Swing Music Explained


When you mentioned the word Jazz to the average person, they probably think of Swing music, and for good reason. Swing was hugely popular – in fact, it was the pop music of the 1930’s. It was mostly performed by Big Bands, which were large orchestras divided into trumpets, saxophones, trombones, and a rhythm section (which consisted of the drums, bass, guitar and piano). And they played dance music. Above all else, Swing music is dance music – which means it was:

  • Simple;
  • Had clear melodies; and
  • A strong beat.

This also meant it was incredibly commercial.

Swing is sandwiched between two huge historical events. The Great Depression, which started with the stock market crash in 1929, and WWII which ended in 1945. So the Swing Era was during the Depression – and it acted as a kind of counter-statement or rebellion against the unemployment and misery that the Depression caused. It served to distract people from the daily grind of reality.


Swing grew out of New Orleans Jazz and the evolved into Bebop. So lets quickly take a look at all three genres:

ElementNew Orleans (1910’s)Swing (1930’s)Bebop (1940’s)
SizeSmall groupBig BandSmall group
TexturePolyphonic HomophonicHomophonic
ImprovisationCollective ImprovisationSingle SoloistSingle Soloist
HarmonySimple HarmonySimple HarmonyComplex Harmony
Rhythm2 Beat Feel or
Flat Four Feel
SoundChaoticDriving RhythmComplex and angular

Swing Music Characteristics

Let’s dive into these characteristics of Swing Music a little deeper:

  • As I said before, Swing music is played by Big Bands. And because of this, Swing had a greater emphasis on written-out composition and arrangements. So band leaders used various arrangement techniques to keep the song interesting, such as:
    • Tutti (all horns playing a melodic line in harmony)
    • Soli (one section featured playing a melodic line in harmony)
    • Shout Chorus (climatic tutti section at the end of the arrangement)
    • Riffs (repeated short melodic and/or rhythmic pattern)
      • Bluesy Riffs
      • Call and Response Riffs (often between the horns and the rhythm section)
    • Solos (single person improvising – usually behind a relatively simple harmonic background)
  • Swing Music was smooth, easy-listening and simple
  • Harmony: Swing used simple chords and had a clear homophonic texture
  • Melody: Swing had clear, lyrical and memorable melodies
  • Rhythm: Swing had a solid beat with a strong dance groove. And, of course, it swung
  • Swing was almost entirely commercial and part of the mass entertainment industry. It was all about showmanship – which is epitomised by people like Cab Calloway and Fats Waller.

Hot vs Sweet

And there were also 2 different styles of Swing music.

  • ”Sweet” Swing (people like Glenn Miller) – had less improvisation, was a bit slower, restrained with a slight swing feel, and was for the white upper class dinner parties.
  • “Hot” Swing (people like Duke Ellington) – was more daring, experimental, faster, with longer improvisations, stronger rhythmic drive, and a rough blues feeling.

Vertical Improvisation

Another interesting and important development happened with Swing improvisation. Up until the Swing Era ‘improvisation’ was essentially just playing the melody with some embellishments. The embellishments gradually became more adventurous, but they were generally always played with the melody in mind. Then, during the Swing Era, the sax player Coleman Hawkins changed the way jazz approached improvisation from melody to harmony (horizontal to vertical). Instead of just embellishing the melody, he created a whole new melody based on the song’s harmony by arpeggiating the chords and adding further chord alterations and substitutions to make his solo more complex. This approach was then further expanded upon by Bebop, which largely abandoned the original melody of the song to create brand new melodies based on an established chord progression – this was known as a contrafact.

Swing Piano

In the early years of Jazz, and up until the Swing Era, the piano was still very much rooted in the rhythm section of the band. So generally the pianist played very rhythmically, and helped keep the beat. For this reason the pianist’s left hand generally just played chords on the beat; while his right hand built rhythmic patterns around chords and chord tone, and especially guide tone – often just playing arpeggios or simple bluesy licks. Some of the Piano techniques employed during the Swing Era were:

  • Left Hand = steady on-the-beat rhythm (Pumping)
    • Stride
    • Tenths & Tenth
    • Walking basslines
    • Walking 10ths
    • Three handed effect
    • Strumming
    • Rolling Bass
    • Broken Tenths
    • Ostinato (Boogie-woogie)
  • Right Hand = Chordal (Chords, Arpeggio)
    • Rhythmic chord based patterns
    • Embellished arpeggios
    • Embellished melody
    • Simple riffs
    • Outlining chord progression

A good example of this is the Count Basie song Kansas City Keys.

Swing Music

Kansas City Jazz

As the name of that sound suggests, Count Basie played in Kansas City. And they played a particular type of Swing in Kansas City known as: Kansas City Jazz. KC Jazz is characterised by:

  • Extended soloing
  • Heavy swing rhythm
  • Bluesy feel (often using a 12 Bar Blues structure)
  • Songs that were based and structured around riffs
    • As the focal point of the song;
    • Played behind soloists; or
    • Playing multiple riffs playing at once as a kind of call and response.

And because KC Jazz songs were riff based, they were often played from memory by the band (rather than from sheet music). And this is where the term ‘head’ comes from, meaning the original melody of the song – that is, it’s all in your head, not written down on paper. This also contributed to the loose and spontaneous feel of KC Jazz. KC Jazz marked the transition from the heavily structured, arranged and written out Big Band style of Swing to the more fluid and improvisation style of Bebop.

Have a Listen to

I’ve listed some Swing Era Jazz musicians below. Check them out, though I’m sure you would already recognise many of them.

  • Fletcher Henderson
  • Cab Calloway
  • Benny Goodman
  • Fletcher Henderson
  • Artie Shaw
  • Jimmie Lunceford
  • Cab Calloway
  • Glenn Miller
  • Roy Eldridge
  • Coleman Hawkins
  • Lester Young
  • Ella Fitzgerald
  • Fats Waller
  • Teddy Wilson
  • Art Tatum
  • Nat “King” Cole
  • Erroll Garner
  • Count Basie
  • Duke Ellington


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