Shuffling or Stuttering

West Coast Swing Online Musicality & Timing

Last week, we looked at the shuffle rhythm and how the shuffle rhythm carries over to our rolling count. But, we still need to explore why the shuffle rhythm sounds (and feels) good.

The answer is that delaying the shuffle rhythm feels better than rushing it. In today’s drill, we’ll discover why.

The Drill: In this drill, we’re going to compare the two version of triple rhythms. First, practice clapping or snapping to all the parts of the triplet in the rolling count: &a1&a2&a3&a4.

Now, accent the rhythm of a (rolling) triple step by saying, “1…a2……3…a4……” while still clapping all the parts of the triplet. It may take some practice, but when you get it there’s a natural groove to your triples.

Let’s try the same exercise, while accenting the other part of the triple step rhythm. Clap all the parts of the rolling count while saying, “1&…2……3&…4……”. This version will feel odd, even after you’ve practiced it. There seems to be a stutter in the rhythm. Why does this rhythm seem to stutter while the later shuffle feels smooth?

Musically, the beats have a natural accent. The emphasis is on the beat, unless the musician is doing a syncopation to deliberately put the emphasis where you don’t expect it. Viscerally, our bodies have learned from a lifetime of listening to music that beats are accented. If you’ve grown up with predominantly pop music in your home, you likely tend to put a slightly heavier accent on beats 2 and 4 because you’ve been trained to expect that from a lifetime of pop rhythms. (Interestingly, many Latinos naturally put a greater emphasis on 1 and 3 because Latin music tends to emphasize those beats.)

So, you’ve been trained to think “accent the beat.” When it comes time to accent a triplet, you can hit the triplet part either immediately before the beat (as in the shuffle rhythm) or the triplet part immediately after the beat (as in our awkward clapping experiment).

Because the beat has a natural accent, punching the triplet part that comes before the beat creates an energy that goes into the beat. You go from the & count (no accent) to the a count (accent) to the beat itself (the strongest accent, because the beat is the reference point for the song’s rhythm). There’s a natural crescendo.

When we tried to accent the part of the triplet that comes after the beat, there’s a conflict between the energy we are creating. We have the strong accent on the beat, then a smaller accent on the & count immediately afterwards, then nothing. The problem is that accenting between the beats happens because we want to draw attention to that part of the beat. But, the accent intensity is going down: from the beat to a lower accent on the & to nothing. The & is caught trying to be both emphasized and fading away. The result is that we feel a stutter: our cultural training has taught us that the emphasis happens on the beat, and so our bodies become confused into whether the beat or the & count is supposed to be the actual beat.

In a future post, we’ll look at how the shuffle rhythm plays out in syncopated triples (e.g., &3 4). For your basic triples, the lesson is simply that delaying the middle step of the triple creates a smoother appearance.

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