Musicality: Listening to Music

West Coast Swing Online Musicality & Timing

You’ve decided to start listening seriously to music in order to improve your dancing. Congratulations! This “drill” is designed to guide you through some essential elements to listen for in order to increase the quality of your musical interpretation. Although this list is not comprehensive, it should give you a solid foundation for analyzing west coast swing music.

The Drill: Put your song on repeat and sit back. Listen for the following elements. After you’ve listened to the whole song a couple of times, don’t be afraid to pause and rewind the song a few seconds in order to hear a specific part over and over.

  1. What style of song is it? Are you listening to something smooth and lyrical, like John Mayer’s Free Fallin’, or something hard and fast like Usher’s Scream? A groovy jazz piece like High-Heel Sneakers by Urban Knights, or a passionate R&B like Mario’s How Do I Breathe?
  2. What is the musical structure? At this point, you should be listening for elements like rolling count/straight count, 32-beat vs. 48-beat phrases, whether the song follows a standard pop structure like verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus, whether the song pulses the upbeats or has a relatively constant beat, etc. Danny Gatton’s Funky Mama has a very different structure from the latest pop hit; you should be able to explain that Gatton is doing variations on a theme rather than a verse-chorus structure.
  3. What instruments are featured? Every instrument suggests different colors and movements. The horn in Cleo’s Mood screams for a sharp hit of energy. The piano in Sweet Home Chicago creates a light yet energetic sound. Observe the textures created by the instrumentation and vocals.
  4. What are the repeated elements? Is there a repeated lyric, hook, or accent? Does the music have predictable hits? Is there a consistent build into a new phrase? Etta James uses a percussion build into the new phrases of Baby, What You Want Me to Do?; Junior Wells has the instruments except for the percussion die away for the last four beats of the phrase in Sweet Sixteen.
  5. Where are the contrasts in the song? Does the song change volume between the verse and the chorus? Does the tempo change? Does the style switch from staccato drums to legato vocals? Where does the song do these things—at the beginning of the new phrases, during the bridge only, or in the middle of the phrase? Usher’s More becomes quiet and feels like the tempo was cut in half at the bridge; Son of a Preacher Man has a subtle acceleration into the chorus.
  6. What are the lyrics? Are there brief moments where you can do what the song is describing? For instance, you can move perpendicular to the slot when Tomi sings, “Move it to the left” during Baby Get Down. Be creative!
  7. What in the song is unexpected? Are there beats tagged on to the end of a phrase? Is there an accent that is not repeated (or a repeated accent that doesn’t appear at some point)? Al Green freely adds notes to the phrase during Tired of Being Alone. During I Gotta Feeling, the Black Eyed Peas skip a repetition of a call-and-response “Boom boom!” Soul Serenade has a syncopated series of trumpet notes towards the end of the song.
  8. What else is happening in the song? Is there a counter-melody in the background? Do the smooth vocals contrast with a tight rhythm section? If you eliminated the obvious parts of the song, what is left over? In Spankin’ Leroy, you can’t miss the breaks. But notice that during the breaks, there’s a gentle pulse on the upbeats, and later a synthesizer. You can make the exact same break look completely different by choosing to dance to one of those three elements (the break, the pulse, or the synthesizer).

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