…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.