21 July 2014

Improv Column: Terry Seabrook’s Jazz Tip of the Month No. 12

Terry Seabrook’s Jazz tip of the month No 12

Swinging the quavers part 2: When quavers stop “swinging”


Generally when playing ballads (slower tempos) it is normal (most of the time) to play the quavers (or eighth notes) evenly or straight. Playing swing quavers when the tempo is below about 72 bpm (beats per minute) sounds a bit laboured and slightly corny. As an alternative to playing straight quavers at these tempos you might play swing with a more explicit 12/8 groove. 

In that case you would play more triplets (3 quavers in each beat). This is just a general guide and you should experiment to find what you are comfortable with. Chances are you are doing this anyway without even thinking about it. 

Another option at slower tempos is to play semiquavers (or sixteenth notes) with a swing feel (swung 1/16th notes), although they will work equally well when played straight.


The other occasion when the quavers “straighten out” is at faster tempos when it is harder to distinguish between straight and swing

So at tempos roughly above 200bpm quavers are literally played straight:


You can still get some accented articulation in at this tempo even with fast quavers but even this tends to be hard above about 240bpm.


If you think about the “time factor” here the difference between the “off” quavers in the following 2 examples is 1/6th of a beat. The maths here is




At 200 bpm this represents 50 msecs (or 0.05secs) The maths here is




Well that’s a very short space of time to distinguish and articulate which is probably why the quavers straighten out at these tempos. And you can go a lot faster than 200bpm!     


A note about note values and time signatures


Notice that in this article note durations all have 2 names. One is the European system of nouns and the other is the American system of fractional numbers. It is a good idea to learn both. 



Name (American)


Fraction of bar




(ref to 4/4)


Whole note




Half note




Quarter note




Eighth note 




Sixteenth note




Thirty-second note 





The advantage of the American system is that it suddenly becomes obvious what time signatures are all about, for example:


 means 4 quarter notes in a bar (ie. 4 crochets in a bar)


¾ means 3 quarter notes in a bar (ie. 3 crochets in a bar)


 means 3 eighth notes in a bar (ie. 3 quavers in a bar)


 means 9 eighth notes in a bar (ie. 9 quavers in a bar)


 means 2 half notes in a bar (ie. 2 minims in a bar)


 means 5 sixteenth notes in a bar (ie. 5 sixteenth notes)


To summarise – in a time signature the top number (the numerator) gives the number of beats or counts per bar and can be any value. 


The bottom number (the denominator) however can only be specific numbers because it determines the actual note values you count.


So the denominator in the time signature can be:

4 to represent quarter notes (crochets)

2 to represent half notes (minims)

8 to represent eighth notes (quavers)

16 to represent sixteenth notes (semiquavers)

1 to represent whole notes (semibreves) (theoretically possible but I’ve never seen this one)


As you can see the denominator can only be 1 or multiples of 2. So for example,  is impossible because there is no convention for fifth notes.


Terry Seabrook

Improv Column, Jazz Education 0 Replies to “Improv Column: Terry Seabrook’s Jazz Tip of the Month No. 12”