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Guide to the Music Used in Swing Dancing (Including Popular Songs and Genres)

Swing music is named for being easy to dance to while being upbeat and invigorating. But swing music is more than just a catchy tune, there is a formula to it that truly makes it “swing.” If you are thinking about taking swing dance lessons, or perhaps you’re trying to immerse yourself in swing music to help your Lindy Hop, understanding the music behind the name can help.

Characteristics of Swing Music Swing music started with jazz orchestras, using a large collective of saxophones, trumpets and drums (to name a few of the many instruments) which came together to create the smooth momentum of swing. Because swing was played by big bands, it was written music which had the following characteristics:

  • Composed: Arrangements were written out prior to preforming so the entire band is playing in unison. Because of this, the band leader was often getting the musicians engaged and creative by using solos, riffs, or tuttis for that improvisation.

  • Rhythm: Swing typically used syncopated rhythms for unexpected patterns while also using “Swing Eighth Notes” for a quasi-triplet or bouncy rhythm.

  • Harmony: Simple but clear chords with homophonic texture.

  • Melody: Clear, upbeat, and memorable, swing music draws on improvisation and call and response techniques to create a song.

Classic Swing Music Genres

Although there were certain characteristics that music structures followed to make it considered swing, there were a few different genres that embodied this format and were considered swing dance music.

  • Big Band: Often used synonymously with swing music, the big band genre began around the time that swing dance started—the 30’s and 40’s. Big band music consists of a large collective of musicians (typically 10 or more) and a variety of brass, stringed, and percussion instruments to perform composed jazz music. Each band has a composer or leader to help produce and direct the music.

  • Jazz: Although performing similar sounding music to the big bands, jazz musicians used brass instruments and a lot of improvisation to create syncopated and danceable rhythms.

  • Boogie Woogie: A piano-based style of blues, Boogie Woogie music is where the pianist uses their left hand for a constant and repetitive bass pattern throughout the song while their right hand is free to improv different riffs or rhythms, and in turn creates a danceable melody.

Example Swing Artists and Their Songs

Swing music has a long history of American passion and pride. With so many wonderful songs and artists to contribute to its story, here are some of the most noteworthy:

  • Cab Calloway: Known for preforming at the Cotton Club in Harlem, New York, Calloway was regarded for his jazz music and scat singing. As his popularity grew for his unique style, he created Calloway’s Cotton Club Orchestra—a big band where we went on to release hits like “Happy Feet,” “Jitter Bug,” and number one hit, “Minnie the Moocher.”

  • Glen Miller: After years of working to find the perfect combination for his big band, in 1939 Miller finally got it. He didn’t just find the perfect balance of musicians—he found fame. Miller formed his orchestra at the Glen Island Casino in New Rcohelle, New York where his music was put on the radio and instantly solidified him as one of the greats. Songs such as “ Moonlight Serenade,” “In the Mood,” and “Pennsylvania 6-5000,” put Miller and his band on the map as one of the top dance bands.

  • Duke Ellington: Perhaps one of the biggest names of the swing era, Duke Ellington was a musician and composer who started his own band in the 1930s. As a big band composer, rather than writing music for the instruments in his band, he wrote for the individual musicians who wielded them. This customization for his band members created pure magic on the stage and lasting impressions with songs such as, “It Don’t Mean a Thing,” Satin Doll,” and “Take the A Train.”

  • Benny Goodman: Often referred to as the “King of Swing,” Goodman is still amongst the best clarinetists of all time. Goodman was also a bandleader who produced leading swing songs such as “Sing, Sing, Sing,” “Moonglow,” and “Stompin’ at the Savoy.”

Swing music has deep American roots and history. This special genre of music is inspired by jazz and is memorable, upbeat, and bouncy—encouraging its listeners to swing to the beat. With greats like Calloway, Miller, Ellington, and Goodman swing music has evolved into something special and historical. Now that you understand swing music, it’s time to put those feet to work and dance! Copper City Swing is ready to get you started on your swing dance adventure.