When we study music, we may sometimes forget that music is first a form of human expression, and only second a formal study-subject.
Just as words exist to communicate ideas, music exists (in large part) to communicate feelings.
One of the oldest and most visceral elements of music is rhythm. From the first dances and sticks-clicks, up to today, rhythm speaks to the body.
And one charismatic and upbeat musical expression is called “swing time”, or “shuffle feel”.
What is “Swing Time”, “Swing Feel” or “Shuffle Rhythm”?
“Swing” is a musical term used in two ways. First, it’s used colloquially to say that the music has good forward momentum. i.e. “Man, that really swings!”
More specifically, “swing” refers to a stylistic altering of the rhythm of a piece of music. Instead of playing notes of equal length in a steady rhythm, notes are lengthed or shortened, according to their placement in the beat.
This rhythmic “feel” is common in jazz.
How to Know a Tune is in Swing Time
Music played in swing time are usually written in standard notation and rhythms. However, at the top of the piece, usually by the tempo (speed) marking, will be instructions to play in swing time.
This usually looks like two eighth notes equaling a quarter and eighth to be played as triplets.
How to Practice Swing Rhythms
When first learning the notes of a swing tune, it can be difficult to learn the notes and alter the rhythm all at once. This is especially so for those new to playing in swing time.
The process below can help ensure the triplet (swing) rhythm is precise and consistent.
Step One: Add Notes to Make Triplets
We start with steady eighth notes and the instruction to play in swing time. To the written rhythm we can add an extra note to the first eighth note of each beat. This will create three notes per beat (triplets), with the first doubled.
Note: This step (adding extra notes) will negate any written right-hand fingerings. We can play whatever fingering works in the right hand for this step. We return to the written fingering on step three below.
Step Two: Accent the Appropriate Notes
Next, once we have added the extra notes, we can accent the notes written in the original score. This will usually be the first and third note of each triplet.
Reminder: To play accents, it’s often more effective to play the unaccented notes very quiet, rather than only playing the accented notes louder.
Step Three: Remove the Extra Notes
When we can play the passage with accents, we can remove the extra (middle) notes, keeping the triplet rhythm. This will bring us back to the original notes, but played in precise swing time.
The rests in the example below are for illustration only. We usually hold the first note all the way through to the second, creating a connected melody line.
The Most Common Mistake: Dotted Rhythms
One of the most common blunders playing swing time and triplet rhythms is returning to a 16th note pulse. This means we hold the long note for three 16ths, and the short note for one 16th. This is not swing time, and sounds “square” compared to actual swing time.
The Body and Brain Work Together
Often, once we play a few measures of swing time, we no longer need to count triplets, but instead feel the ongoing rhythm. This is great, and desirable.
If we only use our brains and conscious counting to play the rhythms, they will lack the bounce and lively nature that swing time offers.
If we only use our “feelings” to play the rhythms, we may find ourselves off-kilter and not know how to correct. That said, we should seek to feel the inherent dance swing time contains and bring that to our music.
In this way, we form the perfect union of the visceral and the cerebral. We can be confident, because we have counted and worked through the rhythms in practice.
Having mastered a tune, we can allow the swing rhythm to continue. We can stop counting, guided by our inner rhythm and sense of pulse.
To allow the “body to take over”, we must have practiced and ingrained the notes and rhythms to such an extent that we keep rhythmic accuracy, even if we miss a note or become distracted.
Though sometimes challenging, swing time is good fun. It makes us more versatile musicians, and adds entertaining variation to our repertoire.