The Swing Rhythm      
[Each example has a corresponding audio file]

One of the rhythmic concepts integral to Jazz relates to the notion of what makes a rhythm a “swing” rhythm. Simply put, a “swing rhythm” is based on a subdivision of each single beat into groups of 3, or “triplets”. Previous convention and much classical music (but not all) often divided the beat into groups of 2. Below is a diagram, using music notation, showing how one may convert any given rhythm into a “swing” rhythm. We may distinguish between the conventional and jazz concepts by calling the triplet-based rhythm a “swing” rhythm, and calling the division of the beat into 2 as a “straight” rhythm.     

*Remember, in terms of time-feel, or “groove”: Swing = beat subdivided into groups of 3; Straight = beat subdivided into groups of 2.

In Example 1 we see two measures, each divided into 4 equal beats. Each note you see below represents one musical beat (the number of the beat is above). These are called “quarter” notes, because each one is worth ¼ of the entire measure. The way we sub-divide these beats affects how the music is played and perceived.

Note: All examples are played with a tempo of  approximately 70 beats per minute. - this link provides a metronome. Set to 70 beats per minute to get a feel for how fast the tempo is. Turn off before listening to the examples.

Example 1. – Two measures, 4 beats each.

            1              2               3             4                 1             2              3             4



Example 2. – Here, each beat is divided into two. We can count them aloud by saying, “1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and”.

          1    and     2    and    3    and     4   and      1    and     2    and    3    and     4   and



Example 3. – Here, each beat is divided into three. Now we are getting to the root of the “swing” rhythm. We can count these aloud by vocalizing, “1 and a 2 and a 3 and a 4 and a”.  (Note: The small number three (3) you see over each group of three is simply a way of indicating that the figure is indeed a triplet).

          1 and   a    2  and  a    3  and  a    4  and a       1   and  a    2  and  a    3  and  a   4   and  a


In Example 3b, we can hear these same triplets, but the first and third of each set is accented, and the 2nd (middle) triplet is played softer.

Ex 3b.
          1 (and) a   2  (and) a    3 (and) a   4  (and) a    1   (and)  a   2 (and) a   3 (and) a    4 (and) a


Example 4. – Now, listen to the sound made when we combine the first two triplets (in musical terms, we tie them together). When the first 2 of each set of triplets is tied, we hear the first and 3rd triplets only. This uneven, or syncopated, way of playing the rhythm is the basis for creating a swing rhythm.

         1           a   2          a     3         a    4          a       1           a   2          a     3         a    4          a



Example 5 shows a very common rhythm played by jazz drummers, often on the cymbal or hi-hat, which is a combination of example 1 and example 3b, alternating between the two. This can be heard in thousands of jazz recordings.

(Play the cymbal and hi-hat yourself on the virtual drum set to get accustomed to the sound. Choose a jazz drum set from this website:

Example 5.

           1          2            a     3         4             a       1          2            a     3         4             a


Example 6.
Listen to the sample of jazz drummer Buddy Rich playing the introduction to the song Love For Sale, which is played as a swing tune (with a swing, or triplet-based, time feel).

As you see in your text (pgs. 12 and 13), music of the Georgia Sea islands, which retained many African elements over time despite the fact that slaves were forced to live far from their native land, was often performed using rhythmic concepts that sound like the beats are loosely divided into groups of 3 instead of the conventional groups of 2. These loose syncopations (uneven rhythms) evolved to become the basis for the jazz swing rhythm, which combined with heavy use of improvisation, blue notes, popular song forms,  to evolve into what we call jazz.”

Important note: Triplets are the basis for a “swing” rhythm, but not all jazz is based on triplets. Much of the jazz repertory is played with a “straight” time-feel, such as large portions of the repertory of Latin jazz. We will also explore this time-feel.



Exercise:   Straight or Swing? Listen to the following selections and see if you can determine whether they are played with a swing feel or a straight feel.
Remember, try to identify each beat (“1,2,3,4”). Then try to determine what the overall rhythmic feel is by listening to how each beat is subdivided. If the beat is subdivided into 3, it’s swing. If it’s 2, it’s straight. Also, see if you hear that pattern from Example 4 on the drum cymbal or hi-hat if you suspect it’s swing.

  1. - Answer: Swing
  2. - Answer: Straight
  3. - Answer: Straight
  4. - Answer: Swing
  5. - Answer: Straight
  6. - Answer: Swing
  7. - Answer: Swing
  8.  - Answer: Straight
  9. - Answer: Swing
  10. -Answer: Swing