Characteristics of Music: Swing

The variety of genres that go into making up the spectrum of music is vast and constantly growing. That’s why we’ve been spending some time exploring different genres and the characteristics that make them each unique. We started this journey looking at what makes pop music so popular, before moving on to jazz, rock and roll, punk, funk, R&B, and last week, reggae.

This week we’re going to take a look at a genre that evolved out of the massively popular sound of jazz: swing.

For many people, jazz and swing are the same thing – interchangeable. And while this isn’t exactly accurate, it does make a certain amount of sense. Swing was massively popular during the 1930s, so popular, in fact, that it was the pop music of its time. Most swing was performed by Big Bands, which were literally big bands, divided into trumpets, saxophones, trombones, and a rhythm section consisting mostly of drums, bass, guitar, and piano. And the music they played, above all else, was meant to be danced to! That means swing music:

  • Is simple.
  • Has clear melodies.
  • Has a strong beat.

All that also means it had incredible commercial value!

Swing came about, and hit the apex of its popularity, sandwiched between two giant historical events: The Great Depression, which started with the stock market crash in 1929, and World War II, which ended in 1945. As such, with Swing becoming the prominent genre throughout the Depression, it acted as a sort of rebellion against the misery of the world at large. It helped distract people from the difficulties of their daily lives.

Characteristics of Swing

Let’s take a closer look at some of the key characteristics of swing.

Big Band

As mentioned before, the vast majority of swing music is played by Big Bands, and thus swing has a greater emphasis on written compositions and arrangements than jazz, the genre that it evolved from. Band leaders use a variety of arrangement techniques to keep each song interesting, such as:

  • Tutti: All horns playing a melodic line in harmony.
  • Soli: One section featured playing a melodic line in harmony.
  • Shout chorus: Climactic tutti section at the end of the arrangement.
  • Riffs: Bluesy riffs, and call and response riffs, often between the horns and the rhythm section, are very popular.

Harmony, Melody, & Rhythm

When it comes to these most basic elements of music, swing is smooth, easy listening, and relatively simple. Swing harmony uses simple chords with a clear homophonic texture. The melodies used in swing are always clear, lyrical, and memorable. Lastly, swing employs a solid beat with a strong dance groove.

During the height of its popularity, swing was nearly entirely commercial and was a clear part of the mass entertainment industry. It was, and remains, all about showmanship, a key characteristic epitomized by the genre’s biggest stars, like Cab Calloway and Fats Waller.

Hot vs Sweet

Generally, swing can be broken into two different styles, “sweet” and “hot:”

  • Sweet Swing: Performed by people like Glenn Miller, this style utilizes less improvisation, tends to use a slower tempo, restrains the swing feel a bit, and was generally performed for white, upper-class dinner parties.
  • Hot Swing: Performed by people like Duke Ellington, this style was more daring, experimental, faster-paced, with more varied and longer improvisations, stronger rhythmic drive, and a rougher, Bluesy feeling.

The Move to Vertical Improvisation

Another key characteristic of swing developed around the area of improvisation. Up until the so-called “Swing Era,” improvisation was essentially just playing the melody with some on-the-spot embellishments. These embellishments slowly became more adventurous over time but were generally always played with the melody in mind.

However, once swing hit the scene, sax player Coleman Hawkins changes the way jazz approached improvisation from the melody to the harmony, sometimes called moving from horizontal to vertical improvisation. Instead of simply embellishing the melody, Hawkins created a whole new melody based on the songs’ harmony. Essentially, he would arpeggiate the chords and add further chord alterations and substitutions in an effort to make his solos as complex as possible.

The later genre Bebop would further expand this by largely abandoning the original melody altogether to create new melodies based on an established chord progression.

Swing Piano

From the earliest years of jazz, and up until the Swing Era, the piano was mostly used as a rhythm instrument. Due to this, most pianists played very rhythmically and helped the band keep the beat. In this style, the pianist’s left hand usually stuck to playing chords on the beat, while the right hand built patterns around chords and chord tone. This usually meant playing arpeggios or simple Bluesy licks. Some of the common piano techniques that were made popular during the Swing Era include:

  • Left Hand: Steady, on-the-beat rhythm (pumping)
    • Stride
    • Tenths & tenth
    • Walking basslines
    • Waling 10ths
    • Strumming
    • Rolling bass
    • Broken tenths
    • Ostinato (Boogie-woogie)
  • Right Hand: Chordal (chords & arpeggios)
    • Rhythmic chord-based patterns
    • Embellished arpeggios
    • Embellished melodies
    • Simple riffs
    • Outlining chord progression

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