It don’t mean a thing

If it ain’t got that swing….

Sideways, across the beats and bar lines….

We’ve talked in this blog about coping with, and even creatively using, sound latency within online music. But Gary found himself actively creating further discrepancies of musical timing during online music therapy sessions at Hill House recently. That is, he found himself ‘swinging’ some of the songs. Why? What’s the use of swing? Does it mean a thing? 


It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing! Duke Ellington’s famous phrase is a statement. But earlier in the verse of the song there are some interesting questions:

What good is melody?
What good is music?
If it ain’t possessing something sweet.
Now it ain’t the melody
And it ain’t the music
There’s something else that makes this tune complete…

The chorus then gives us the answer – it’s ‘swing’ that completes the musical experience, gives it meaning. Ellington attributed the phrase “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing” to trumpeter Bubber Miley. The librettist Irving Mills said he invented the phrase when explaining to Ellington why customers weren’t dancing. (Keep that thought in mind, we’ll return to it shortly).

But what is ‘swing’? This is where it gets tricky. Swing, or groove (a more general category), is seen as a precious quality in some musical performance styles, but difficult to define. Partly this is a professional mystery thing – in the famous words of Fats Waller “If you gotta ask, you ain’t got it!”. Despite this put-down, there’s been a lot of useful discussion about how to talk about the aspect of performing music that’s characterised by words such as swing, groove, or simply ‘feel’.

And it’s not just jazz and popular music that has groove and swing. An interesting BBC Radio 3 programme called ‘Swing, Rubato, and Bounce” in the Listening Service series showed that any musical idiom can be said to have this performative quality – it’s just that we’re just not used to talking about it. “What happens” the programme asks, “when musical rhythm is loosened by swing?”. We hear it often in jazz and world music. We hear it in Rachmaninov who played with rubato (literally the ‘robbing’ of time). We hear it when the Vienna Philharmonic plays a Strauss waltz with that odd but effectively uneven one-TWO-three that swings it sideways. Any music can be played straight (and, well, dull) or it can be – in a variety of ways and degrees – swung. It can groove and come alive. 

As to how – to echo yet another song – it’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it. Not just the notes you sing or play, but the way that you inflect them. Play only the notes, as the saying goes, and you’ll miss the music. This is mostly to do with rhythm, but it also involves aspects of touch, texture, tone of voice, energy, feel (all aspects of musical analysis that have been side-lined in traditional musical analysis models which concentrate on fixed texts rather than active, improvisational performances). 

This ‘how?’ dimension of swing/groove remains elusive. There’s a ‘feel’ aspect to it, and there’s a technical aspect also – at least to a certain extent. The ‘feel’ aspect is a loosening, a lightening of the beat, a relaxing of the strict metricality of the music. But there can also be an accompany relaxation of the texture of the sound, which leads to a sense of the music lifting and bouncing rather than drooping and hardening. Interesting metaphors, but what, technically speaking, is actually happening? 

On the platform of a secure underlying beat, swing involves musicians playing around with the beat – either through formal syncopation (temporarily displacing the beat) or through more subtle variation techniques. When we swing, not everyone’s sounds land heavily together – and the melody and direction of the music can play sideways across the beat. Micro-variations of tempo (‘robbing’ time – rubato) help loosen and stretch the timing of a phrase such as when a jazz singer delays the arrival of one phrase, then anticipates the next in relation to the pianist’s chords. They are playing with musical time and space, making them elastic and alive – allowing the performance to breathe, to relax, to become a living and unpredictable thing. And this is the key – swing and groove are about animating this musical moment, being responsive to this musical event. 

The ethnomusicologist Charles Keil (1987, 1994) has made a useful study of groove in popular and world music. He suggests that, “[m]usic to be personally involving and socially valuable, must be ‘out of time’ and ‘out of tune’” (1987: 275). Though a good sentence, and one we’ve quoted before on these blog pages (see Latency: what’s the problem?) maybe it’s phrased too negatively. Maybe what Keil means is that music in performance is often not perfectly in time or in tune in a mechanical, inflexible way. By contrast, when we creatively exploit the negotiation of individual differences of timing and tuning we invite participation in musicking:

 It is the little discrepancies between hands and feet within a drummer’s beat, between bass and drums, between rhythm section and soloist that creates the groove and invites us to participate. (1987: 277)

Keil calls these inflections of timing/tuning ‘participatory discrepancies’. One of Keil’s examples is of a traditional American-Polish dance band where not only the rhythmic discrepancies but also the textural discrepancies between the traditional two trumpets playing the melody in unison “guarantee textural participatory discrepancy and a bright, happy sound that invites people to get up and dance” (1987: 278). Another example is an analysis of the famous ‘Bo Diddley’s beat’ which had an elusive rhythmic signature to it, which Keil suggests was in the service of “getting the band into the groove and the dancers moving happily” (1987:281). But none of this is mechanical – there’s no precise formula for getting in the groove, or swinging – it’s always a subtle negotiation of timing and texturing between everyone involved in a musical scene, as well in response to the atmosphere, acoustic, and so on. But: whatever physical or cultural space we find them within, participatory discrepancies have the same aim and effect: 

Participatory discrepancies have everything to do with pleasure in the public domain: the presence of a shared tradition and an ever deepening sense of the subtle ways in which wrights and rites, skills and events, craft and culture, are connected in public space and time. (Keil and Feld 1994: 107)

If there’s a ‘swing test’ the key questions are: Does it reach you? Does it move you? Does it touch you? Does it touch you literally– do your fingers, toes, or head move to the music? Does is touch your spirit? As a personal exercise it’s worth considering when we or others find that music leaves us still  – we sometimes also say ‘It left me cold’. Conversely when music ‘warm us up’ – it’s when we can’t seem to help but move to it. Although some of this will be circumstantial, and our responses to music – even the ‘same’ recorded music – will vary from occasion to occasion, there are clearly shared patterns to our embodied responses to musical energy, direction, ‘feel’ and touch. And it’s this that matters – often greatly – when we’re making music in challenging situations such as an online music therapy session in a care home. 


Back now to the online music therapy session at Hill House when Gary heard himself swinging a song. It happened to be (appropriately) Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, which may partly explain it.

Gary Ansdell, Swing Low (with some sound effects due to online work)

This Spiritual has swing potentially built-in – to an extent. But then Gary looked through all the index notes of previous sessions for any other times where he’d noticed and marked playing a song with swing. He then looked in detail at the first video excerpt and compared it to other examples …

  • The songs weren’t always jazz songs – one was a Christmas carol! 
  • Gary tended to ‘swing it’ when attention and energy was lagging in a session
  • Swinging it happened most when a carer came into the scene dancing, and then danced with residents whilst Gary musically supported this.

It seems that swinging was, not surprisingly, linked to energy and movement, and with ‘turning up’ the invitation of the music to participate. Remember the comment from the Duke’s librettist – that the line if it ain’t got that swing–  which came to him when telling the Duke why the audience wasn’t dancing to certain tunes. So, while Gary was supporting the carer’s dancing by swinging more, the carer was simultaneously stirring the musical energy in the room to get more participation from the residents. Swing was working amongst-and-between everyone then. 

More technically, a dancing body moves both up and down but also sideways, and what swing affords above all is ‘sideways music’… which then encourages versions of this ‘musical sideways’ energy from residents with movement restrictions, such as sideways-moving hands & heads. The result is enhanced participation just as Keil reported in the Polish dance (and also new and innovative dance moves by and for people who are not able to get out of their chairs and are sitting all in a row in front of the large TV screen). Gary further analysed the examples to detail the layers of rhythmic and textural discrepancy that were constructing the groove: between his own voice and piano; between his musical and visual signals online; between his musical actions and the carer’s and the residents’ musical actions. Together these produced a complexity that nevertheless seemed to enliven the musical scene. 


Music therapy scholar Ken Aigen (2002) has described exactly these effects in his pioneering and wonderful study of groove in relation to Keil’s theory of participatory discrepancies within an individual music therapy scenario – in the book Playin’ in the Band. This book and its accompanying DVD of 48 excerpts charting the 101 session process between therapists Alan Turry and Ken Aigen’s musical interactions with Lloyd, a young adult with learning disabilities, is a ‘must read’. These three men make a popular music combo of piano, drums and guitar and explore how popular music and the phenomenon of groove/swing and other modes helps Lloyd find a place in music, and develop as a musician and as a person. Ken’s analysis of this process in relation to Keil and Feld’s theories of musical participation illuminates the key issue of how ensemble musicking can be at the same time precise and imprecise; or, rather, how just the negotiation of different timings and tunings is often the way that we find a living, vital togetherness in music. 

Lloyd needed Alan and Ken to help him participate in the music he loved, and to mediate the experience for him. This therapeutic situation was a private one, but the principles apply as much to Gary as he negotiates the limitations and possibilities of the online sessions in the care home – both technical and social. In Playin’ in the Band, Aigen gives a clear conclusion that flows from these experiences that’s worth quoting here in full: 

But we all have perceptual, motoric, and cognitive skills and limitations that we live within and through which we relate. Our modes of interaction are determined by them and we create styles and modes of interaction bounded by them. That is all that Lloyd is doing. We are meeting within the style and aesthetic ground that the nature of his being allows. It is not a departure from an idealized style, but merely an alternative one in which the discrepant aspects of rhythmic groove is highlighted, but the mood, timbre, and energy – the overall aesthetic – expressed a fundamental sense of cohesion […] the separateness of the parts blends into the overall whole. [Aigen 2002, 61]


Gary found himself ‘swinging’ partly in the context of the difficulties of connecting and communicating musically in online sessions at Hill House; of wanting people to ‘catch’ the energy of the music, respond to it and participate within it. This exploration of swing and groove suggests that it’s important for a music therapist to be conscious not just of what they play, but also preciselyhow they play. This won’t, of course, only mean ‘swinging’ in the strict jazz sense. It might mean attending to the craft of how to give musical gestures certain forms of energy, shape, texture and other qualities animation, so that the people ‘the other side’ of the digital divide are invited into the music and can in turn ‘take and shape’ the music through their participation. And it highlights how embodied our musicking perhaps always is – it’s just that the online sessions have put a particular microscope on this aspect. The key questions are still (perhaps always have been?) simply: Does it move you? Does it touch you? This is surely how music ‘means a thing’. 


Aigen, Kenneth (2002).Playin’ in the Band: A Qualitative Study of Popular Music Styles as Clinical Improvisation [with access to DVD material]. Dallas TX: Barcelona Publishers. 

Keil, Charles (1987). Participatory Discrepancies and the Power of Music. Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 2, No. 3 pp. 275-283

Keil, Charles & Steven Feld (1994). Music Grooves. University of Chicago Press. 

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