Which patterns are commonly found in swing music? Which are swing's key and defining characteristics? What makes a swing song a swing song?

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    I believe this is answered by the song "It Don't Mean a Thing if it Ain't Got That Swing." Jun 16, 2015 at 1:37

2 Answers 2


"Swing" refers to a particular genre of jazz music for dancing a specific kind of couples' dance. The style of dancing is called swing dancing, also referred to as the Lindy Hop or the Jitterbug. It is extremely athletic.

The music written for this kind of dancing is associated with the big band jazz ensemble and styles of musical arrangement.

The original era of swing music was quite short. It started in the USA in the early 1930s but it was practically over by the end of World War II, in 1945.

Here is a perfect example from a Broadway movie of the era.


Here is an example of couples swing-dancing in a competition from 2013, accompanied by swing music played by a live band.


Musical definition

For the musicians among you, "swing" has a musical definition that has to do with the way that the beats in each measure are played.

The classic "swing" or "shuffle" rhythm is when the music is notated as pairs of eighth notes, but is played by transforming each pair of eighth notes into a triplet figure, like this:

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The beat-notes (1, 2, 3 and 4) are played strictly on the beat, but are held for longer than their notated value, while the off-beat notes (the "and" of 1, 2, 3, and 4) are shifted to a later point in time, behind the beat, and played shorter.

Bands can vary the degree of the transformation of the note values from "straight eighths" to "swung eighths", playing in a light swing or a heavy swing, for example.

Jazz bands have always referred to the strictly-notated "straight eighths" rhythm by the term ballad, to distinguish it from swing, as in "Hey, guys, this song is a ballad, so don't swing the off-beat eighth notes."

  • Lindy hop and jitterbug are separate styles of swing, and "east coast" swing is yet another style. Also, some mention of Dixie Land jazz might be helpful. Jun 16, 2015 at 1:38

Not sure if there's a true scientific answer to this. In my opinion, I think a some of it has to do with the shuffle. This is when a pair of eighth notes, for instance, are played as a sixteenth and a dotted eighth. This brings a gravity to the to the second note. Add to that a leading eighth note, and that third note draws the listener to it. If we repeat the pattern, the leading note draws he listener "up" while the final note draws the listener down or home (usually on the 1 and 3 if we're talking about a 4-beat phrase).... So this up and down gives the rhythm a swinging pattern.

Now imagine playing the two eighth notes as straight eighth notes... very different feel. Not swingy at all.

  • This question is regarding swing the music genre, not the rhythm dynamic (which I know is part of the swing genre).
    – NPN328
    Jun 12, 2015 at 19:18
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    This answer is spot-on. When you program a drum pattern where you have the ability to add shuffle, there gets to a point when the pattern turns into swing. Playing along to that pattern, you automatically follow the swing and the whole piece becomes "swingy".
    – Lefty
    Jun 12, 2015 at 22:44
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    @JCPedroza I still don't understand the question I'm afraid. There's no mention of jazz for example. The shuffle thing I refer to in my comment applies to New Jack Swing as well as Jazz/Swing.
    – Lefty
    Jun 14, 2015 at 19:02
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    No, Shuffle or "swing" rhythm is absolutely NOT when two eighths are played as a dotted eighth and a sixteenth. Shuffle is when two eighths are played as a triplet figure where the first note is played as two tied eighth-note triplets and the second note is played as an eighth-note triplet. Thus, shuffle is superimposing 12/8 underneath 4/4 time. The quarter notes stay the same but any off-beat eighth notes are shifted into the 12/8 pattern.
    – user546
    Jun 15, 2015 at 2:55
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    Thanks Wheat! I can't really read or write music very well, but I was going for the rhythm that you described perfectly... thinking more precisely I realize that my rhythmic suggestion did not include the all important element of "3" which is the key here. JC gets a little bit closer to an answer. Perhaps you can elaborate on your interpretation of what makes a swing song a swing song....
    – Shoeless
    Jun 15, 2015 at 3:11

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