Jazz swing notation

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

dotted-eighth, sixteenth rhythmThis is wrong.

Sometimes he or she will take this approach:

12/8 rhythmAlso wrong. So is this one:

eighth notes with indication to tripletizeThe idea of “tripletizing” eighth-note rhythms is especially pervasive, and misleading if taught without nuance. 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 necessarily dotted or 12/8 or triplets. 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:

grace notesWhat 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:

eighth notes with "Swing" indicationNote 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.


13 responses to “Jazz swing notation”

  1. Great comments Bret! I use this approach as well, and it seems to help beginners think about swing in the right way. It frees them up in regards to the mathematical rigidity of notation, allowing the interpretive characteristic of grace notes (along with listening and transcribing) to be a guide for the swing style, rather than attempting an exact notation system.

  2. I teach swing rhythms to my students largely through example. Typically the only verbal description I give is that swing has a long-short pattern of eighths, as opposed to the even eighths found in other styles. To that end, I definitely prefer that last approach to swing rhythm notation over the others.

  3. Jim Snedeker Avatar
    Jim Snedeker

    I think the best jazz notation has two elements: 1) straight 8ths with no articulation markings, and 2) a player who has listened to enough swing music that he/she has internalized the feel.

    With those two elements, you’ll get perfect jazz swing. I’ve played big-band charts that were written this way, and everyone in the sax section knew how to play them instinctively.

    No matter how formal a piece of written music is, it is always an approximation of what the composer intended to be played. A player’s interpretation is always going to be a factor. Swing is one of those rhythms that can’t be written down, and thus is at the mercy of the player—who either can swing or can’t.

  4. I’m glad I bumped into this web page because I feel the same way about the notation. No triplets, no dotted notes, but just ‘Swing’. (Using the ‘swing’ option of my computer software proves that it is the right thing to do, it performs it very well.)
    But now I have this problem transcribing this piece:
    The pianist switches constantly between ‘Swing’ and ‘No Swing’.
    Is something like this the only option?

    1. I think that’s the tidiest option. The wording I see most often is “swing” and “even 8ths.”

      1. Annemie Van Riel Avatar
        Annemie Van Riel

        Thank you for the ‘even 8ths’ option. I’ll use that one.

      2. Working on this piece, http://annemievanriel.be/site/LessonPriv/LessonMoonWaltzNeet.htm I would like to know your opinion.
        The waltz definitely is 3/4 as waltzes are, with a swing in the eights.

        But from measure 44 I didn’t feel comfortable anymore using all those triplets and swing switching. To me a triplet is not supposed to be used all the time, in that case another time signature is preferable.
        So I restart using the 9/8, which, I agree, is wrong for a swing. What do you think?

  5. Bill Charles Avatar
    Bill Charles

    Is the ratio of the golden mean not the key to jazz rhythms? It falls between 1/4-1/8 and dotted 1/4-1/8—a little closer to the 1/4-1/8. The implications for understanding jazz rhythms within a broader scientific spectrum are mind-stimulating, no?

  6. Les Hoffman Avatar
    Les Hoffman

    Bret, thank you for posting this about swing notation, my nemesis for about six years. I had a good training up through high school in standard music notation, then started reading swing when I was 61. It still throws me for a loop, and no matter how much I keep trying to sight read it, I don’t hear it in my head the way it’s intended. Hearing it done right several times seems to help, but kills the sight reading. Any ideas?

    1. Practice, practice, practice! The Lennie Niehaus Jazz Conception series are good for tackling swing rhythms in a methodical way.

  7. Thank goodness I’ve been doing it the way you recommend! But I have a specific question. The piece I’m writing out parts for (an original) has the swing feel, except for one bar, where I want that phrase to be played in tight staccato eighth notes with no swing, and I’m not sure how to notate that. My gut instinct is to put a doublet over each pair of eighth notes, but I want to make sure that’s correct before handing out the parts.

    1. Many jazz players will see the staccato markings and interpret those notes not to swing. Rather than tuplet markings, I suggest just using words: use the words “straight”/”straight 8ths” or “swing” as needed.

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