Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off your first 2 months of Unlimited Monthly. Start your subscription for just £35.99 £24.99. New subscribers only T&Cs apply

Find out more

What is swing?

What is swing?
We said that the 3 characteristic elements of jazz are The Blues, Improvisation and Swing. We’ve been looking at the blues in detail and we know that it’s a word that has sort of more than one meaning really - there’s the blues structure and there’s the blue feel. Improvisation is at the heart of what we are doing in this course - trying to understand that. So I want to say a few words about swing. Again, swing can have different meanings on different occasions. But what are the chief characteristics of swing?
Well take something in classical music like a march - take the funeral march, for example … So if the count is 1,2,3,4: do, do, dodo, do, do, dodo, do, dodo. So in a bar of 4/4 the beats that are emphasised are the first beat and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the third beat - it’s the first and third which are emphasised. Now in a blues … 2,3,4,1,2,3,4. In jazz it’s beats 2 and 4 that are given greater prominence. This is the start of what we call rhythmic displacement - displacing the emphasis from beats 1 and 3 to beats 2 and 4.
If you watch a drummer playing conventional modern jazz say with sticks then they have a hi-hat played by the left foot, bass drum played by the right foot, ride cymbal played by the right hand (if it’s a right handed drummer) and then the left hand plays the snare typically. Usually the right hand is used to, in a sense,
denote the crotchets: ting, tingta, ting, tingta, ting, tingta, ting, would be kind of a typical groove and then the left foot - the hi-hat - is used to mark 2 and 4. So the click is 1,2,3,4 … click, click. Again that’s emphasising the weaker beats. That leaves the left hand and the right foot free and really that is to provide punctuation for the sentences of the tune or the improvisation. So the left hand and the right foot are free to mark things like the beginning of the tune - the top of the tune - maybe in an AABA structure the B structure, maybe every 8 bars there’s something to signal that here we are at the 8 bars.
Then, not only that, it’s used to emphasise and colour the line of the improviser. So the weak beat is emphasised in jazz. It makes it a foot tapping experience - we talk about it “swinging” because we like the idea of the foot tapping. Also the weak part of the beat is emphasised. So if we think of the beat as going 1,2,3,4 - 1&, 2&, 3&, 4& then a lot of phrases start and end on the and … So the and - the up part of the beat - is important, emphasised to give another element of rhythmic displacement.
The other thing that happens, of course, is that underlying jazz is a tripletty feel. We know it isn’t actually strictly speaking - if you play a typical blues - you don’t play it in 4/4 you play it in 12/8, because the … 1&a, 2&a, 3&a. So there’s an underlying sense of 3. It doesn’t mean to say that dividing the beat into 2 is forbidden - it isn’t - that’s part of jazz too. In some sense you could say it’s the tension between the tripletty feel and the quavery feel that helps to give colour and interest to a line of improvisation. So that you are switching between the underlying 3 and possibly the underlying 2 breakup of each beat.
Typically, though, a solo will consist of jazz quavers. Most solos - I guess something like 70% of the solo - are jazz quavers - jazz-inflected quavers in the sense that they rely on the triplet division of the beat.
It’s not just a question of playing jazz quavers - it’s where you play them - where you start them and where you end them and what use you make of space between starting and ending one phrase and starting and ending another phrase. Those are the elements which go on to make interest in the playing.
Swing then means emphasising the weak beats, emphasising the weak part of the beat and, in some sense, comparing and contrasting triplet feels with quaver feels - straight quaver feels. There’s another sense in which people talk about swing and they say a group is “swinging” when the group (say of 3 or 4 or 5 people) have an agreement on the time - have an underlying understanding of the time. If they all, in some sense, subscribe to the same concept of time then, very often, the group kind of lifts up and goes into a different space of creativity and we say the group is “swinging”.
If you’re a musician you’ll know when this happens - you’ll know when everybody kind of locks into the same time frame and you get this sort of, this lift. It’s kind of like the sum of the parts is more than you might expect. We describe that as the group “swinging”.
We want to explore these rhythmic elements a bit more with these sheets due to Lee Goodall and, in particular, make sure that we can do some reading of triplets versus quavers and other phrase shapes too.
This article is from the free online

Learn Jazz Piano: Advanced and Solo Playing

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now