Swing (jazz performance style)

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William Parker and Rashid Bakr (1976): Even though the notion of playing with a "sense of swing" is associated with the 1930s-era style of jazz of the same name (the Swing, or big band era), jazz music from any era can be said to have a "sense of swing" or rhythmic "feel."

In jazz and related musical styles, the term swing 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 "swing" is also used to refer to several other related jazz concepts including the swung note (a "lilting" rhythm of unequal notes) and the genre of swing, a jazz style which originated in the 1930s.

As swing jazz was dance music and coevolved together with swing dances such as the Lindy Hop, the term swing can be understood as music that makes the listener want to dance. Even though there is overlap between these concepts, music from any era of jazz or even from non-jazz music can be said to have "swing" (in the sense of having a strong rhythmic groove or feel).

While some jazz musicians have called the concept of "swing" a subjective and elusive notion, they acknowledge that the concept is well-understood by experienced jazz musicians at a practical, intuitive level. Jazz players refer to "swing" as the sense that a jam session or live performance is really "cooking" or "in the pocket."

If a jazz musician states that an ensemble performance is "really swinging," this suggests that the performers are playing with a special degree of rhythmic coherence and "feel." Although referring to a "sense of swing" is often done in the context of ensemble performances (e.g. a jazz combo or band), even an unaccompanied soloist can be said to be performing with "swing."


Like the term "groove," which is used to describe a cohesive rhythmic "feel" in a funk or rock context, the concept of "swing" can be hard to define. Indeed, some dictionaries use the terms as synonyms: "Groovy ... [d]enotes music that really swings."[1] The Jazz in America glossary defines it as "when an individual player or ensemble performs in such a rhythmically coordinated way as to command a visceral response from the listener (to cause feet to tap and heads to nod); an irresistible gravitational buoyancy that defies mere verbal definition."[2] The Straight rhythm is a rhythm that is current like a sequence of the same notes

As a performance technique, swing has been called, "the most debated word in jazz." When jazz performer Cootie Williams was asked to define it, he joked, "Define it? I'd rather tackle Einstein's theory!"[3] Benny Goodman, the 1930s-era bandleader nicknamed the "King of Swing," called swing "free speech in music," whose most important element is "the liberty a soloist has to stand and play a chorus in the way he feels it". His contemporary Tommy Dorsey gave a more ambiguous definition when he proposed that "Swing is sweet and hot at the same time and broad enough in its creative conception to meet every challenge tomorrow may present."[3] Boogie-woogie pianist Maurice Rocco argues that the definition of swing "is just a matter of personal opinion."[3]

Jeff Pressing's 2002 article claims that a "feel" is "a cognitive temporal phenomenon emerging from one or more carefully aligned concurrent rhythmic patterns, characterized by ... perception of recurring pulses, and subdivision of structure in such pulses, ... perception of a cycle of time, of length 2 or more pulses, enabling identification of cycle locations, and ... effectiveness of engaging synchronizing body responses (e.g. dance, foot-tapping)."[4]

Treadwell concludes his introduction/definition:

We could go on and on. And on. But we would travel only further along the Road To Nowhere. What is Swing? Perhaps the best answer, after all, was supplied by the hep-cat who rolled her eyes, stared into the far-off and sighed, "You can feel it, but you just can't explain it. Do you dig me?"

— Treadwell (1946), p.10[5]

A sense of "swing" for jazz artists has analogies in the similarly idealised but indefinable notions of "funk" in funk music, or "flow" in the hip hop scene and music. The notion of a special "feel" (rather than a set of rules) that defines the musical style is common in non-Western music, especially the African tradition. "Flow is as elemental to hip hop as the concept of swing is to jazz." Just as the jazz concept of "swing" involves performers deliberately playing behind or ahead of the beat, the hip-hop concept of flow is about "funking with one's expectations of time" – that is, the rhythm and pulse of the music.[6] "Flow is not about what is being said so much as how one is saying it."[7]

Swing note

Blues shuffle or boogie played on guitar in E major[8] (About this sound Play ).

A "swing note" or "shuffle note" is a performance practice, mainly in jazz-influenced music, in which some notes with equal written time values are performed with unequal durations, usually as alternating long and short. Music of the Baroque and Classical notes inégales era follow similar principles. A swing or shuffle rhythm is the rhythm produced by playing repeated pairs of notes in this way.[9] Lilting can refer to swinging, but might also indicate syncopation or other subtle ways of interpreting and shaping musical time. A blues shuffle or shuffle pattern is a boogie groove.

For example, traditional jazz music is written in 4/4 but played in 12/8. Such music may be annotated "with a swing" or similar, but the swing also may be assumed.

Shuffle notation in straight eighths (in drum set notation[10]) About this sound play 
Shuffle triplet-like performance About this sound play .

In shuffle rhythm, the first note in the pair is exactly twice the duration of the second note. In swing the division is inexact, and varies depending on factors such as how fast or slow the music is, on the genre of music, or the individual tastes of the performer, from almost equal (typically at fast tempos) to almost shuffle (typically at slow tempos).

Shuffle pattern with staggered thirds played on piano[11] (About this sound Play ).

In most styles of music that use swing rhythm, the music is written with straight eighth notes, with an implicit understanding that eighth notes should be played with swing feel. Swing rhythms are sometimes notated using a quarter and an eighth note beamed under a triplet.[12]

In jazz, the verb "to swing" is also used as a term of praise for playing that has a strong rhythmic "groove" or drive. See also swing (genre) for the 1930s-1940s jazz style, and swing (dance) for styles of dance from that same era.


Basic shuffle rhythm About this sound play 

Triplets are used in many styles of music including blues, rock and country.[13] The basic shuffle rhythm is created by "leaving out (resting) the middle note of each three-note triplet group."[13] This "triplet" idea allows composers and improvising soloists to include triplets in the melody without clashing with any rhythm patterns.

In most jazz music, especially of the big band era, and later, there is a convention that pairs of written eighth notes are not played equally—as the notation would otherwise be understood—but with the first longer than the second. The first note of each of these pairs is often understood to be twice as long as the second, implying a quarter note-eighth note triplet feel, but in practice the difference is rarely that pronounced.[14] Swing eighth notes are generally played legato (slurred). Accenting the "and" between each beat slightly is also a common swing characteristic.

Hard swing (3:1): dotted eighth-sixteenth.
Shuffle feel example played straight
3:2 ratio - light swing
2:1 ratio - medium swing
3:1 ratio - hard swing

In true swing feel, the ratio lies somewhere between 1:1 and 3:1, and can vary considerably.

Swing feel is an assumed convention of notation in many styles of jazz. In big band, blues, bebop, and contemporary jazz, swing feel is assumed, unless "shuffle" is explicitly specified in the score. Notes that are not swung are called straight notes.

The subtler end of the range involves treating written pairs of eighth notes as slightly asymmetrical pairs of similar values. On the other end of the spectrum, the "dotted eighth - one sixteenth" rhythm, consists of a long note three times as long as the short. Prevalent "dotted rhythms" such as these in the rhythm section of dance bands in the mid 20th century are more accurately described as a "shuffle"[citation needed]; they are also an important feature of baroque dance and many other styles. Rhythms identified as swung notes most commonly fall somewhere between straight eighths and a quarter-eighth triplet pattern.

Swing ratios tend to get wider at slower tempos and narrower at faster tempos. Miles Davis varied his swing ratios, frequently delaying the first note of each pair of eighth notes by as much as 100 milliseconds and then synchronizing with the drummers short eighth note (the 3rd triplet).

Quarter notes can sound swung when they are played slightly behind the beat, detached, and accented on the two and four, or late on one and three, but closer to the beat on two and four. Phrases swing when they begin between the beats, similar to how straight eighths can swing when they are behind the beat which creates an asymmetrical cross rhythm.


In jazz, this interpretive device is assumed in most written music other than dixieland, latin jazz, jazz-funk (soul-jazz) and jazz-fusion, but may also be indicated. For example, "Satin Doll," a swing era jazz standard is normally interpreted with a pronounced swing rhythm. It was published written in 4/4 time, but at least some versions also note medium swing.

In dance music, swing rhythm generally refers to the meter of the music, rather than to this convention of notation, so any music played with the near-triplet timing (see above) and swing accent will be referred to as swing rhythm however they are written.


Swing is commonly used in blues, country, jazz, 1930s-1940s swing jazz, and often in many other styles. Except for very fast jazz, slow ballads, latin jazz, and jazz-rock fusion, much written music in jazz is assumed to be performed with a swing rhythm. In some cases, publishers specify that the music is to be performed "with a swing." In jazz and big band music, a shuffle is almost always accompanied by a distinctive "cooking" rhythm played on the ride cymbal or hi hat.

Styles that always use traditional (triplet) rhythms, resembling "hard swing," include foxtrot, quickstep and some other ballroom dances, Stride piano, and 1920s-era Novelty piano (the successor to Ragtime style).


In the swing era, swing meant accented triplets (shuffle rhythm), suitable for dancing. With the development of bebop and later jazz styles independent of dancing, the term was used for far more general timings.

Musicians in the jazz tradition prefer to transcribe swing music in a simple time signature and play it with an implicit swing. Musicians in the classical tradition prefer to make the swing explicit by using compound time (usually 6/8, 9/8, or 12/8) or triplets within a duple meter, and play it as written. However, most jazz musicians will dispute whether music played this way truly has a swing feel.[citation needed]

Rosanna shuffle

"Rosanna shuffle"[15][16] About this sound play .
"Basic half time shuffle"[17] About this sound play .
"Bo Diddley beat"/Son clave About this sound Play .

The Rosanna Shuffle is the drum pattern from the Grammy Award winning Toto hit, "Rosanna." It is known as a "half-time shuffle" and shows "definite jazz influence."[18] Featuring ghost notes and derived from the combination of what Jeff Porcaro called the "Bernard Purdie half-time shuffle" (Purdie shuffle) and the variation thereof John Bonham played in "Fool in the Rain" with the well-known Bo Diddley beat.[15] The pattern is notoriously difficult[citation needed]; it was created/originated and played by Jeff Porcaro on the recording. This was the most requested piece to be played and explained at his many clinics, appearances, and Q&A sessions, as well as on his instructional videos.

See also


  1. "Swing Slang", Big Bands Database Plus.
  2. "Jazz Resources: Glossary", Jazz in America, The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 "What Is Swing?", Savoy Ballroom.
  4. Pressing, Jeff (2002): "Black Atlantic Rhythm. Its Computational and Transcultural Foundations." Music Perception, 19, 285-310. Cited in Pfleiderer, Martin (2003). "The Study of Rhythm in Popular Music: Approaches and Empirical Results", Martin Pfleiderer Homepage [German].
  5. Treadwell, Bill (1946). "Introduction: What Is Swing?," Big Book of Swing, p.8-10.
  6. Cobb, William (2007). To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip-Hop Aesthetic , p.87-88. ISBN 0-8147-1670-9.
  7. Cobb (2007), p.90.
  8. Wilbur M. Savidge, Randy L. Vradenburg, Everything About Playing the Blues, 2002, Music Sales Distributed, ISBN 1-884848-09-5, pg. 35
  9. "Blues Shuffle Rhythm". How To Play Blues Guitar. 2008-07-21. Retrieved 2008-07-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Mattingly, Rick (2006). All About Drums, p.44. Hal Leonard. ISBN 1-4234-0818-7.
  11. Starr, Eric (2007). The Everything Rock & Blues Piano Book, p.124. ISBN 1-59869-260-7.
  12. "Jazz Drum Lessons". Drumbook.org. Retrieved 2010-08-10.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. 13.0 13.1 Schroedl, Scott (2001). Play Drums Today!, p.36. Hal Leonard. ISBN 0-634-02185-0.
  14. "Jazz Drummers' Swing Ratio in Relation to Tempo". Acoustical Society of America. Retrieved 2008-07-22.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. 15.0 15.1 "Jeff Porcaro: The Rosanna Shuffle", DrummerWorld.com.
  16. Michalkow, Mike (2008). The Total Rock Drummer, p.64. ISBN 0-7390-5268-3.
  17. Potter, Dee (2001). The Drummer's Guide to Shuffles, p.19. ISBN 0-634-01098-0.
  18. Strong, Jeff (2006). Drums for Dummies, p.183. ISBN 0-471-79411-2.

Further reading

  • Floyd, Samuel A., Jr. (Fall 1991). "Ring Shout! Literary Studies, Historical Studies, and Black Music Inquiry," Black Music Research Journal 11:2, p. 265-28. Featuring a socio-musicological description of swing in African American music.
  • Rubin, Dave (1996). Art of the Shuffle for guitar, an exploration of shuffle, boogie, and swing rhythms. ISBN 0-7935-4206-5.
  • Clark, Mike and Paul Jackson (1992). Rhythm Combination. ISBN 0-7119-8049-7.
  • Middleton, Richard (1999). "Form." Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture. Malden, Massachusetts. ISBN 0-631-21263-9.
  • Prögler, J.A. (1995): "Searching for Swing. Participatory Discrepancies in the Jazz Rhythm Section." Ethnomusicology 39, 21–54.

External links