The issue with each of these bad notational approaches is that they try to approximate characteristic jazz rhythms with symbols that are rooted in the rather different rhythms of classical music. But real jazz swing rhythms aren’t dotted or 12/8 or triplets, or least they aren’t necessarily any of those. This leads to problems both for composers and performers.

Sometimes a well-meaning composer or arranger will try to approximate a jazz swing style notationally in this way:

This is wrong. Sometimes he or she will take this approach:

Also wrong. So is this one:

The idea of “tripletizing” eighth-note rhythms is especially pervasive, and especially dangerous because it is thrown around so casually by people without background in jazz music. Composers are sometimes guilty of this; so are conductors, arrangers, and educators.

The issue with each of these bad notational approaches is that they try to approximate characteristic jazz rhythms with symbols that are rooted in the rather different rhythms of classical music. But real jazz swing rhythms aren’t dotted or 12/8 or triplets, or least they aren’t necessarily any of those. This leads to problems both for composers and performers.

For composers, using a 12/8 time signature or eighth-note triplets in 4/4 too easily drags the work into a compound-meter feel. And jazz swing is decidedly not in a compound meter: the rhythms are very much duple in nature. Authentic swing almost always has an underlying feel of two notes per beat, even though those notes are not equal in length. Extended or frequent passages with a compound-meter feel (three notes per beat) are dead giveaways of a failure to really absorb swing style.

For jazz-untrained performers, seeing dotted or compound-type rhythms on a page simply doesn’t provide fine enough information to accurately reproduce authentic swing style. It’s perhaps a bit like baking a cake from a recipe with each ingredient rounded off to the nearest tablespoon; the result will approximate a cake but likely won’t be especially successful. And even for the jazz-trained performer, sometimes the dotted or triplety notation can obscure the intended sound, something like typing a sentence into Google Translate, translating it into some other language, and then translating it back into English. (The result definitely loses fidelity.) Or, the poor notation can simply dull or distract from the jazz musician’s more authentic approach.

All of this, of course, begs the question of what precisely is the correct downbeat-upbeat length ratio for a true swing style, if not the 2:1 ratio of the triplety approach or the 3:1 ratio of the dotted approach. That question is larger in scope than I intend to fully tackle here, but I think it suffices to summarize with a few brief points:

  • Firstly, there’s no reason for it to be a mystery or a matter of “opinion;” using very simple technology we can measure exactly what jazz musicians are doing.
  • The ratios, if we measure them, are very, very far from consistent, even taken independently of factors like tempo. (There’s a popular but not-uniformly-supportable idea that the notes swing “harder” [greater ratio] at slower tempi and less hard [ratio nearer to 1:1] at faster tempi.) The precise ratios are an expressive, interpretive matter, and ultimately up to the performers.
  • The rhythms themselves are not the only factors that make swing sound like swing; articulation, phrasing, and other elements are also important, and also beyond the scope of my intended topic here.

What, then, is the best way to notate swing rhythms? I sort of like this one, though it’s not the one I ultimately recommend:

What I do like about the weird grace note approach is that it makes fairly clear the idea that the exact “downbeat” (quarter note) to “upbeat” (grace note) ratio is an interpretive matter. It also evokes what I find to be the most successful method of executing swing rhythms: think in quarter note pulses, and let the upbeats lead to the following downbeats. What I don’t like about this method is that it’s a hassle to write and to read.

My best recommendation is this:

Note the absence of the “two eighths equal triplet quarter-eighth” indication. This way is simple to read and write, reinforces the duple nature of swing rhythm, and doesn’t prescribe a specific ratio. One might hope that a jazz-untrained musician encountering this would seek out some good training or at least listen to some good swing recordings.

Happy swinging.

 

November 8, 2014

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