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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. 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. 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]

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 that "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."[4] Boogie-woogie pianist Maurice Rocco argues that the definition of swing " just a matter of personal opinion."[5]

Jeff Pressing's 2002 article claims that a "feel" is "a cognitive temporal phenomen 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)".[6]

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. 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.[7] "Flow is not about what is being said so much as how one is saying it".[8]

See also


  1. ^ Slang Expressions in Popular Music
  2. ^ Jazz Resource Library - Glossary
  3. ^ What Is Swing?
  4. ^ What Is Swing?
  5. ^ What Is Swing?
  6. ^ WHAT IS SWING? From Bill Treadwell's "Big Book of Swing" published in 1946.|lang_fr
  7. ^ William Jelani Cobb. To the break of dawn: a freestyle on the hip hop aesthetic . 2007. Page 87-88
  8. ^ Ibid. Page 90

Further reading

  • Clark, Mike and Paul Jackson. Rhythm Combination (1992).
  • Middleton, Richard (1999). "Form." Key Terms in Popular Music and Culture. Malden, Massachusetts. ISBN 0-631-21263-9.
  • Pressing, Jeff (2002): "Black Atlantic Rhythm. Its Computational and Transcultural Foundations." Music Perception, 19, 285-310.
  • Prögler, J.A. (1995): "Searching for Swing. Participatory Discrepancies in the Jazz Rhythm Section." Ethnomusicology 39, 21- 54.


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