Musicians: the effect of "swinging" the beat?

I was talking to a guitarist friend, who asked me about swinging. I could offer the easy definition - instead of playing directly on beat, you come in slightly ahead of behind the beat. I even found a page on swing that included this paragraph:

but I am having trouble describing the effect that swinging the beat has (besides pushing your fedora to a cocky angle and snapping your fingers). Does it propel the song forward?

What is a good way to describe the effect of swinging the beat?

And let’s just put the kibosh on any little asides related to that other type of swinging right now.


It isn’t “playing slightly ahead of the beat”. Your friend may be thinking of syncopation.

It’s just a slight tweaking of the steady pulse of (usually) eighth notes.

When you’re playing straight, not swinging, the eighths are completely steady and mathematically equal to each other. When you swing, however, you stretch the first eighth note and then make up for it by squishing the next. Repeat ad inifinitum.

A really heavy swing stretches the first eighth so it’s almost like a dotted-eighth-sixteenth figure. But a very subtle swing only stretches the first note slightly.

I hope I’ve explained it in lay terms. Maybe I haven’t succeeded.

By the way, the sheet music would be written out straight, but with the word “swing” written in at the top.

Jpeg - all good stuff - I offered a much-truncated version of that definition when I talked with my friend. But a definition of what it is does not help me explain what it does - if you were to explain to a non-musician what the effect of swinging the beat, how would you do it?

In technical terms I would define it as almost have a triplet feel. That’s not very exact, but it gets the point accross.

I’m a trained musician and have been so for more than 30 years. As such, I can honestly answer that question with a hearty Huh?

What do you mean by the effect? Higher taxes? A propensity to smoke weed? Dance fever?

Ahead of the beat…no, that’s syncopation as JJ says (sort of).

If anything, there is a feeling in jazz to lag almost imperceptibly behind the beat (lay back).

Swinging typically divides a major beat division (like 1…2…3…4…) into thirds instead of halves, and most notes are played on the 1 and the 3 of this minor division (this is much easier to show in note form!).

Swing is sometimes written as dotted eighth followed by a sixteenth, but this will divide the major beat into fourths, not thirds, and is more correctly described (and played) as a shuffle. Usually what happens is the musicians instinctively transform written even eighths (2 minor beats per major) or dotted-eighths+sixteenth into the same thirds pattern for performance.

Rarely does the actual pattern played match the written notation in this respect. A pedantic form of this notation would require a 12/8 measure instead of a 4/4 one, or a forest of triplets. Both kinds of notation are quite clumsy.

Here’s a good description, although I take issue with their use of the word “irregular”. It’s very regular, it’s just not evenly divided.

Swing music also has accents in different places from classical music, like a backbeat (accent on 2,4 instead of 1,3) as well as accents on syncopated notes.

Makes it hip, dude. Not square, Daddy-O. Un-L7, ya dig? :cool:

What I mean by “effect” - how do you explain to a person with no musical training how a swung beat sounds? I can provide the rhythmic definition, I can cite songs (obviously a strong way to go), but if I can’t name a song, what is the best way to describe what swinging the best does for a song? Why do musicians swing the beat?

As a musician, I feel like I understand all this from a musical perspective, but am having trouble explaining it to a less-musical friend…

Musicat - that’s the way I understand it, but it doesn’t do my buddy much good!!

Play them the same passage a few times with and without swinging.

Because it does not mean a thing if it does not do what you describe.

Amost, not quite. Exactly, yes.

However, to temper my response, I found it intriguing that the first serious computerized drum machine I ever used, the Alesis D1 (which incidentally I helped design, but I didn’t write the internal program) had quantization options to divide the major beats into other fractions than thirds – described as ratios (thirds would be 2:1. I don’t recall the ratios, but there were several variations (like 2.2:1, 1.8:1, I think).

Since I never heard of a live musician using or thinking in other ratios, it puzzled me why those were included.

I haven’t looked closely at any rhythm machines or programs since, so I have no idea if they offer the same options today. Any electronic drummers around who can answer that?

And Wordman, sorry I can’t be more helpful, but it’s like…you know…if you have to ask what the blues is, you will never understand it. Swing can be broken down into a raw analysis, but it all comes down to a feeling that is hard to define. Play some good swing tunes for your friend and see if that helps.

Singing it or tapping it out is probably the best way to show him.

I read somewhere–perhaps Downbeat Magazine–that the true ratio is about 3:2, but even that wasn’t exact.

ultrafilter - that’s cheating. And yes, I’ve done it, but am personally curious about finding words that can articulate the sensation of knowing the difference.

BBVLou - you berry funny. :slight_smile:

Musicat - interesting anecdote and yep, I know what I am asking for is hard and ultimately should be heard and felt to be understood. Nevertheless, I perservere…

Hmmm - how about: A military or standard beat gives each beat equal weight. A swing beat emphasizes some beats - with the rest squished up in service to the bigger beat. Like a Rat Pack cat, a swung beat makes you want to snap your fingers to emphasize that bigger beat. It opens up the music, too - so your ears are ready for different phrasings, more conversational solos and daring departures from standard melody. A swinging beat makes you want to find its bigger beat and bop your head along with it - it invites you into the beat in a way that a standard beat doesn’t.

I am just improvising here, but can you see where I am going? Does this have parts in it that work?

Or, to quote Professor Peter Schickele, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that Je ne sais quois.

You are confusing ratios. The ratio of a triplet to a duplet is indeed, 3:2, exactly. Think of it as two sets of notes played in the same elapsed time – one set, 3 notes, is played in the same time as the other, 2 notes. They start and end simultaneously.

But the ratio of one note’s duration to the following note’s duration (assume 1/4 note gets one beat) could be 1:1 (even eighths) or 2:1 (swing triplet feel) or 3:1 (dotted eighth+sixteenth). Other ratios as I described in the drum machine section have no equivalents in standard music notation (which doesn’t say they aren’t used, just there is no conventional way to write them on paper).

I think we’re defining ratios differently. By 3:2, I mean that the first note gets 3/5 of the beat, and the 2nd note gets 2/5.

Interesting choice of terms, but you’re making progress! :slight_smile:

Here’s a very simple example and I’ll try to use songs everybody knows. Think of Henry Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk,” or “Peter Gunn Theme.” Both are very even-eighths…da, da, da, da, etc.

Then think of “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” or “In The Mood.” These songs are swung, with a triplet feel. “Pardon me, boy…”

Note that all these examples can be called jazz. Jazz, while often thought of as swinging, but it doesn’t have to have a triplet feel to swing. I know, I just made this discussion more complicated, but that’s the way it is…

Or stick with Mancini. Pink Panther theme, anyone?

Seriously, the easiest way to demonstrate the difference would be to play a rock song for your friend, a typical enough song in 4/4 “straight” time, and then play a cover of the same song, done in a swing style. Paul Anka recently released an album of big band swing covers of popular rock songs, and the New Morty Show and Richard Cheese have based careers out of performing rock, pop, and even heavy metal and rap as big band swing or Vegas lounge-style covers. It would be so much easier to demonstrate the hard-to-quantify difference in feel by playing two versions of the same song.

If so, then you are using one of those odd ratios I mentioned for the drum machine.

No live musician I ever played with thinks of it as 3:2, but 2:1, and there is no written notation system I know of that uses that ratio. Your ratio would require mental division of a single beat into 5 parts, a highly unusual number in (at least Western) music.

No, Sir, I believe the ratio we want is 2:1. At least if you want to swing in MY band! :slight_smile:

On preview, I see you are Hank Mancini fan, too. “Pink Panther,” good swing example, and a little more modern than “String of Pearls.”

Does anyone remember a rock song ca. 1960’s, called “For Your Love”? Can’t remember the group; think it was part of the post-Beatles British invasion (Dave Clark Five??). It included the same tune played, alternately, even-eighths and swing. If you can dig this one up, it would be a good illustration.

Tell that to Dave Brubeck.

True, no performer thinks 3:2 while swinging, but I’ll bet it actually turns out to be some odd ratio that’s not as simple as 2:1.

That’s what I meant before by “heavy” swing. A heavy swing like 3:1 really lengthens the ratio. A 3:1 swing would essentially be dotted-eighth-sixteenth.

A 2:1 would be “straight” triplets. 1:1 is, of couse, totally straight eighths.

but somewhere in between 1:1 and 2:1 is 3:2, which you might call a sort of “light swing”.

Again, nobody actually thinks about the ratio when they’re playing, they just do it “heavy” or “light” or whatever.