June 7, 2009

The Curious Power of Eighth Notes

Do eighth notes gets eight beats? Do eighth notes get an eighth of a beat? Those of you who are reading this who know better are aware that an eighth note almost always gets a half a beat. It’s simply based on four. Eight eighth notes equal four whole beats, thus one eighth note is a half a beat.

In music, two eighth notes on the page indicate an even dividing of the beat: the downbeat and the upbeat. Musicians count them in different ways. Most music teachers say one-and, two-and. Some music teachers say tee-tee-ta (two eighth notes and a quarter note). Eighth notes figure prominently in some memorable musical phrases. Think of the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: three eighth notes followed by a half note. Think of the chromatic foreboding introduction to the theme from “Jaws,” a series of eighth notes. You will have to decide which of those two is more important in music history.

A curious thing happened along the way to paired eighth notes. Generally speaking, until the beginning of the twentieth century, eighth notes were played as a down and an up evenly. The beat was divided in half, each half getting the same amount of time. When blues, and especially jazz, started to germinate in the southern U.S. around the turn of the century, eighth notes began to be played in more of a skipping fashion, the first half getting slightly more than the second half. We cannot point to one person who started this trend, although Louis Armstrong is credited with teaching the world how to swing more than anyone else. Indeed, the most obvious characteristic of what we now call swing music was the pairs of eighth notes played with the first half longer than the second half. The best example I can think of is Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood.” If you look at it on paper, it’s simply a series of eighth notes. But the swing musicians learned that eighth notes were not played evenly. Each pair was played with the first half somewhat longer than the second half. When the arrangers and composers tried to write it down they found it was an inexact science. It’s not a dotted eighth plus sixteenth note, that’s too march-like. It’s more like the beat divided in three parts with the first two connected by a tie. It’s too technical to verbally describe, but we can hear it immediately. Swing music is based on “swinging” eighth notes. The eighth notes in classical music resisted the impulse to swing, thus widening the divide.

That’s not the end of the story, however. Curiously enough, after some fifty years of swinging eighth notes in popular music, they started to migrate back to where they started. I think we can point to the beginning of Rock & Roll: Chuck Berry and Little Richard for example as the transition. These musicians had half a foot coming out of the swing and rhythm & blues era, where eighth notes were unevenly divided and swinging. We can hear the transition in the music of Louis Jordan. Fairly quickly (think Jerry Lee Lewis) the eighth notes became straight again, played much like classical eighth notes and exactly like written on the page. This straightening out of the eighth notes became the biggest distinguishing feature between swing and what was subsequently called Rock & Roll. When a musician calls a tune and a drummer is not familiar with it, their first question would probably be “do you want me to swing it or play straight?” In other words, is it swinging uneven eighth notes or straight eighth notes.

I love the offhand comment that saxophonist Jerry Dodgion made about this in 1996. Jerry is a man who grew up in the swing era and makes his living as a jazz and swing musician. He was around to observe the transition and the profound effect it had on the music business and his own work.

JD: In those days the pop music was still jazz oriented more so. Then later on it became more Rock & Roll, even eighth note oriented. So it changes, it’s changing all the time.

MR: Can I just back up? You just said “even note oriented.”

JD: Even eighth note.

MR: Yes. See I never heard anybody quite describe ... we know how swing eighth notes go and how Rock & Roll eighth notes go, but no one ever exactly said the music became even note oriented. That’s very interesting to me.

JD: Well some drummers, if you talk to some drummers, they might tell you that. Because that’s a basic thing. It’s an even eighth note as opposed to the twelve eight, smooth flowing.

One eighth note by itself doesn’t make any difference. But two makes all the difference in the world. You can hear the transition happening in the recording studio with some of Chuck Berry’s early music where Chuck is wailing away on straight eighth notes and half his band is obviously swinging. The juxtaposition of the two says volumes more than any music history book can describe.


  1. wonderful! I've been looking for discussion on this. What is the groove in Vince Gill's "Next Big Thing"? Feels like a pull between even 8ths and swing dotted 8ths + 16ths.

    Robert in Gilbert AZ

  2. That's a hooky song.
    I would say it's a pretty good example of straight rock 8th notes. If you get the groove in your head then turn off the tune you can sing any number of rock songs over it, like Old Time Rock & Roll or ZZ Top's Sharp Dressed Man (although the tempos are not exactly the same) I think it LOOKS like it should be "somewhat swingy" and pre rock & roll w/the horns etc in the video. I'll bet the dancers near the front of the video were originally dancing to swing!
    Thanks for the comment.

  3. When the arrangers and composers tried to write it down they found it was an inexact science. It’s not a dotted eighth plus sixteenth note, classic rock albums