Duke Ellington famously wrote “it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing”. Swing is not a term we hear a lot in modern music, but we do hear proof of what the Duke meant every day.
If you listen to musicians talk to each other, you might hear them use words like “groove” and “pocket” to describe how they play. Those terms are the modern equivalent of Duke’s swing. Country music certainly does swing when it’s played well, and sometimes it grooves or even rocks. What does all this mean, and especially what does it mean to songwriters?
Let’s Talk Rhythm
Of course, we’re talking about rhythm, and how music is played to make it feel good. We’ve all had the experience of being caught by the feeling of a song before we’re even clear what the words are. “Groove”, “swing”, and “pocket” are terms musicians use to describe what happens when the music feels the way it should….when all the parts are in balance and each element plays its appropriate role without overshadowing the others.
Understanding this concept is important to any songwriter whether you are a performer or not. To many that do perform, it’s second nature and part of what makes being onstage so gratifying….the visceral sense of making and being moved by music on a physical, gut level. But even if you never set foot on a stage or in a recording studio, as a songwriter you want to know what your song FEELS like…..how it grooves…..and the more you know about how those sounds are produced the easier it is to play them or to communicate them to someone else who might play for you.
The Beat of the Song
At the heart of this is quite literally what we might call the heartbeat of the song, the pulse. Is it fast or slow? How does it feel in your body? A hard-hitting uptempo tune might quicken the pulse, while a ballad might feel spacious and relaxed. The pulse is a constant presence through the song, and whether it’s being actually played or not it is meant to be felt.
That pulse becomes the foundation of the rest of the rhythm of the song when it is divided up, generally into pairs in which one pulse is stressed and one isn’t. A drummer alternating between the bass (kick) drum and snare drum would illustrate this nicely: two different sounds, one low and one high, with one accented more strongly than the other. Many if not most different rhythmic “feels” can be ultimately broken down to this simple alternation of stressed and unstressed, low pitched and high pitched sounds. When those two parts sound balanced and “feel” natural, we’re in the groove.
Different Kinds of Grooves
Now think of a piano player playing those alternating sounds with the left and right hands producing the lows and highs. Or imagine a guitar strummed back and forth, and hear the difference in tone and stress between the down and upstrokes of the arm. These are the essential elements of groove. Different kinds of grooves are created by changing the pattern of accents, shifting beats around, or simply adding or subtracting beats or subdivisions of the pulse.
This is of course a very general overview, but you will find that the concept applies to virtually any style of music or any kind of feel you might want your song to have. Listen for these elements when you hear music, and listen to how different instruments and instrumentalists use them to bring a song to life. Then see how this knowledge might inform and impact your songwriting…..and get you into the groove.
artist – songwriter – teacher
“…a musician’s musician…” – Bliss Magazine