Understanding Music Structure for Lindy Hop

Do you know how to listen to jazz music?

A critical skill that every dancer needs in their arsenal is understanding the importance of musical phrasing and being able to create within the framework.

We've created a handy PDF that sums up the visual charts you'll find in this blog post. Click here to get the PDF.👈

The first thing to understand is that one “count” the way we think of it in Lindy Hop is also one beat of the music. An 8-count move is 8 beats in the music. Keep that in mind as we look at these breakdowns.

As dancers we usually talk about 8-count and 6-count, but Musicians talk about BARS. A bar is 4 beats of music.

Here’s a visual representation of one standard phrase of music in three different ways:

On the first line, we’ve shown the beats in 2-beat segments. Then on the second line, we’ve shown the bars, which is how musicians talk about the music. There are 4 beats in every bar. Then we’ve shown a musical phrase of 8-counts, which is the same as 8-beats.

Non-dancing musicians won’t know what you’re talking about when you say “counts” so if you need to speak to a band leader, assume you need to translate from Dancer to Musician. As Lindy Hoppers, this can be a bit of a mind bend since we rarely talk in units of 4! An easy way to think about it: divide your 8-counts in half and now you’ve got “bars.”

**Very Important! ** Be careful not to mix up “beats” with “bars”, which is easy to do when people start talking about 32 beats vs. 32-bars. 32 beats is what Lindy Hoppers call one phrase (4 8-counts), and 32-bars is what we call a chorus, which is like 4X4 8-counts.

Music Structure

So what do you need to know about music for Lindy Hop? Let’s look at the most common jazz structures. Most swinging jazz music is structured in one of two ways:

  1. 16 X 8-counts = 32-Bar Swing (most common)
  2. 6 X 8-counts to the phrase = 12-Bar Blues

32-Bar Swing

Maybe the best way to think about 32-Bar Swing is that it takes 4 8-counts to make a phrase, and 4 of those phrases make a chorus. That adds up to 32-bars.

Here’s a visual of the structure of a 32-Bar Swing song, the way we would think of it as Lindy Hoppers:

4 8-counts X 4 = 16 8-counts = one chorus

If you’re speaking with a musician, you might be thinking about a phrase of music (just one of those lines we’ve shown above) as 4 8-counts. But the musician would think of that phrase as 8-bars of music. Lindy Hoppers would think of the chorus as 4 phrases, or 16 8-counts. A musician would think of it as 32-bars.

Here’s a visual of a chorus in the way a musician would think about it:

8 bars X 4 = 32-bars = one chorus

12-Bar Blues

The other common structure for jazz songs is based on the blues, with 6 8-counts to a phrase, or 12 bars.

Here’s how a Lindy Hopper would think of a 12-Bar Blues.

6 8-counts = 12-bars = one phrase

And here’s a visual of a 12-Bar Blues the way a musician would think about it:

For a blues structure, there are 6 8-counts in a row, which is 12-bars of music, hence the name 12-Bar Blues.

NOTE TO CHOREOGRAPHERS:

When you are choosing music for your next number, pay attention to the structure of the song you’re choosing as it will influence how many opportunities you have to punctuate your dancing with something cool, as well as how much tension is building between those punctuations.

Allow us to elaborate.

Standard Jazz Songs

The first thing you need to know about is thirty-two-bar form. In Lindy Hop Talk, those 32 beats usually equate to four 8-count moves in a row, which fit the musical phrase of most songs.

So many of the standard jazz songs that we listen to are structured with 4 8-counts to make up a phrase (8 bars). When you combine 4 of those phrases, you get a chorus, and the melody works and song phrasing all works within the structure of that chorus.

Here are some classic song examples that follow a 32-bar structure to make a chorus.

  • Flying Home
  • Take the A Train
  • T’aint What You Do
  • I’m Beginning to See the Light
  • Hit That Jive Jack
  • Etc.

AABA Songs

Many songs aren’t just 32-beats to the phrase (4 X 8-counts) but also follow a 32-BAR AABA pattern, which means when you combine 4 phrases (each with 4 X 8-counts) together, you get a wonderful musical package called a chorus.

These AABA songs have phrases that repeat. Sometimes the lyrics repeat or sometimes it’s the melody that repeats, but the “B” phrase is always a little different. When you get to the last “A”, the lyrics or melody will return but you can feel that the package is wrapping up.

Let’s use T’aint What You Do as a nice example to show what we mean. It’s a fun one because the lyrics are mostly nonsense so you can sing it to yourself to practice without remembering a lot of words!

A.

Oh, ’tain’t what you do; it’s the way that you do it (8-counts / 2-bars)

‘Tain’t what you do; it’s the way that you do it (8-counts / 2-bars)

‘Tain’t what you do; it’s the way that you do it (8-counts / 2-bars)

That’s what gets results (8-counts / 2-bars)

_ > end of the first phrase

A.

‘Tain’t what you do; it’s the time that you do it (8-counts / 2-bars)

‘Tain’t what you do; it’s the time that you do it (8-counts / 2-bars)

‘Tain’t what you do; it’s the time that you do it (8-counts / 2-bars)

That’s what gets results (8-counts / 2-bars)

_ > end of the second phrase

B.

You can try hard, (8-counts / 2-bars)

don’t mean a thing (8-counts / 2-bars)

Take it easy, breezy, (8-counts / 2-bars)

then your jive will swing (8-counts / 2-bars)

_ > end of the third phrase, which is different

A.

Oh, it ’tain’t what you do; it’s the place that you do it (8-counts / 2-bars)

‘Tain’t what you do; it’s the time that you do it (8-counts / 2-bars)

‘Tain’t what you do; it’s the way that you do it (8-counts / 2-bars)

That’s what… (8-counts / 2-bars)

_ > end of the 4th phrase, which completes the chorus

Here’s a visual on the full chorus:

ABAB Songs (& ABAC)

It’s important to mention that some of our most popular songs as Lindy Hop dancers have 4 8-counts in a phrase (32-beats) but are not AABA. Shiny Stockings was Frankie Manning’s anthem and it’s actually ABAB.

How to understand Jazz Music for Lindy Hop.

It’s a little bit easier to explain this when we use a later version with lyrics, even though the original was instrumental.

A.

Those silk shiny stockings (8-counts / 2-bars)

That I wear when I’m with you (8-counts / 2-bars)

I wear ’cause you told me (8-counts / 2-bars)

That you dig that crazy hue… (8-counts / 2-bars)

_ > end of the first phrase but it feels like it’s still continuing

B.

Do we think of romance (8-counts / 2-bars)

When we go to a dance (8-counts / 2-bars)

Oh no, you take a glance (8-counts / 2-bars)

At those shiny stockings (8-counts / 2-bars)

_ > end of the second phrase feels like it wraps up

A.

Then came along some chick (8-counts / 2-bars)

With great big stockings too (8-counts / 2-bars)

When you changed your mind about me (8-counts / 2-bars)

Why, I never knew… (8-counts / 2-bars)

_ > end of the first phrase feels similar to the first A but it feels like it’s still continuing, and also building more

B.

I guess I’ll have to find (8-counts / 2-bars)

a new, a new kind (8-counts / 2-bars)

A guy who digs my shiny stockings too (8-counts / 2-bars)

Piano

_ > end of the fourth phrase has a much larger build up and release. Dig that piano at the end. Yeah Basie!

One of the reasons why Frankie loved that song so much is that this structure builds a lot more tension before the big release, making it a terrific emotional experience to dance to. Count Basie really understood the importance of space; not just when to play but also when not to play.

12-Bar Blues Songs

For a 12-bar Blues, which has 6-counts in the phrase, there are two extra 8-counts compared to the previous standard structures that we talked about. The result is that it often feels like the song is building up more tension before getting to that feeling of “denouement” when the lyrics and phrasing wrap up—but without adding an entire additional phrase like in Shiny Stockings (ABAB). All that tension builds within one longer phrase itself.

A classic example for Lindy Hoppers is C-Jam Blues, but again it’s easier to break this down with a song with lyrics so we’ll go with Kansas City. In this example, if you listen to the lyrics you’ll notice that there’s a nice gap after the words to let the music build up each time.

And by the way, a good jazz vocalist never sings precisely within the bars and knows how to hang back or start their lyrics early to give it all a cool swinging feeling. So take the placement of these lyrics with a grain of salt!

I’m going to Kansas City (8-counts / 2-bars)

Kansas City here I come (8-counts / 2-bars)

I’m going to Kansas City (8-counts / 2-bars)

Kansas City here I come (8-counts / 2-bars)

They got a crazy way of loving there and I’m gonna get me… (8-counts / 2-bars)

One (8-counts / 2-bars)

_ > end of the first phrase

I’m gonna be standing on the corner (8-counts / 2-bars)

12th Street and Vine (8-counts / 2-bars)

I’m gonna be standing on the corner (8-counts / 2-bars)

12th Street and Vine (8-counts / 2-bars)

With my Kansas City baby and a bottle of Kansas City

Wine (8-counts / 2-bars)

_ > end of the second phrase, which was a lot like the first

Well, I might take a plane; I might take a train (8-counts / 2-bars) >> PUNCHY!

But if I have to walk, I’m going just the same (8-counts / 2-bars) >> feels like it wraps up a bit

I’m going to Kansas City (8-counts / 2-bars) >> just like the 3rd 8-count in the first phrase

Kansas City here I come (8-counts / 2-bars) >> just like the 4th

They got some crazy little women there and I’m gonna get me (8-counts / 2-bars) >> just like the 5th

One (8-counts / 2-bars) >> just like the last 8-count of the first phrase

_ > end of the 12-Bar Blues grouping

Bringing It Home

You can really start to see that the more you understand how these songs are structured, the more you can position your more basic and fancier moves to take full advantage of the ebb, flow, and climaxes of each song.

Note: Rules can be broken and you’ll find songs that are irregular, but understanding the examples we’ve provided here will show you that most irregular songs are still rooted in one of these forms.

Start to listen to all of your favorite jazz songs and figure out the structure of the song. You’ll find the more you listen and count through the songs, the more you’ll intuitively start to understand the song without always having to count it out. We also have some recommendations for great music on our website here.

It’s also really interesting to look up performances online and to see what music structures the performers have used and how that music structure has impacted their choreography.

Click here for a handy PDF of the charts in this blog post.👈 

Once you’ve got a good understanding of the music under your belt, make sure you read our next blog post, Mastering 6- and 8-Count Moves in Lindy Hop!

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Have you had any epiphanies about music structure? Let us know in the comments.

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