Elements of Jazz: Swing, Syncopation, Styles & History

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  • 0:01 Jazz
  • 0:52 Swing and Syncopation
  • 3:04 History and Styles of Jazz
  • 5:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Jazz music may be difficult to define, but it does have some common elements that help characterize it. Explore the elements, styles, and history of American jazz music and test your understanding with a brief quiz.


It's been called the most American form of music. It's actually been called a lot of things, but we call it jazz, the musical style of improvisation, African-American rhythms and European-American performance. That's just one definition of jazz music. Other people define jazz by the feelings it creates, the smooth and unrestricted sounds, or the attitude of freedom and cool that it embodies. However you define it, jazz music has been a major part of America's musical landscape.

But if it's so important, why is it so hard to define? Well, to quote jazz musician J.J. Johnson, 'Jazz is restless.' Jazz music bends and moves, incorporating new styles and sounds. It's musical freedom. Poetic, right? What can I say; I just love jazz, whatever it is.

Swing and Syncopation

Despite the freedom and improvised nature of jazz music, there are several common elements that help to define something as being jazz. One of the more technical elements is called syncopation, or an unexpected rhythm on the off-beat. Western music is built upon several expectations. Certain chord changes and progressions place emphasis on certain beats, usually the first and third. Syncopation places rhythmic stress in areas where it normally isn't found, like on the second and fourth beats. This is one of the ways that jazz maintains such an improvised feel, even when it's not improvised.

Syncopation feels unexpected, sometimes even forced, but breaks up normal rhythms into unique patterns. In jazz, syncopation really traces its roots back to Buddy Bolden, a New Orleans cornet player who played between 1895 and 1906. Bolden's band is often credited with developing the first standard syncopated bass drum pattern, which created emphasis on the off-beats.

The other major element of jazz music is the swing note. Strictly defined, it is a triple subdivision of the beat against duple subdivisions. But I prefer Louis Armstrong's definition: 'If you don't feel it, you'll never know it.' In essence, swing is a rhythmic momentum, a pulsing of the beat created by playing notes written in the same duration as a pattern of long and short.

Music staff

Look at this section of sheet music. On paper, these are all eighth notes, so they should all be the same length. However, when this is swung, every other note is played a little bit longer. So, where does it say on the sheet music to do that? Well, it doesn't. Swing is something that is often spontaneous, only used by musicians when it feels right. Sometimes a jazz band will decide collectively to swing a piece, other times a soloist will improvise it, but it's always a personal choice.

History and Styles of Jazz

With something so hard to truly define, it shouldn't be any surprise that the history of jazz isn't exactly known. Jazz music, as we know it, sort of appeared in the early 20th century amongst African-American musicians in New Orleans. The first styles of jazz drew very heavily from African-American music and rhythms; even the swing beat was a common element of African music used by African-American musicians for decades. After slavery was abolished in 1865, African-American musicians were able to pursue opportunities around the country, and they introduced new rhythms and melodies into mainstream American music.

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