Swing Ratios

Swing ratios are commonly found in music notation programs for emulating the swing feeling expressed in percentage that refer1 to the consecutive eighth (or sixteenth) notes performed as long-short patterns. Microtiming2 studies have shown that those ratios vary widely dependent on style, tempo, musicians affinities and cultural background.

In a fascinanting article3 on the impact hip hop producer J Dilla had on live drum kit performance and pedagogy, Daniel Stadnicki analyses “how the so-called ‘Dilla-feel’ is emulated by drummers and rhythm section players through a range of informal learning strategies and extended techniques, which include practices of online teaching and learning.”.

J Dilla used4 the Akai MPC music workstation that offers sampling and sequencing capabilities. Swing ratios can be set as a percentage. In DAWs different names are used e.g grooves in Ableton groove quantize presets in Cubase or groove template in Logic. Another way to express this swing ratio is by using a tuple notation. This approach doesn’t of course do justice to the different shades of microtiming but haas the merit of offering a clear approach to these types of grooves.

The cowbell from the Afro-Peruvian Festejo rhythm is an example of an original swing feel between binary and ternary:


Festejo with cajita, quijada, congas, bongo and cajon:

Feel The Swing

I took the inspiration for the next exercise from a 16 year old beginner student who, while working on shuffle songs, asked me why the groove of some hip hop tunes felt5 so different from e.g. blues shuffle songs. In the next example the drum groove over the first 2 bars is straight, which corresponds to a 50% swing rate or no swing at all, the two notes on the hi-hat have the same length. The swing feel on the hi-hat in bar 4 and 5 equals a 66,6% swing rate or a perfect triplet division with the first note taking up 2/3 of the beat division and the second 1/3. A 60% swing ratio would correspond to 3 and 2 quintuplets (bar 5 and 6). And a septuplet division (5 and 3 septuplets division) yields a +-57% swing ratio.

swing ratios

Guess The Ratio

When randomizing this example with two bars fragments different exercises are conceivable from beginners to intermediate students:

  • try to identify if a change happens (because a 2 bar sequence might get played twice or more, 25% chance setting)
  • identify the ratio
  • play along with only quarter notes
  • try to emulate the feeling by adapting your bass-line to the drum groove

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  1. Friberg, A., & Sundström, A. (2002). Swing Ratios and Ensemble Timing in Jazz Performance: Evidence for a Common Rhythmic Pattern. Music Perception, 19, 333–349. ↩︎

  2. Collier, G. L., & Collier, J. L. (1996). Microrhythms in jazz: A Review of Papers. Annual Review of Jazz Studies, 8, 463–483. ↩︎

  3. Stadnicki, D. A. (2017). Play like Jay: Pedagogies of drum kit performance after J Dilla. Journal of Popular Music Education, 1, 253–280. ↩︎

  4. cf. e.g. Rose Ludlow’s post: The Dilla feel, part iii, The grooves (real-world examples and Dilla’s influence) for examples rebuild in Ableton. ↩︎

  5. He referred to “I can’t write left handed” (Bill Whiters) as performed by the Roots and John Legend which to my ears sounds like a 60% swing ratio. ↩︎