you know notation well. The notation aspect of the notation programs is not the problem; it’s the playback — a real problem, to be sure, but if you can hear notation in your head, you can let it go, because you know your players will play it properly. I highly recommend Ed Gordon’s book “Rhythm: Contrasting the Implications of Audiation and Notation” where he discusses at length the pitfalls of notating rhythm versus how we actually perceive rhythm.

    • If I could hear the notation in my head, what would I need the notation software for? The whole point of writing stuff on the computer is so that you can hear how it will sound. This is why I do 100% of my creative music-making in the DAW: the immediate sonic feedback gives me the ability to work intuitively and freed from cliches. I view notation as a necessary evil, a legacy system that we’re stuck with, like Microsoft Windows. If I want to convey the exact nuance of a groove to someone, I have recordings for that, which work a thousand times better than notation ever could.

      • How do you think Beethoven, who of course had no notation software, continued to compose after becoming deaf? He could hear it in his head. He didn’t need the notation to find out what it sounded like. He used the notation to keep track of his ideas and to convey them to others without having to sing everything to them first. This is not because he was some amazing genius, but because learning to hear notation is a completely learnable skill, attainable by far lesser talents, such as myself. Notation is a mnemonic device for things heard, firstly — much like we learn to speak before we learn to read. Only after we have those skills down can we use notation to get at things we haven’t yet heard. I write to paper first and use the notation software because a) my handwriting is not so nice and b) it makes producing parts much faster, because it’s simply extracted from the score. Yes, I appreciate the feedback from the playback function, but I usually have a fairly clear idea of how things should go before the little black dots appear on the lines. I suspect part of the reason playback on notation software has been so slow to develop is because it was designed by and for folks who have a classical or jazz background and can already hear the notation in their head. Notation is not a necessarily evil — think of all the wonderful music around the world that has been accomplished without it! Notation is a tool, whose strength and weakness lies in what it leaves out. Remember, too, notation developed within a performance tradition, too. Not everything about, say, Baroque music is conveyed on the page, but there is an aural-oral aspect to classical music pedagogy (plus an ungodly amount of research) that is passed down from teacher to student, so that we don’t play Bach the same way we play Brahms or the same way we play James Brown.

  3. I remember trying to program an old BOSS drum machine to do a simple bonehead blues rock beat, this was back in the dark ages. I was pretty OK at programming the thing to get the style of any beat I needed but this started to mess with my head after awhile, thinking I was loosing my mind and not just ignorant to the limitations of my stupid dr. rhythm. I finally gave up but my last attempt at it was sooo hilarious that we recorded a song around it. It sounded like the soundtrack to someone falling down 20 flights of stairs while holding a hi-hat.

    One thing I thought was interesting about this post was that you were talking about the way beats are evolving and the way that software is evolving ….so is it that certain aspects of how the notation software should read is being overlooked? …is there a kind of cultural resistance? …or maybe I’m way off base ….oops!

    love your blog though, so thank you!

    • Musical culture in America is an ongoing struggle between the historical legacies of Europe and Africa. Europe dominates institutions, while Africa dominates everywhere else. Institutions create and consume most of the notated music. Music schools have never done a good job of keeping their finger on the pulse of the wider musical culture; many of my colleagues view their jobs as being precisely the opposite.

  4. When I was making all my cut-time funk charts I got used to thinking of beat three being the backbeat. It got reinforced by listening to lots of 90s drum n bass that would use half time hip-hop breaks now and then. The rhythmic subdivision that’s happening with trap and dubstep totally amazes me. The tuplets are getting to be a big thing too.

  5. This is so refreshing, Ethan. Nobody ever talks about this (particularly when teaching music!), and it’s such an enormous change (and an issue for anyone who tries to notate modern music for live performance).

    I’ve usually seen funk/hip-hop written for live players in 16th notes, with the instruction “Swing 16ths” written at the top. I don’t know how many people care that the software can’t swing it, as long as people can. Even written correctly, I think it’s a pain to read, and that 16ths are harder to tell apart that than 8ths, but maybe I’m just not used to it. Check the wikipedia page on Mensural notation under “Note values” to see how this halving of the pulse has happened before, several time: I don’t know a lot about what was happening in the middle ages as that happened, but I imagine it was weird for the musicians in the same way- the rhythms that were natural for them to hear and sing would have seemed difficult to read and write, since they would have all learned to read music with older white note music.

    The other big change is the backbeat shifting to half time in EDM, right? Backbeat used to always mean 2 and 4, and now there’s a standard half-time backbeat that hits on beat 3. I haven’t seen many handwritten charts for drummers performing beats from EDM styles (glitch, dubstep, etc.) but I would hope that Modern Drummer magazine is full of them.

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