Is jazz swing triplety, or not?

person playing the piano

The most important rhythmic concept in jazz is swing, an intentional unevenness of note lengths. In jazz swing, downbeat notes (and rests) are long, and upbeats are shorter and later. This phenomenon isn’t represented well by classical musical notation, but sometimes it is approximated like this:

Or like this:

The examples assign the downbeat notes a length exactly 2 times that of the upbeat notes—the triplet quarter note is twice as long as the triplet eighth, or, in other words, the swing ratio is 2:1.

The debate over swing ratios

The triplet method of explaining swing rhythm is unpopular with many jazz musicians and educators, who insist that a triplet-like 2:1 ratio is incorrect. Most of them, if pressed, are unable to provide a better ratio or formula. Instead they insist on the importance of listening to jazz to aurally absorb the “correct” ratio (or system of ratios, perhaps varying with tempo), or propose that swing can only properly be “felt” rather than explained.

There are a number of things that these musicians and educators are correct about: a triplety ratio isn’t necessarily correct, and listening is important.

What these otherwise fine folks sometimes get wrong is the idea that swing can’t be measured or analyzed. In fact, it has been extensively measured and analyzed by a number of scholars, and some useful generalizations can be made. (If you want to dig into the research, an excellent place to start is the article “Preferred swing ratio in jazz as a function of tempo” by Anders Friberg and Andreas Sundström, published in TMH-QPSR, volume 38, no. 4, 1997.)

Some helpful swing generalizations

  • In general, yes, a swing ratio of 2:1, triplet-style, works fine for many situations, particularly at moderate tempos.
  • It’s fairly common for swing ratios to increase (something like 2.5:1 or even higher) at slower tempos. A higher ratio could be described as “swinging harder.”
  • It’s also common for swing ratios to get lower at faster tempos (like 1.5:1). This could be described as “not swinging as hard” or maybe playing “straighter.”
  • However, jazz performers’ ratios vary, depending on factors that are perhaps best summarized as “personal taste.” And, yes, the best way to develop this informed taste is by listening to and internalizing a lot of great jazz.

It might be helpful for classically-trained musicians to consider how they interpret something like a grace note—its individual placement, length, emphasis, etc. depend on many factors, and a “swung” eighth note’s interpretation is similarly complex.

Happy swinging!

Make your musical lines sing and dance

man wearing blue jeans doing pirouette spin

In “classical” and related kinds of music, we are often asked to make our instrumental music sing or dance. In fact, most music of this type should do one or the other.

Singing-type music may be labeled as such with markings like cantabile or vocal-ish titles like “Aria” or “Chanson.” Or it may be characterized by notational features like long, slurred lines. In any case, playing through the melody, you can probably intuit whether it is song-like (or dance-like).

To give your musical line a singing quality, focus on making long, smooth, elegantly-shaped phrases. They should sync with the underlying pulse without drawing attention to it.

Dancing music might have titles named after dances, like “Waltz” or “Bourée” or “Rumba.” Or they might include high-energy articulations like accents or staccato.

To make your lines dance, bring out the meter, by creating a sense that the beats are not all equal. This might be indicated in the notation with accents (dynamic, agogic, tonic, etc.). Or it might require some brief research into the kind of dance: for example, a quick search will show you that a Sarabande is generally in a slow three, with stress on beat 2. Some dances have rhythmic characteristics like clave that puts stress on certain subdivisions of beats.

If your music seems to have an unspecified dance-like quality, start by bringing out the typical hierarchy of beats: in 4/4, for example, beat 1 is the strongest, beat 3 the next-strongest, beats 2 and 4 less strong, and the “ands” weaker still.

It’s common for a multi-movement piece to have both song-like and dance-like movements, and even for both approaches to appear within a single movement or short piece.

Here’s just one excellent example of singing vs. dancing in instrumental music. Listen to ToniMarie Marchioni and Jacob Campbell play the beginning of the first movement (“Aria”) of the Dutilleux oboe sonata, and notice the smooth, shaped, singing oboe lines that overlay the pulse without emphasizing it:

Now skip ahead to the beginning of the second movement (“Scherzo: Vif”) and notice how the oboe line is accented, bringing the pulse to the forefront in a dance-like way:

The next time you pick up your instrument, ask yourself whether the music should sing or dance, and what you can do to make that happen.

Make a better marking

pencil lead in shallow poto

In lessons and ensemble rehearsals, I frequently ask students to mark in something they missed—an accidental, a stylistic nuance, a breath.

Sometimes they tell me they already marked it. They assure me they will get it right the next time.

As you might guess, I am less than convinced. The marking didn’t do the trick this time, so why should it work next time? Or next week? Or in the performance, when you’re playing under pressure and with distractions?

If the marking you made didn’t work, do a better one. Can you make it…

  • …more visible? Maybe beefing up that faint little pencil stroke will help. If you’re concerned about marks you might want to undo later, make photocopies and mark those (or go digital).
  • …clearer in meaning? Circling a note you got wrong doesn’t add any information to the page. Instead write in the sharp you missed, or a reminder of what key you’re in, or even the note name if that helps. You can use symbols if you will be 100% clear on what they mean (even under pressure), but don’t be afraid to use words.
  • …earlier? If you keep forgetting to do the crescendo in measure 32, consider putting a reminder in bar 28 that it’s coming up. That gives you an extra moment to process it mentally and be prepared before the crucial moment arrives.

Every marking should make your playing better. If it doesn’t, change it!

Why you should use a scale sheet

My university students take a scale exam covering all the major and 3-forms-of-minor scales, plus arpeggios, in all 12 keys, memorized. In preparation, I provide them with a scale “sheet,” with all of the scales and arpeggios written out note by note.

There’s a part of my brain that objects to this, since I don’t really want scale playing to be a reading exercise. My students should be able to work out the notes for each scale from several different angles, by using (for example) interval patterns, transposition, and/or playing by ear. And the true goal is muscle memory—the ability to play all these scales on auto-pilot, without relying on any particular thought process.

The scale sheet shouldn’t be a crutch, but can it be helpful? I think it can. Here’s why:

If I’m working on a complicated repertoire piece or étude, I will certainly work from a piece of printed music, even if I intend to memorize it. Besides the printed musical information, the paper (or digital) copy also gives me a place to annotate the music with hints to improve my performance.

A scale sheet can work the same way. It’s not merely for laying out all the notes, but also for marking in:

  • preferred fingerings, articulations, etc.
  • current playable metronome markings
  • unresolved problem spots
  • some tracking/tally of which scales I’ve practiced lately (I find that if I let myself choose scales “randomly” to work on, I end up choosing the same ones repeatedly, and completely neglecting others)
  • indications (stars? check marks? smiley faces?) of progress and successes, that might help me feel motivated to continue

If you’re not using a scale sheet of some kind, I suppose you could figure out an organized way to write this information in some other document, but it’s hard to beat the convenience of the scale sheet.

As a teacher, I provide scale sheets with the ranges, rhythms, articulations, fingerings, and so forth that I want my students to use. You should produce your own, by hand or with the commercial or free music notation software of your choice. (Hint: use the transpose function to turn one key in to twelve, and minimize the chance of errors.)

Happy practicing!

What really went wrong? Leaning into problem spots

photo of man touching his head

I have a recurring teaching challenge with my saxophone students who are tackling the altissimo register for the first time. They play a passage, and when they get to the altissimo note, if it doesn’t respond perfectly, they immediately stop playing. When I ask why, they look puzzled. “The note didn’t come out.”

“Well, what did come out?” I might ask.

More puzzlement. Sometimes I have to prompt them to play it again, and remind them to play it long enough to really hear it.

“A weird honk,” they might finally conclude. Or “a terrible squeak.”

“That’s a note,” I point out. It might be too low (honk) or too high (squeak). But it has a pitch, right? It isn’t the note we wanted, but it was something. And understanding what something it is helps us know what to try next. If it was a honk, the instrument responded at a too-low partial, and if it was a squeak, it responded at a too-high partial. There’s work to do to fix it, but we’re much farther along than we were the diagnosis was only as specific as “failure.”

This approach is helpful with a variety of woodwind-playing problems. Don’t bail and declare failure at the first appearance of a problem. Try leaning into it. What does the problem really sound like? Can you make the problem happen again, on purpose? If you change something about your approach, does the sound change (even if it just changes to a different problem)? All of this information is potentially useful in finding a reliable, repeatable solution.

Additionally, this approach encourages an attitude of curiosity and exploration, rather than self-judgment. That’s a much more fun and productive way to practice. It lets you finish your practice session eager to try again tomorrow, rather than dreading more failure.

Run toward your problem spots, not away from them, and see what they can teach you.

Making every marking audible

music notes

When my students work on études (musical pieces intended for study but not performance) I stress with them the idea of making everything on the page audible. That means that if I were unfamiliar with the étude but a skilled transcriber, I could listen to my student play, and write down with confidence every:

  • Pitch
  • Rhythm
  • Articulation
  • Dynamic marking
  • Tempo change
  • Breath mark
  • Expressive marking, like “dolce” or “pesante” or “broadly”
  • Title or form indication, like “Aria” or “Folk Dance” or “Rondo”
  • And any/all other words or symbols left by the composer/editor

Sometimes it’s easy to get wrapped up in the pitches and rhythms and ignore or gloss over some of the other markings. But all of them have to be executed in a clearly audible way (otherwise, what are they there for?). If a performer technically tongues some notes but they sound slurred, then they weren’t tongued right. If some notes are marked with horizontal accents (like >), and some are marked with vertical ones (like ^), then they have to sound audibly different from each other. If the composer indicates that a certain passage should be played “dolce,” then it needs to sound audibly different from passages that don’t have that marking.

In performance repertoire, I do think there are (rare) cases when it makes sense to ignore or alter the composer or editor’s markings. But well-edited études (my students most commonly play Ferling or Rose) are an excellent opportunity to practice making each and every marking meet the ear with clarity and precision.

Practice fewer notes

printed musical note page

I can’t remember where I picked up this tip, but it has been a game-changer in how I practice technically-challenging passages. (If you know a source, please let me know!)

The idea is this: practice only as many notes as you can keep in your head. So, if I’m practicing an unfamiliar passage, and can only memorize the first 3-5 notes at a glance, that’s the size of chunk I should practice.

If the music has an obvious or familiar pattern, such as a common scale or arpeggio, I might be able to memorize more of it at a glance, so I can practice a larger chunk. Or, as I get increasingly familiar with the piece, I might be able to hold more of it in my memory at once, and can graduate to longer passages.

It’s tempting to practice in larger chunks, but start smaller at first to really develop your muscle memory. Gradually build to larger segments as you are able to store them in your short-term memory.

The wallpaper effect

white capsules on yellow background

Sometimes I see “challenges” similar to this posted on social media sites: can you find the letter J in the image below?

Of course you can. It’s not at all difficult. (But if someone online can convince you that it is, and that you’re one of the “special” few who can do it, then maybe you will “share” or “like” or whatever.)

Human brains are highly attuned to patterns. I’m not a brain scientist, but I suspect that’s why we like nice steady tempos so much. Dance music (from the Western Classical tradition to Country and Western to EDM) tends to have rock-solid pulses that make us want to move our bodies. Unsteady or inconsistent tempos? Not so much.

Have you ever been in a room with badly-hung wallpaper? A little gap or crookedness is immediately noticeable, and annoying.

In musical performance, little inconsistencies in patterns can be similarly distracting. Whether it’s a bebop tune or a baroque sonata, a tempo that varies when it shouldn’t is bad news. So is an unsteady trill, an uneven run, or off-kilter vibrato. An imperfection in the pattern breaks the spell.

While most kinds of music do place value on organic, human, dynamic elements, those need to be balanced against consistent, steady technique. For most of us, that means some long hours with the metronome, training our bodies to move predictably and unerringly.

To help your performance feel good, and get your audience tapping their feet, make sure the wallpaper is hung with care and precision.

Jazz education and the “ya gotta listen” cop-out

brass drums

It’s an article of faith among jazz musicians and educators that listening to jazz is crucial to learning to play jazz. This seems obviously true to me about jazz and about any style of music.

(Doubtless one of the reasons the jazz-initiated like to bang this drum, so to speak, is because most of Western music education is so notation-focused. The “classical” tradition has developed hand-in-hand with a notation system that does a pretty good—not perfect—job of breaking down classical music sounds into visual symbols. That system, unsurprisingly, works less well for non-classical styles like jazz. But jazz music is still often expressed in classical-type notation, with some kind of caveat, explicit or otherwise, that the player must apply some significant additional stylistic know-how that will override the usual meanings of some of the notation.)

But one thing classical music educators have done in their few hundred extra years is codify and explain many (not all, and not all well, and not all in agreement) of their stylistic and interpretive ideas. In jazz education, too often important details get waved away with a “ya gotta listen.”

“Ya gotta listen” to classical music to play it well, too. But there’s also more clear, thoughtful pedagogy available to help you know what to listen for, and how to apply it.

If you are a jazz educator and find yourself dodging questions or glossing over concepts with a “ya gotta listen,” can you add something to the picture? Try saying instead, “Ya gotta listen to how Cannonball Adderley ‘lays back’ in this particular phrase. He plays some notes later than expected in a way that sounds good. Listen a few times to see which notes, and how late.” Or: “Ya gotta listen to how Freddie Hubbard plays ‘outside’ over this turnaround. Can you figure out which scale he is drawing from? Where exactly does he resolve back to playing ‘inside?'”

How long would it realistically take for an unguided young musician to listen to jazz until they had fully absorbed the nuances? I used to feel pretty overwhelmed and hopeless when teachers three times my age with thousands of well-worn records told me I wouldn’t sound better until I had really listened. Luckily I had others who were willing and able to accelerate and focus my learning by giving some direction and context to my listening.

If you find that you have difficulty explaining some of the things you want your students to listen for, there are resources available to help you and them boil things down to understandable concepts. For improvisational theory, you might try free YouTube videos (or additional paid content) from teacher/players like Chad Lefkowitz-Brown or Aimee Nolte. For style, consider books like those by Caleb Chapman and Jeff Coffin or Ray Smith.

And yes, ya gotta listen.

Jazz and classical musicians’ concerns about jazz playing

man playing saxophone

Recently I asked some questions on social media related to (self-identified) non-jazz musicians playing on jazz or jazz-adjacent gigs. This kind of thing might happen, for example, at a symphony pops concert, or a big band gig in a smaller market.

A number of concerns were raised about this, but two stood out.

  • Self-described non-jazz players overwhelmingly expressed misgivings about having to improvise in these situations.
  • For jazz players, asked about having to play a gig with non-jazz musicians, none of them expressed concern about the non-jazz players’ improvisational ability. They were overwhelmingly concerned with style (mentioning specifics like swing, articulation, and inflection).

I think for a non-jazz player, being asked to improvise is understandably frightening. But I’m hard-pressed to think of a situation like this where improvisation would be strictly required. For example, if your local pick-up big band has some jazz players and some non-jazz players, it’s a simple enough matter to pass the improvised solos off to the jazz players. (And there are plenty of big band charts with written-out solos.) If I’m hiring for the gig, I’d certainly rather rearrange the solos than put somebody in a situation that will be to their embarrassment and mine.

But everyone on the gig needs to be prepared to do good section playing. I’ve been in the frustrating situation of trying to lead a section (from the lead chair or from the director’s stand) with players who aren’t tuned into the conventions and nuances of swing, articulation, and inflection. Often these things aren’t specifically notated, the way they would be in orchestral parts, or the notations aren’t intuitive.

(A case in point: a curved marking like ⌣ over a note, which I hear classical musicians interpret by playing the note at pitch, then bringing it down, then back up. I understand why they think it means that, but it’s an un-jazz-like sound—it should almost always be interpreted as a scoop up to pitch.)

My takeaway: if you don’t consider yourself a jazz musician, and aren’t planning to really become one but want to play some jazz-oriented music on the occasional gig, study jazz style.