Repository logo

Swinging the Score: Compositional and empirical investigations into the performance of swing and groove rhythms by score-reading musicians



Change log


Corcoran, Christopher 


This PhD project consists of (1) an empirical thesis and (2) a portfolio of compositions with commentary. 1.) The thesis explores the effect of habitually playing from music notation on classical musicians’ ability to play by ear and produce the jazz phrasing structure known as “swing”. Swing and its relationship to groove are explored from musicological and psychological perspectives, focussing especially on its conflicting relationship with notation when performed by classical musicians. Two behavioural studies explore interactions between classical musicians’ notation reading, aural discrimination skills, and their swing performance. One of these also allows for formulating a syntax definition of swing, which so far is lacking in the literature. The first study investigates levels of score-dependency, i.e. dependency on notational over aural learning, in classical musicians. Results of several aural reproduction tasks show that score-dependent musicians are more limited in aural reproduction of pitch than score-independent musicians, though no difference between groups is found for rhythmic reproduction. Score-dependency is found to be a likely consequence of long-term task specialisation that can be mitigated by engaging in practices involving playing by ear. The second study focuses on how classical musicians produce swing while playing from notation, as evaluated by jazz-enculturated listeners. In line with the first study, results suggest that performers’ score-dependency has little bearing on their perceived swing rhythm. Instead it modulates the relationship between notational style and swing, with score-dependent musicians swinging more using classical and jazz notation formats. Unlike in jazz practice, listening to jazz recordings did not improve classical musicians’ swing. Jazz listeners’ detailed critiques of classical musicians’ swing provided details for formulating a syntax definition of swing: Swing is a particular cultural expression of groove, characterised by both synchronization and de-synchronization from a near- metronomic beat sequence, an unequal beat subdivision, rhythmic displacement, offbeat articulation, and a preference for faster tempi. The results presented in this thesis have wider implications for research on behavioural and microrhythmic issues in swing and groove production, cognition in aural vs. notation-based music learning, and effects of musical experiences on performance practice. 2.) The portfolio of compositions demonstrates the practical application of swing and groove rhythms in notation for artistic purposes. Over the course of four pieces, it explores how such rhythms can be negotiated in a variety of contexts, including semi-improvised vs. fully scripted performances, classical vs. crossover orchestrations, and metric ambiguities vs. steady rhythmic frameworks. Together, the portfolio and thesis contribute to both creative and empirical research on intercultural composition and associated notation practices.





Causton, Richard
Spiro, Neta


Swing, Groove, Rhythm, Performance, Composition, Score-dependency, Music notation, Music psychology, Music cognition


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge