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What is Swing?

What is Swing?

Sometimes you'll see words like "with swing", "swing rhythm", "with a swing feel" or "shuffle with swing" as part of the tempo listing at the beginning of a piece of music. Often it will also have this marking: swing

Swing is commonly used in jazz, blues, country, bebop, and pop music, but what does it mean?

With swing, whenever you have a pair of eighth notes sharing a beat, the first note is held longer than the second. The music is written with regular eighth notes, but you don't play them the way they look. Instead of playing them evenly, they are played more like a triplet made up of a quarter note followed by an eighth (as shown above).

Don't let this confuse you. If you're familiar with the songs, you'll probably do it naturally.

Addams Family Theme

Addams Family

Listen to the beginning of The Addams Family theme with swing.

Addams Family Theme with swing

Can you hear that the syllables that are in caps are held longer than the other syllables. That is swing!

Now listen to the eighth notes all the same length, as written, with no swing, and it just doesn't sound right!

Addams Family Theme straight


Happy Together

Happy Together was a huge hit for The Turtles in 1967s. Here's what it should sound like with swing.

26 miles

Happy Together with swing

This is what it would sound like if you played it "straight" as written . . . which is not correct. It really needs to "swing"!

Happy Together straight (incorrect)


26 Miles (Santa Catalina)

Here's an example from 26 Miles (Santa Catalina). "Swing" does not change the value of the quarter notes, just the eighth notes.

26 miles

26 Miles with swing

This is what it would sound like if you played it "straight".

26 Miles straight (incorrect)


Singin' in the Rain

Once again, in Singin' in the Rain, only the eighth notes are altered by the "swing."

Singin' in the Rain

Singin' in the Rain with swing

And here's what it sounds like "straight". WRONG!

Singin' in the Rain straight (incorrect)


Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Here's an example from the beloved Christmas song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer . Listen to the phrases "had a very shiny" and "you would even say".

26 miles

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer with swing

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer straight (incorrect)


Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!

Here's an example from Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow! . "Swing" does not change the value of the quarter notes, just the eighth notes.

26 miles

Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow! with swing

This is what it would sound like if you played it "straight" as written.

Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow! straight (incorrect)


City of Stars

Here's an example from City of Stars from La La Land.

26 miles

City of Stars with swing

This is what it would sound like if you played it "straight".

City of Stars straight (incorrect)


Moondance

In Van Morrison's Moondance, once again, the syllables in caps are held longer than the other syllables. .

Moon Dance

Moondance with swing

Moondance straight (incorrect)


Penny Lane

In Lennon & McCartney's Penny Lane, swing doesn't change the value of the triplets, just the eighth notes.

Penny Lane

Penny Lane with swing

Penny Lane straight (incorrect)


With a Little Help from My Friends

Here's another Lennon & McCartney example: With a Little Help from My Friends.

With a Little Help From My Friends

With a Little Help from My Friends with swing

With a Little Help from My Friends straight (incorrect)


Where can you get this music? Right here!

The Addams Family and Happy Together are in Sylvia Woods' Groovy Songs of the 60s book and PDF.
26 Miles and Singin' in the Rain are Sylvia's new Favorites from the 50s book and PDF.
Rudolph and Let it Snow! are in Sylvia's Four Holiday Favorites book and PDF.
City of Stars is in Sylvia's La La Land sheet and PDF.
Moondance is in Sylvia's 22 Romantic Songs book and PDF.
Penny Lane and With a Little Help From My Friends are in Sylvia's Lennon & McCartney book and PDF.