Anatomy of a Swing Song

While preparing for my upcoming gig for the Towson University Ballroom Club’s Spring Fling, I’ve been arranging some “non-traditional” songs for my band. I love finding amazing, well-written songs and adapting them to the style of music that I love. I really appreciate groups like The Lost Fingers, and Paul Anka’s Rock Swings! album. Both of these artists maintain their own artistic voice and integrity while covering songs that originated far outside of their own style of music. It got me thinking about my process of transforming songs into my genre of swing/dance music and what makes a swing song.

There are a lot of different ways to answer this. At the most basic musical level, a song swings when it uses uneven eighth notes. If you’re not sure what that means, say “Ta-ta-ta-ta ta” fast and evenly. Those are straight eighth notes. Now, in a long-short long-short pattern, say “Da-ba Da-ba Da-ba Da-ba.” That would be a swung eighth note. Even if a song is written with straight eighth notes originally, its still possible to swing it. I love covering Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida,” which you can swing really hard even though the original is as straight as a board.

After I’ve got the rhythm swingin’ (and maybe with some syncopation, too), the next step is to adapt the harmonies. A small portion of contemporary popular music uses some intricate harmonies, but most use very basic chords. These chords often consist of three notes. But jazz often uses chords with extra notes added in. These notes, often sevenths or ninths named because of how far they are from the note that names the chord, can transform rock, reggae, pop, and other styles into jazz pretty quickly!

There are other things I’ll adjust with a piece, but the rhythm and the harmony are a big part of it. Of course, instrumentation makes a big difference, too. Piano, upright bass, electro-accoustic guitar, trumpet, and drums will sound very different than your synthesized pop song or electrified rock song. Often, when I’m looking for songs to adapt, I try to find something that has an element of jazz or blues already buried in it somewhere, like a forgotten secret that just needs to be revealed, but that is different enough that when people hear it, they have to stop and think, Is that? … It is!

When I was in school working on my degrees in composition, I loved playing around with different genres, bending and blending seemingly opposed musical genres. The borders between genres are so fluid and malleable that its often hard to tell where one stop and another begins. I know that I found an appreciation for country and bluegrass by listening to old blues. And I listened to old blues after I started listening to old swing and jazz. My hope is that by adapting songs from different styles and exploring these boundaries, I can help open casual listeners’ ears to understand and connect with the music I love. At the same time, its always entertaining to hear something like Sound Garden’s “Black Hole Sun” swingin’ hard.

The Towson University Ballroom Dance Club presents its Swing Fling on April 30th from 9-Midnight in the University Union building. It is free and open to the public.

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1 Comment

Filed under Jazz, Music

One response to “Anatomy of a Swing Song

  1. Lauren

    This is weird, I glanced at this post before going to work and just had time to read about the Coldplay song, then I was going through some music a friend gave me and just happened to keep Viva la Vida. You must have gotten stuck in my subconscious somewhere!

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