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The Orchestra Swings with Rhythm

Aim: How do musicians create swing using rhythm?
Summary: Students explore the fundamentals of swing rhythm in “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “I Got Rhythm” and create their own rhythm section.
Standards: National 1, 4, 7; NYC 1, 2
Vocabulary: rhythm section, ride pattern, syncopation

Repertoire Exploration: The Orchestra Swings with Rhythm

Ingredients of Swing Rhythm

Rhythm is the key to swing, and there are several main ingredients that yield the distinctive swing feel. First is the steady beat with accents on beats 2 and 4, giving the music a lively, danceable bounce. Second, instead of playing straight eighth notes that sound even or equal, musicians lengthen the first note of the pair and accent the second, shorter note, creating a bright rhythmic lilt. Finally, jazz musicians add another distinctive swing rhythm called the ride pattern, which the drummer plays on the ride cymbal, accentuating the swing feel. The interactions between these rhythmic ingredients create music that is full of energy and excitement.

Accenting Beats 2 and 4 in “When the Saints Go Marching In”

  • Play the track “When the Saints Go Marching In” (play-along). As you listen, clap on beats 1 and 3 and then march around the room, emphasizing beats 1 and 3.
  • Next, listen to “When the Saints Go Marching In” (Washburne) and begin clapping on beats 2 and 4 and moving around the room, emphasizing beats 2 and 4 and feeling the swing qualities of the arrangement.
    • How does your body feel when you focus on beats 1 and 3? On beats 2 and 4? What is the difference?
    • What else do you notice?
  • Practice clapping or snapping on beats 1 and 3 for four measures, followed by clapping or snapping on beats 2 and 4 for four measures:
    1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4, 3-2-3-4, 4-2-3-4
    1-2-3-4, 2-2-3-4, 3-2-3-4, 4-2-3-4
  • Bring the strong and weak beats together using the stomp-clap: Stomp on beats 1 and 3 and clap on beats 2 and 4, feeling the accents on the off beats.
  • Lastly, sing the melody in the “When the Saints Go Marching In” Sheet Music (PDF) while performing the stomp-clap.
  • Discuss that this is an example of syncopation, or emphasizing what could be felt as the “off beat” or “back beat.”

In the early 1900s, people from all over the world (Africa, Europe, North America, South America, and the Caribbean) lived in New Orleans and played music together. The earliest style of jazz, New Orleans jazz features three horns improvising melodies at the same time while the rhythm section keeps time. The trumpet plays the main melody, the clarinet plays a counter melody with faster notes, and the trombone plays low sliding notes.

Swing Eighth Notes and the Ride Pattern in “I Got Rhythm”

  • Begin by demonstrating the difference between straight eighths and swing eighths. Straight eighths are even; in swing, the first eighth in the pair is elongated and the second eighth is shortened, slightly accented, and a bit louder.
  • Listen to the track Straight vs. Swing Eighth Notes.
  • Have the students echo the rhythms by counting and clapping or playing them on classroom instruments.
  • Divide the class into groups and have one group count and clap a steady beat (1, 2, 3, 4) while the other group claps swing eighths.
  • Listen to the track Ride Pattern.
  • Learn the ride pattern. Have the students echo the rhythm by counting and clapping or playing on classroom instruments.
  • Play the track “I Got Rhythm” (Fitzgerald). Find out more about Ella Fitzgerald in Jazz Artists at Carnegie Hall (PDF). As you listen, have half of the students clap or snap on beats 2 and 4 while the other half says or taps out the ride pattern (ding, ding-ga-ding, ding-ga-ding, ding-ga-ding).
  • Repeat the activity with the track “I Got Rhythm” (Washburne), and have the students switch parts.
    • As you perform your rhythms, can you identify the different instruments that you hear throughout this recording?

Create Your Own Rhythm Section

  • Since rhythm is the key to swing, it’s no surprise that the musicians in the jazz ensemble’s rhythm section—piano, bass, drums, and sometimes guitar—have the very important job of creating the overall feeling of the music. The instruments in the rhythm section balance and coordinate their sound to create the swing feeling that drives the rest of the musicians in the band and forms the foundation for melody, harmony, and improvisation.
  • Explore how the rhythm section forms the foundation for the band by creating a rhythm section with your students.
  • Listen for the rhythm section within the band on the track “Duke’s Place” (Washburne).
  • Divide the class into four groups and assign each group a rhythm to count, clap, or play on a classroom instrument.
  • Use the activity Create Your Own Rhythm Section (PDF) to review the notated examples for each instrument heard in the rhythm section.
  • The class rhythm section can be used to accompany activities in upcoming lessons as students improvise, perform solos, and explore call and response.

George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” Variations is a series of variations for solo piano and orchestra. In the work, Gershwin uses the familiar melody from “I Got Rhythm” in playful, exciting, and unexpected variations that feature different tempos, dynamics, moods, and rhythmic styles. Though each variation sounds different, the “I Got Rhythm” melody can always be heard.

Exploring “I Got Rhythm” Variations

  • Listen to the track “I Got Rhythm” Variations (excerpt). Have students demonstrate when they hear the melody (raising hands, holding up instrument family flashcards, etc.). Discuss each variation separately or the set of variations as a whole.
    • Listen for the “I Got Rhythm” melody that we heard earlier.
    • What do you hear in the variation(s)?
    • What instruments are being played?
    • What is changing or different?

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