DJ Mineh Ishida

West Coast Swing Music (part 1)


Photo: Craig Cloutier – Creative Commons License

West coast swing music can be so many different types of music. Often it can be difficult to determine whether a song is truly good for west coast swing dancing.

Many things effect the way we interpret music for dancing. In this post, i’ve broken down some broad methods for interpreting each piece of music when considering it for west coast swing dancing. This is not meant to be a comprehensive work, but merely scratch the surface of what we consider as DJs before we decide whether to play a particular piece of music or not.  Remember that this is my opinion as a DJ, and certainly, not better than anyone elses methods for selecting and interpreting music!

Tempo
First thing many people notice about a song is how fast it is. This seems like a very simple discussion, and in a practical sense, it is. Put simply. The sweet spot for west coast swing is between 95 and 120 bpm. You can obviously dance slower or faster than that, but for most people, this is a comfortable range. Unfortunately, a simple BPM analysis leaves something to be desired for the dancer, as “perceived” tempo is often very different from the actual BPM. I’ll go into this more in a future post.

Those who danced were thought to be quite insane by those who could not hear the music.” — Angela Monet

Time Signature
In west coast swing, we primarily dance to 4/4 music.  In other words, we dance to music that has 4 beats per measure.  In some rare circumstances we’ll dance to 2/4, but never 3/4 or any of the other exotic time signatures.   For more information on time signatures, you can view the wikipedia article here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_signature

Rhythm
West coast swing dancers dance to a large variety of rhythm constructs. Traditionally, the dance comes from a shuffle or “swing” rhythm where the 8th notes are syncopated. Recently however, the dance has undergone an evolution where this syncopation, while still highly desirable, is no longer a requirement.

Even in “straight” rythm music, we still seek a clear difference between the upbeat and downbeat. There are very few songs that most swing dancers would consider good for dancing where the downbeat and upbeat are not clearly indicated. Usually the upbeat is characterized by a tick, clap, rim shot or some other short staccato sound. This allows the dancers to quickly identify whether a beat is even or odd in the measure, and time their steps and variations accordingly.

Instrumentation
Traditional west coast swing music is blues or soul based. In these types of music, there are a large number of instruments to choose from when interpreting the music. One could follow the guitar, bass, horns, vocals, drums, or whatever else the artists layered into the music. Most of these songs within the proper tempo will work for West coast Swing.

With recent evolution into pop and R&B, the music has simplified. We now dance to primarily the vocals in contemporary music, with accents when the music hits a break or offers some unique rhythm structure or embelishment. Thus when choosing contemporary music, it is highly desirable for a song to be musically interesting. If it repeats the same rhythm structure over and over with little accent or embellishment, most dancers will find the song boring to dance to.  Also of particular note for contemporary music, is the introduction of rap or rhythmic speaking.  While used moderately, it can add a bit of edge to a song, a song that relies heavily on rap or rhythmic structures at the expense of melody typically is not as universally appealing for dancing.

Mood

Like most forms of dance, west coast swing is an art form.  As such it is an expression of the music that we dance to.  When a music lacks a clear emotion or mood, the dance has nothing to express.  So, whether a song be happy, melancholy, sexy, angry, lazy or any number of other emotions, it is important that it is easy for the dancers to determine what the mood is.  If a song lacks a defining emotion that can easily be summed up in one word, chances are it will make for a poor dance song.

Preference

In the end, regardless of the above, people want to dance to music that is familiar to them, and matches their preferences.   The best way to understand what those preferences are is to watch and pay attention.  Also, whenever I go to a new area where I haven’t played before,or haven’t played in a while, I try to ask another DJ or dance instructor from the area what kind of music people like.  I haven’t yet run into a situation where they haven’t been helpful and willing to offer their experience and advice!

Check back for Part 2 where we’ll delve into song length, variety of style, musical transition, lyics, sound quality, and other topics relating to music selection!

About the Author:

DJ Mineh Ishida is a west coast swing DJ living in Tampa, FL.  He founded WestCoastSwingMusic.com in 2012 and is passionate about contributing to the West Coast Swing community through DJing and his work with this website.  You can Find more information about DJ Mineh on the About Page.  For booking Inquiries, please use this Contact Form.