What defines swing as a music genre/style?


Which patterns are commonly found in swing music? Which are swing's key and defining characteristics? What makes a swing song a swing song?

Anton dB

Posted 2015-06-12T05:10:22.000

Reputation: 3 839

1I believe this is answered by the song "It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Swing." – Kyle Strand – 2015-06-16T01:37:34.010



"Swing" refers to a particular genre of jazz music for dancing a specific kind of couples' dance. The style of dancing is called swing dancing, also referred to as the Lindy Hop or the Jitterbug. It is extremely athletic.

The music written for this kind of dancing is associated with the big band jazz ensemble and styles of musical arrangement.

The original era of swing music was quite short. It started in the USA in the early 1930s but it was practically over by the end of World War II, in 1945.

Here is a perfect example from a Broadway movie of the era.


Here is an example of couples swing-dancing in a competition from 2013, accompanied by swing music played by a live band.


Musical definition

For the musicians among you, "swing" has a musical definition that has to do with the way that the beats in each measure are played.

The classic "swing" or "shuffle" rhythm is when the music is notated as pairs of eighth notes, but is played by transforming each pair of eighth notes into a triplet figure, like this:

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The beat-notes (1, 2, 3 and 4) are played strictly on the beat, but are held for longer than their notated value, while the off-beat notes (the "and" of 1, 2, 3, and 4) are shifted to a later point in time, behind the beat, and played shorter.

Bands can vary the degree of the transformation of the note values from "straight eighths" to "swung eighths", playing in a light swing or a heavy swing, for example.

Jazz bands have always referred to the strictly-notated "straight eighths" rhythm by the term ballad, to distinguish it from swing, as in "Hey, guys, this song is a ballad, so don't swing the off-beat eighth notes."


Posted 2015-06-12T05:10:22.000


Lindy hop and jitterbug are separate styles of swing, and "east coast" swing is yet another style. Also, some mention of Dixie Land jazz might be helpful. – Kyle Strand – 2015-06-16T01:38:03.463


Not sure if there's a true scientific answer to this. In my opinion, I think a some of it has to do with the shuffle. This is when a pair of eighth notes, for instance, are played as a sixteenth and a dotted eighth. This brings a gravity to the to the second note. Add to that a leading eighth note, and that third note draws the listener to it. If we repeat the pattern, the leading note draws he listener "up" while the final note draws the listener down or home (usually on the 1 and 3 if we're talking about a 4-beat phrase).... So this up and down gives the rhythm a swinging pattern.

Now imagine playing the two eighth notes as straight eighth notes... very different feel. Not swingy at all.


Posted 2015-06-12T05:10:22.000

Reputation: 139

This question is regarding swing the music genre, not the rhythm dynamic (which I know is part of the swing genre). – Anton dB – 2015-06-12T19:18:30.923

1This answer is spot-on. When you program a drum pattern where you have the ability to add shuffle, there gets to a point when the pattern turns into swing. Playing along to that pattern, you automatically follow the swing and the whole piece becomes "swingy". – Lefty – 2015-06-12T22:44:19.813

Sorry, I see what you mean JC, I misinterpreted your question as "what makes jazz swing" but you meant swing as a sub-genre of jazz, pioneered by the band leaders like Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, and Tommy Dorsey (to name but a few) during the 30's and 40's. In this case, I think what makes a swing song a swing song is that it derives its style from the jazz of this era, generally with a larger band (rather than smaller combos) featuring prominent brass and clarinet as opposed to strings. – Shoeless – 2015-06-12T23:46:56.747

Many swing songs feature vocals, or melody lines that worked like vocals, and in this manner made swing music more approachable to more people.

There are certainly chords and progressions that sound "swingy" so if I pulled out my guitar and played one of these progressions you'd say "yes! that's what I mean!" but I'm not really a jazz player so I can't do that for you :)

But couple this info with my original response and that's a starting point that will hopefully inspire further discussion inside and/or outside of this arena. – Shoeless – 2015-06-12T23:47:03.817

@Lefty The answer is spot-on, but for a different question, not this one. :) – Anton dB – 2015-06-14T18:30:29.570

@Shoeless Thanks for your comments! I do know what swing is, I just felt like it would be a good question to include here. – Anton dB – 2015-06-14T18:34:39.470

1@JCPedroza I still don't understand the question I'm afraid. There's no mention of jazz for example. The shuffle thing I refer to in my comment applies to New Jack Swing as well as Jazz/Swing. – Lefty – 2015-06-14T19:02:46.940

@Lefty Swing is a music genre, like rock or techno or salsa. Those genres, including swing, have a description; a collection of characteristics/patterns that describe them. "What is salsa"? "Salsa music has this, and this, and this, and this characteristic, and here are some examples" I'm looking for those characteristics, and perhaps some examples. An analysis of the genre if you will. See similar questions of other genres on this site for examples. – Anton dB – 2015-06-14T19:11:42.770

@JCPedroza That was my original interpretation of the question. I am a very, very amateur musician, but a number of times in the past I've had a song fully programmed in a computer and have retrospectively added shuffle. In an instant the song becomes swing. I've therefore always assumed that there is nothing else special about swing - it's just songs with shuffle added. – Lefty – 2015-06-14T20:06:41.413

2No, Shuffle or "swing" rhythm is absolutely NOT when two eighths are played as a dotted eighth and a sixteenth. Shuffle is when two eighths are played as a triplet figure where the first note is played as two tied eighth-note triplets and the second note is played as an eighth-note triplet. Thus, shuffle is superimposing 12/8 underneath 4/4 time. The quarter notes stay the same but any off-beat eighth notes are shifted into the 12/8 pattern. – None – 2015-06-15T02:55:47.980

1Thanks Wheat! I can't really read or write music very well, but I was going for the rhythm that you described perfectly... thinking more precisely I realize that my rhythmic suggestion did not include the all important element of "3" which is the key here. JC gets a little bit closer to an answer. Perhaps you can elaborate on your interpretation of what makes a swing song a swing song.... – Shoeless – 2015-06-15T03:11:41.480

@WheatWilliams And sometimes (especially in fast swung rhythms) it's not even triplets--as swing speeds up, it tends more and more towards straight 8ths with an emphasis on the first 8th. – Kyle Strand – 2015-06-16T01:40:34.403