Caste study: The “swing” ratio

One fairly active area of research on microtiming has been focused on the phenomenon of the jazz “swing”. Here is a small collection of articles on this topic. What are the main research questions tackled by these studies? What are some of the common findings? Are there conflicting experimental results? What might explain these differences?

Write a response to one or more of these prompts in reply to this post by Thursday, October 2, 9:00 AM.

Collier & Collier (2002), “A study of timing in two Louis Armstrong solos”

Friberg & Sundstrom (2002), “Swing ratios and ensemble timing in jazz performance: Evidence for a common rhythmic pattern”

Benadon (2006), “Slicing the beat: Jazz eighth-notes as expressive microrhythm”

Honing & de Haas (2008), “Swing once more: Relating timing and tempo in expert jazz drumming”

Butterfield (2011), “Why do jazz musicians swing their eighth notes”

5 thoughts on “Caste study: The “swing” ratio

  1. Reviewing this collection of articles, it seems that one of the more robust findings that all of the research teams have found is that the swing ratio very much varies depending on the tempo of the music being played. Friberg & Sundstrom (2002) observe that slow tempi can produce ratios as high as 3.5:1, approaching 1:1 as the tempi get faster; Collier & Collier (2002) found that Armstrong’s mid-tempo playing tended to hover around 1.6:1. Benadon (2006), Honing & de Haas (2008), and Butterfield (2011) reinforce this finding, with Honing & de Haas (2008) adding that drummers in jazz ensembles seem to be producing these variations in microtiming consciously, through great skill of playing. All of the researchers seem to agree that the description of a swing ratio as “triple-feel” is incomplete, but they don’t address at length the reasons behind the persistence of this explanation in the literature surrounding jazz theory.

  2. The main research questions these studies are attempting to tackle have to do with the uniqueness of rhythmic patterns that give jazz its distinctive “swing” quality. Specifically, these studies examine the evenness or unevenness of eighth notes used in this style. By examining recordings and performances of different jazz artists and musicians, the researchers attempt to analyze the key elements of swing, such as the swing or triplet ratio, and see how these elements differ among varying tempi. These studies also try to address how steady tempo or beat is incorporated into this style of music that strays from straight eighth notes for much of the time. A common finding is that swing ratio varies across tempi and within a single piece of work. The studies showed that the swing ratio is systematically adapted over a global tempo. However, a conflicting experimental result is shown by Collier & Collier (2002) who claim that the swing ratio doesn’t vary systematically. Their analysis demonstrated that the swing ratio remained constant whether the musician was playing stop-time or with the band. These differences may be due to the analysis of different jazz pieces or performances in which swing ratio consistency differs.

  3. The main research questions of this study focus on a distinctive groove or rhythm found in Jazz called “swing”. Specifically, researchers wanted to know what features of the music defined swing, whether the speeding up and slowing down that generally occurs in swing music fit into the global tempo of the piece, and whether the microtiming of the eighth notes in swing music varied with tempo. Most of the studies analyzed musical materials that were already out in the world (however, some recorded new ones) and used computers to analyze the microtiming with precision.

    In general, researchers seemed to find that the ratio of eighth notes was higher when the tempo was slower, and lower when the tempo was faster. Researchers also found that though jazz musicians are often extremely competent and talented performers, there often is some variance in the ratios of eighth notes within a piece, which may be due to the idea of expressive timing, and the natural limits of human motor controls and accuracy. There were some discrepancies in the findings of the studies, such as the conclusions over whether the accelerations and decelerations of the melody fit into a global tempo, though this may be due to the fact that the different studies analyzed different musicians. Though they are all classified as “Jazz musicians”, it’s likely that even in the genre, different performers have different ways of thinking about the music, different goals, different skill levels, and different habits of performing and interpretations of the music. These minute differences may account for the differences found between these studies.

  4. The function of ‘swing’ eighth notes in jazz and their very purpose seemed to me to be the main research question tackled by these studies. Butterfield (2011) claims “that jazz musicians swing their eighth notes to produce anacrusis on the offbeats,” in an effort to push along the forward-moving sensation of jazz. Each study measure these ratios in order to derive some sort of pattern. Some of the common findings reported included that in general, there is a ‘triplet philosophy’. The conflicting experimental results that do arise may stem from the lack of control. Honing and de Haas (2008) claim that one problem could be that jazz repertoire does not have enough of the same songs being played at different tempi. I do not particularly agree with this, however, because although a song might be in the same temporal range (what are they classifying as different here? Perhaps I’m being too critical – there is a linear variation of swing with the tempo), jazz itself is going to reproduce each of these versions at its own pace- especially given the nuanced rhythms of swing that we have been reading about.

  5. It seems as though the central emphasis of all these articles is based around the nature of “swing,” and that swing itself can be approached in a variety of ways. As Butterfield’s article states that soloists might tend to use more straight 8th notes in their playing to propel the music forward, while the drummer will play their 8ths in a more loose, triplet like fashion to lock into the steady, quarter-note pulse, I am curious to know what would occur if these roles were entirely reversed. It is of definite interest that there exists such flexibility in how a musician can swing their 8ths, to achieve very contrasting outcomes. In the Collier article, it highlights that Louis Armstrong seemed to indeed play “around the beat,” giving him the freedom to explore the sensation of anticipation and/or delay. Personally, I feel that this concept of swung 8ths is a highly individual, slightly mysterious aspect of jazz music, in which a performer can follow some sort of expected “model of properly swung 8ths” but then completely throw out the rule book and just go with what they are feeling in the moment. I am highly skeptical that all of these great soloists of the past were approaching their improvisation planning that they would play “this many notes before the beat, and this many after it” although I am sure they were very aware of what they were doing! It is of course of great interest to research, especially in terms of these improvisations and their relationship to the global tempo around them. The Friberg & Sundstrom article found that in slow tempi, “the swing ratio was as high as 3.5:1 whereas at fast tempi it reached 1:1.” However, I’m not so sure that we can simply say the slower the tempo, the more swung the 8ths will be…

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