It don’t mean a thing…

…if it ain’t got that swing

One of the recurrent themes on The Hump, which I’m trying to address from different directions, is the priority of mind within our reality, and hence the myth of objectivity apart from human ideas. That ranges from the mind-based metaphysics of Eddington or Dembski (coming from quantum and information science directions respectively), to the “personal knowledge” of Polanyi’s philosophy of science or the Goethian approach to knowledge. I’ve included the thought that contemporary science has an inevitable tendency to abstract reality into symbolic representations, most marked in the eliminative materialism that ends up rendering everything – even matter and the minds that conceive it – as an illusion.

But in truth it isn’t a fault of science that it’s theory-laden – it’s just a sign of the central importance of mind, which needs to be recognised more than it is. I’m reading some heavy stuff in philosophy of science at the moment about how not just science, but even ordinary perception, is theory-laden – we see nothing until we already have a concept of what we’re looking at. Maybe that’s to be written about at another time. At present, though, I want to illustrate the idea in a lighthearted way, together with some ear-candy, by taking a couple of posts to look at something that makes a difference to life’s daily reality, but is exceedingly hard to reduce to formal analysis, and that is the musical concept of swing.

As Wikipedia says:

While some jazz musicians have called the concept of “swing” a subjective and elusive notion, they acknowledge that the concept is well-understood by experienced jazz musicians at a practical, intuitive level.

So swing is real and non-mysterious, but try to analyse it and, like Eddington’s elephant, it disappears. Paradoxically I’m going to try and show the “holistic” and thoroughly human nature of swing using some analytical discourse, which says something about my own intellectual bias. But hopefully it will be fun and illuminating, though you’ll need some free time to appreciate the YouTube clips, which are the real education.

For the musically uninitiated, swing is basically a way of making music (and so those who hear it!) move. And it’s done by making just one of the “lengths” of note (the quaver or “eight-note”) uneven rather than even, whilst both the longer notes and the shorter notes stay absolutely unchanged. How irrational is that? So a run of normal eighth notes goes:


But the same run, swung, would sound like:


The effect is to keep the music off balance and move it forward. In basic mathematical terms, think of runs of three notes with the middle one missing – only as we’ll see, swing can’t be reduced only to that arithmetical relationship. It’s common in traditional dance music, such as this clip featuring (on flute) a distant Irish cousin of mine, Marcas O Murchu:

In contrast, swing is rare in the classical tradition (like other things that keep music moving, like syncopation and back-beat), which is why J S Bach was so gifted in creating movement from counterpoint and so on, as on the following clip – which should enable you to hear also what un-swung music sounds like, in comparison to the Irish jigs.

Classical musicians have great difficulty swinging – and indeed, you may be surprised to hear that it isn’t even marked in the music except by written instructions to do it (“swing”) or desist (“straight quavers”). Why it should be so difficult for “trained” musicians is strange, because it has a biological basis – or perhaps more than one. Children swing when they skip along (but stop when they learn music theory, it seems). But all of us have one of these:

More on heart physiology later. Despite the swinging lilt in Celtic music, swing came into modern popular music mainly from African sources. Here’s an example from my favourite Piedmont guitarist, Rev Gary Davis:

It began to predominate in the arranged dance and jazz music of the the late twenties and thirties, when the title of this column was coined (by Duke Ellington). You have only to think of Glenn Miller (to whom I’ll return in the second post) or Benny Goodman to get the idea – my did the kids dance to it!

But here’s where the simple maths – the idea of triple time – begins to break down. When you speed up swung music, the time moves progressively towards a 1:2 rather than a 1:3 ratio – and only intuition tells you what’s the right amount. Be-bop was a fast and furious virtuoso’s music that displaced classic swing in the forties. Listen to this early example featuring Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie. It isn’t “straight”, but it certainly isn’t in triple time, though it clearly swings:

Incidentally, that clip also shows well how swing also involves different “attack” (or volume) for the leading and trailing notes – miss that out and the music seems a bit wooden. I wish I could get that across to the saxophone choir for which I do arrangements, most of whom have had too much musical theory and not enough perceptive listening.

Now, like jazz, it’s true to say that the beating human heart also begins to even out its tempo as it beats faster, and so also does human skipping (try skipping down the street and speeding up, only make sure nobody’s looking). But I doubt you ever noticed that, and certainly musicians don’t. They, like their listeners, learn the whole nature of swing by personal knowledge, by intuition, by tradition – but certainly not by theory. Most of the time they don’t even know they’re doing it and, as I said before, the musical notation gives litle or no clue.

My Finale™ music software has a sophisticated little set of algorithms to set the degree of swing in percent, but all that’s really doing is accepting that the “right” value is somewhere between 1:2 and 1:3 and letting me choose it by my own holistic musical intuition. It sounds right, so it is right. But the only prediction it makes is that some foot-tapping listener will also know it’s right. And that is how music is more real than musical theory.

More non-uniformities in the next post, once your ear is in.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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14 Responses to It don’t mean a thing…

  1. Lou Jost says:

    Your point about perception being theory-laden is extremely important. I don’t think most religious people understand the implications of it, since they often argue for the primacy of their experiential evidence for gods. In fact our brain constructs our experiences based on hypotheses and expectations. Our experiences and our personal knowledge are far less objective and reliable than most people think. That is why public validation of the causes of experience is so important.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      No Lou, you don’t get it. Have you read Kuhn at all?

      • Lou Jost says:

        Yes of course.

        Do you disagree with what I said about the unreliability of experience? Do you disagree that our brain constructs our experience for us, based on a mix of sensory input and hypotheses based on expectation? Don’t you think it is good to keep in mind the constructed nature of primary experience when religious people support their beliefs by invoking their experiences, as if experience was a transparent window into reality?

        • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


          See reply to Merv below, which outlines why there is no escape from the mind’s primacy in knowledge.

          At the same time, there is a place for public knowledge, and that is absolutely no different for religion and science. The person whose experience of the world is unique is, quite possibly, having problems. But that applies to few religious people except the odd schizophrenic I’ve met. We Christians believe in shared historical truth, a common experience of God and a shared experience of the Spirit.

          Equally, the conviction that a scientific theory is true (and primarily the intuition of the pioneer who first conceives it) is a personal experience – but one that comes to be shared by many. That commonality increases its usefulness, and is a measure of its likely validity – but no more a guarantee than the shared experience of religion is a guarantee of its truth, or else the scientific world would still be Aristotelian.

          And did you enjoy the tunes?

  2. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    It seems to me, Jon, that your thoughts here may also capture the essence of distinction between “seeing” and “really *seeing*” that some old testament prophets, quoted by Jesus, used when speaking of those who have eyes but don’t see and ears but don’t hear. We usually want to think of our sensations as bringing us brute fact independent of any processing. But any such independence probably turns out to be ephemeral. I can imagine how a person growing up blind or deaf, were they to suddenly gain their sight or hearing would think the jumble of new sensory stimuli to be confusing nonsense until they learn to interpret it. I think this has actually happened though I can’t site sources. But at a deeper level of mind or soul, I can stare at a scene or painting and have very little comprehension of what I’m actually seeing if I have no basis for understanding what such scenes typically entail. I see in a photons to eyeballs sense, but fail to see in the important sense; and there may be more than just a couple levels of depth in that.

    I even agree with you, Lou. Public assessment may help level out or correct for personal error, but I doubt the wider scope gets one free of these entanglements, and in fact it probably work both ways. A wider community (one of your deliberate choosing, no less) tells you you’re not supposed to experience certain kinds of things … and behold, you don’t! I’m curious how much a wider population can have a collective training of its senses to only see certain things.

    • Lou Jost says:

      Merv, yes, it does work both ways. But that is why science exists. Like our perceptions, it is based on generating and testing hypotheses based on expectations, but because the process is public, it is more subject to scrutiny and more reliable. Things we don’t want to see can intrude in this sphere and, if they are real, they can gain entrance even against our prejudices and expectations, as has happened time after time in history.

      • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:


        I’m mightily impressed, because you got a central point of my current thought far more clearly than I put it in passing, in what is deliberately a post aimed encouraging perception, rather than describing it or disputing it.

        You’re absolutely right that “seeing” is (in keeping with that Old Testament sense) an active and creative process, not a passive reception of an objective world, and that’s true both for science and chairs. We don’t notice it (a) because we started our theorising about the world in the cradle and it’s usually unconscious and (b) because in the Cartesian framework, we’ve emphasises the subject-object divide in a way that, in the end, is unsustainable.

        The biblical example that appeals to me is the “double healing” of the man born blind, in which both the story and its theological context (Peter’s awakening understanding) show that at first, the man’s vision is healed – but (just as in congenital cataract cases treated in our times) he still has no perception. The second stage is the healing of his understanding – a lifetime of missed meaning is suddenly restored.

        Now, how that relates to Lou’s points about public knowledge, science and religion involves several things:
        (a) Your point is true – “public knowledge” is knowledge gained by the shared theories of most people, not knowledge with subjectivity filtered out. To a Lamarckian scientific community, the world can only appear Lamarckian. It’s the theory that’s “public”, and what is seen as the data, and its meaning, follows inevitably. In Kuhn’s terms, new data will always fit the paradigm, until that changes.
        (b) Science is not exempt from the primacy of mind – there is simply no way of getting behind our conceptual framework to some supposed objective reality behind – what happens in changing science is primarily a change of conceptual framework (no space to expand, but heliocentrism and atomism are good examples). There is no view from nowhere.
        (c) Since sensory perception is no more intrinsically objective that other sources of knowledge, the epistemological basis of religious experience is no more or less mediated by the mind than anything else, and may well have as much warrant.
        (d) Finally, of course, if we’re talking about “public knowledge”, then the widest-spread agreement of all is in the reality of the spiritual in general, and if we’re voting on it the biggest individual “consensus” is the Christian framework.

        But that kind of controversy isn’t the point of the post, but rather to demonstrate the indisputable reality (except to the rhythmically disabled) of forms of knowledge not capable of exact analysis. Did you like the tunes?

        • Lou Jost says:

          “It’s the theory that’s “public”, and what is seen as the data, and its meaning, follows inevitably. In Kuhn’s terms, new data will always fit the paradigm, until that changes.”

          History shows that this is not correct, and it is not what Kuhn said either. New data often does not fit the existing paradigm, creating a tension that is eventually resolved by a new paradigm.

          My comment on the theory-laden nature of perception and introspection was aimed at people who claim they know their religion is true because they have experienced the presence of or communication with a god. Some people regard these experiences as primary, and as trumping logic or science. I think they do not, for the reason you mentioned. Experiences, even deeply felt ones, are not transparent windows to the world, and they need to be treated skeptically even by the experiencer.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Strange – the post duplicated itself, so I’ll edit it away.

  3. GD GD says:

    Nice approach to a very, very interesting area of human experience and personhood. Music and poetry create that mystical personal and yet publicly accessible space that philosophers and scientist struggle to understand, but nonetheless we all discuss what it means to be an individual and creative, and yet we ‘feel’ how others respond to the created piece, be it music, poetry, literature, or (gasp) the creative aspects of science.

    Imo, these matters also emphasise the importance of how we threat the question of truth; by this I mean at a personal level, and then in a public place. I will leave this comment with the phrase (which is relevant to both the religious and the irreligious), “this is why we refer to ourselves as human beings, uniquely so”.

  4. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    As the foot-bouncin’ sort, I did enjoy the tunes, Jon. So the appreciation is there, but I am handicapped by a lack of training (or maybe a lack of the right kind of experience) that prevents me from hearing and noting certain things about the music that you can and have observed.

    Lou, you wrote: … “because the [science] process is public, it is more subject to scrutiny and more reliable. Things we don’t want to see can intrude in this sphere and, if they are real, they can gain entrance even against our prejudices and expectations, as has happened”…

    That is the optimistic view. I don’t dispute good examples where a contrary view *eventually* prevailed. The nemesis for your point is in that word “eventually”. And even allowing for that, one can still wonder how many correct views have not yet (and maybe never will) prevail because they don’t register within our existing paradigms. The presence of successes doesn’t imply the absence of failures.

    • Lou Jost says:

      Merv, I agree, and would never say that science will eventually get everything right. My statement was about the RELATIVE reliability of perception vs publicly scrutinized hypotheses.

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      …prevents me from hearing and noting certain things about the music that you can and have observed.

      There’s a pretty good chance you’d notice the difference if I could somehow record the contrasts back to back, if only in terms of “foottapping index”. The interesting thing to me is that the “personal knowledge” that comes from careful listening, experience or whatever is the same, in kind, as what everyone notices, only more intensely or more discriminatingly.

      In other words unlike analytic science it’s not something “hidden behind” the phenomenon – it is the phenomenon.

  5. Merv Bitikofer Merv Bitikofer says:

    My last sentence would more accurately convey my point if I removed that last plural ‘s’, as in: The presence of successes doesn’t imply the absence of failure.

    “Failures” implies eventual success. Since that is not guaranteed we should acknowledge the possibility of ongoing and persistent failure as part of our present system as well.

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