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“IT DON’T MEAN A THING IF….”

MARIA GODOY REPORTS in NPR, January 18, 2023, “What Makes That Song Swing? At Last, Physicists Unravel a Jazz Mystery.” As a regular listener of “40’s Junction,” SiriusXM’s Swing Era channel, not to say a grandson of a musician from the era, I took high interest in Godoy’s report. Here are tidbits together with my own comments about this scientific research. 

Swing Definition. The term “Swing” describes a specific musical genre, typified by big bands, their vocalists, and classic melodies from the 1940s and beyond. It’s also a rhythmic phenomenon, what Godoy calls, “an essential component of almost all types of jazz.”

“Still,” she writes, “a precise definition of swing has long eluded musicians and scholars alike. As the Big Band era jazz trumpeter Cootie Williams once reportedly joked about swing, ‘Describe it? I’d rather tackle Einstein’s theory.’”

Godoy adds, “Fittingly, physicists now think they’ve got an answer to the secret of swing—and it all has to do with subtle nuances in the timing of soloists.”

Prolonged Eighth Notes. “There’s one defining component that’s easy to hear,” Godoy says, “and it has to do with how eighth notes are played. Instead of playing them straight,” (she includes sound bites in her article), “in jazz these notes are swung, meaning the downbeat—or every other eighth note—is play just a little longer, while the offbeat notes in between are shortened, creating a galloping rhythm.”

This reminds me of another thing only peripherally related: Though perhaps lurking in my genes, I confess to utterly no musical training. In fact, when I was a kid the Andrews Sisters song “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar” had me imaging eight guys bellying up for refills.

My Moroccan Experience. Back in 1991, I had a memorable drive in Morocco, Ouarzazate to Marrakech and return. 

Ouarzazate, Morocco: met with Berber Swing upon arrival.

The syncopated rhythms of Berber folk music exhibits a similar musicality. There’s an intermittent feeling of delay then tumbling forward.

A Certain Inflection. Godoy talks with Christian McBride, multi-Grammy-winning jazz bassist, music educator and host of NPR‘s Jazz Night in America, who says, “There’s a certain language. There’s a certain inflection of rhythm.… That swing feel happens as musicians interact in performance…. And then everybody—the musicians and the listeners—can go, ‘Oh, yeah… that feels right.’ ”

The Physics of Swing. “But how exactly,” Godoy asks, “are musicians playing off each other to create that swing feel? That’s what Theo Geisel wanted to find out.”

“Geisel,” says Godoy, “is a theoretical physicist with the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization and the University of Göttingen in Germany. He spent decades studying the physics of synchronization—for example, how the billions of neurons in your brain coordinate with each other. He’s also a passionate amateur saxophonist. He even has a band with other physicists.”

Tiny Deviations of Timing. Since the 1980s, it has been conjectured that swing is traceable to tiny timing deviations between different musicians playing different instruments.

To test this theory, Godoy says, “Geisel and his colleagues took jazz recordings and used a computer to manipulate the timing of soloists with respect to the rhythm section.” 

This couldn’t help but bring up the musician one-liner: “What do you call someone who hangs out with musicians? The drummer.” 

Ta Thump Tish.

Their Findings. Godoy describes, “The song they manipulated was a recording of ‘Jordu,’ a jazz standard written by Duke Jordan. In one version, for example, the piano soloist started at the exact same time as the rhythm section. In another version, the soloist’s downbeats started just the tiniest bit behind the rhythm section, but their offbeats were not delayed.”

The timing delays were miniscule, just 30 miniseconds, or a fraction of the time it takes to blink an eye.

Nevertheless, Godoy says, “Jazz musicians who rated the clips picked up on it.” Geisel describes, “They told us that they could hear friction between the rhythm section and the soloist, but they were amazed that they could not identify what was going on exactly.”

Godoy cites Geisel saying that expert musicians were nearly 7.5 times more likely to rate the version with the downbeat delays as having more of a satisfying swing feel. 

I suspect my maternal grandfather would have agreed. Grandpa was as a coal miner (in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania’s anthracite region); he also gigged as a drummer.

The Dorsey brothers, Jimmy and Tommy. Image from olddmagazinearticles.com.

Shenandoah was also home to two guys name Dorsey, Tommy and Jimmy, with whom, so says the family tale, Grandpa occasionally sat in. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2023

2 comments on ““IT DON’T MEAN A THING IF….”

  1. tom@tom-austin.com
    January 19, 2023

    I don’t know if I’ll ever get through some of the more interesting references in the list that accompanies Microtiming Deviations and Swing Feel in Jazz nut I will pick off a few to read carefully, probably with WBGO playing in the background.

    Thanks for another great piece!

    >

    • simanaitissays
      January 19, 2023

      Thank you, Tom, for your kind words. I like to cite my sources for those who might like to dig into a subject.

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