The great Duke Ellington penned a song, “It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing” and most musicians live by that credo. It has to have a groove. But in his day, it literally meant swing. So what is “swing” really? Benny Goodman, the King of Swing said it was “free speech in music.” But my favorite definition was provided by Fats Waller, who replied when asked, “Lady if you gotta ask, you’ll never know.” I think that unless the listener is very young, we all know it when we hear it.
As you can hear, it is a two-element beat when an accented longer note is rhythmically paired with a shorter one. Here is what Logic Pro X’s Score Editor thinks I played:
But that is neither correct or sight readable. If you put that in front of a pop/jazz musician, his/her eyes will cross, because it won’t look at all like what is expected to be seen, and if you put it in front of a Classical musician, they will try to play exactly that, and man, it sure will not swing!
Here is how it is traditionally written:
But surely that isn’t correct? Those are straight 8th notes, not swing. But as I say, that is how it came to be notated when most popular music had some degree of swing, back in the ‘30’s. 40’s, and even after that.
What it actually is, however, is this:
Again, no player really ever wanted to have to sight read that, so the convention came into place of writing straight 8th notes with the understanding that this was what was intended.
Shuffle VS Swing
Shuffle is a variant of Swing where the first note is generally hit a little harder and the second note is shorter.
Again, Logic Pro X’s Score Editor sees it as this:
But players want to see it written this way:
When Swing Doesn’t Really Swing
If you have ever attended a wedding or bar mitzvah, then you have probably heard some swing music that was kind of bouncy, sort of Swing, sort of Shuffle, but somewhere in the middle. (Think “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” or “Can’t Smile Without You.”)
It used to be referred to as Society Band music and the dance generally performed to it is known as a Foxtrot. Nowadays, you might see it called MOR (middle of the road) Swing. On sheet music, you might see it written as this:
Sometimes however, there is no difference in the way it is written other than musicians either already know or are instructed to “play less jazzy.” (Yes, bandleaders have literally said that to me.)
If you want to listen to a great example of the essence of Swing feel in a more modern context, while it is not technically Swing, check out Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” from his “Songs In The Key Of Life” album.