Jazz and pop musicians spent a lot of time trying to work out ‘the feel’, ‘the groove’, or how to ‘time’ a particular piece of music. It is everything but arbitrary, and even the smallest detail counts. All to get the right timing at the right tempo. It clearly matters!
Music performance studies have looked at these timing details a lot. While often focusing on classical music, more and more studies are now looking at jazz, pop and world music. Tomorrow Bas de Haas (studying at the University of Utrecht) hopes to graduate on a MSc thesis on groove and swing. He asked three well known Dutch drummers —Joost Lijbaart, Joost Kroon and Marcel Seriese— to play a fragment of Swing, the famous break from Funky Drummer by James Brown, and a so-called Shuffle. And had them do this at different tempi.
As always, the relation between timing and tempo turns out to be more complicated than thought of previously. A straightforward model would be that all timing scales proportionally with tempo. It is like making a particular movement: when performing it at a different speed, people generally do it faster (or slower) by doing every part of the movement faster (or slower) in proportion. This apparently works for computer models that imitate human movement, but does not work for music, let alone for our ears. If you slow down a recording you probably immediately hear that something is wrong. Not because the tempo is wrong, but because the timing sounds awkward.
The challenge is to make a model of timing and tempo that, when, for instance, Funky Drummer is scaled to a different tempo, it still sounds groovy. Bas de Haas hopes to show his first attempts at a conference in Montreal this summer.
* See here for a related paper.