Mind the swing!

Introduction - Swing bigbands

If you have ever played in a bigband with Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Buddy Rich, Glenn Miller or are currently a member of a radio bigband, thanks for popping in. But you can go home now.

But for those of who have already tried to play a swing tune with their brass ensemble and found that swing element to be rather elusive despite long and tearful rehearsal sessions, please read on: chances are that you will finally understand what it takes.

Mind the swing

"Mind the swing" shouldn’t be taken as a warning, but rather point out how "that swing" enters our lives. "Swing" is a sober stylistic indication that appears at the top of the score. From that point on, everything is different when we look at our part.


This, for instance, is what one part of the intro to "New York, New York" might look like: there are essentially quarter and eighth notes.


If you listen to the original melody, you immediately notice a discrepancy between what you see in the score and what you hear: while all quarter notes seem to be in the right places, something odd is happening with the eighth notes.

This ostensible mystery is solved by another indication sometimes found alongside the "Swing" term:

Swing notes

To the right of the tempo indication (63 half notes per minute), you see two eighth notes that are to be considered eighth-note triplets and whose first two parts should be tied to a quarter. This indication thus requests "ternary phrasing" for the piece at hand. "Ternary phrasing" is key to playing swing tunes the way they should sound.

Binary und ternary

The "ternary" notion could be considered the opposite of "binary". These terms refer to the rhythmic distribution of the notes (a.k.a. "phrasing").

"Binary" and "ternary" refer to numbers:
Binary= two (bi)

Binary notes

A quarter note can be divided into two eighth notes of equal length.
Here’s how you need to count: one - and - two - and - three - and - four - and...

Ternary= three (as in tertiary)

Ternary notes

In ternary rhythms, quarter notes are divided into eighth note triplets, i.e. three syllables of equal length if one were to count them:
one - a - and - two - a - and - three - a - and - four - a - and...

Feeling the swing

Often, problems regarding swing phrasing are laughed away with remarks like: "That’s something you need to feel..."
Some musicians indeed believe swing to be a "feeling" that cannot be quantified in musical terms. Fair enough, but that doesn’t help us come to grips with swing pieces. Besides, all musical genres only really become music"”and artistically meaningful"”if the "feeling" is right.

I’m not saying that the "feel" part is altogether preposterous, though, yet it refers to the triplet-based (ternary) rhythm hidden behind the time signature. This basic feeling needs to become second nature"”you no longer need to think about it, it should come from your guts. And the only way to achieve that is...

Practice, man!

One good exercise would be to set the metronome to ±60BPM and to tap eighth-note triplets on your thighs. Start by alternating between the left and right hand, then complete triplets with your right and left hands, and finally two taps with your right and the third tap with your left hand. Once you have it nailed, you can increase the tempo.

Ternary and swing

Once you manage to dissolve quarter notes into three eighth-note triplets, applying a swing phrasing will appear a lot easier. As a reminder, this is the score’s tempo indication:

The first two eighth notes thus need to be tied to a quarter-note triplet. Now just imagine for a minute that the second eighth-note triplet is simply the continuation of the first, while the third is played again. There is an easy tapping exercise that will help you come to grips with this: start the metronome and begin tapping eighth-note triplets. Use your right hand for the first, omit the second, then tap the third with your left hand. The next step would be to perform this with one hand.

The conclusion we draw from this exercise is that the eighth notes that appear on the score have different lengths: the first lasts to thirds, the second one third. All eighth notes that fall on a beat are the "long ones", while the others are only half as long as the "long" ones.

"It don’t mean a Thing if it ain’t got that Swing"

is a song written by Duke Ellington in Chicago in the early 1930s, is probably the first tune with the word "swing" in its title.

In order for us to get the "swing", ternary or swing phrasing as a rhythmic element alone is not enough. We still lack the appropriate articulation.

1. The long eighth note is always played broadly. It has no end of its own, but stops when the following tone begins.

2. The tone after the short eighth note is played without tonguing not triggered, means, the short eighth note (the + - eighth note) is softly played such as [gelöscht] the letter "D" or the "N" would be articulated triggered. The following tone is tied. Even if these ties are not noted, they should be played, unless otherwise requested.
The effect is that the short eighth notes act like a start function for the following tone. For the correct swing understanding, it is helpful to imagine that the short eighth belongs to the following tone: +1 ...

3. If there are no other instructions, quarter notes are played with a short accent.

Closing remarks

To finish off this workshop, I took the liberty of reposting the initial example. This time, however, it contains all the phrasing and articulation marks discussed in this workshop.

So now the only thing that’s missing is: listen to some bigband swing!

See you soon.

Keep on swinging (like you know you should!)

Jürgen Wieching


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