Theory of the Lilt
September 9, 2009

The phenomenon of "swing" has received a lot of attention. Does it swing or doesn't it? Today I'd like to consider another quality, which I am going to call the "lilt," a rapid up-and-down motion seen in stride piano and in later forms of jazz as well.

(I'll get to my related consideration of "swing" in a subsequent post.)

The "lilt' tends to produce a "two" feel rather than a swinging "four." In other words, the measure of 4/4 time is divided into two parts and each part into two. It is seen most obviously in stride piano, earlier forms of swing, and the solo piano of Thelonious Monk and Art Tatum. (Both Tatum and Monk return constantly to the stride left hand in their solo playing; Monk's composition "misterioso" is based on a lilting up and down pattern.) Other players with a perceptible lilt would include Benny Carter and Gerry Mulligan. Taken less literally, the lilt can involve any perceptibly rapid alternation of high and low notes or even longer phrases. When Coltrane plays a very fast blues the tension and release happens very quickly in the twelve-bar form and produces a kind of lilting effect.

In poetry we can see the lilt in the up and down movement of the Spanish alejandrino.

The opposite of the lilt would be a relatively flat melodic and rhythmic contour, with more forward movement and less "up-and-down."

What's interesting here is that the lilt survives in jazz even though the general movement of the music is away from the corny sounding up and down, two beat. The lilt catches the ear and creates a bouncy exuberance. The flatter sounding four beat can sometimes fall into a rhythmic pattern of "one one one one one one one one"--dull sounding to some ears. The cloying sweetness of the lilt can be tempered, disguised: with dissonance and rubato in Tatum or Monk, for example. Think of how Tatum goes in and out of the stride pattern, or creates tension through rubato passages and then resolves the tension by going back to that bouncy stride left hand. Monk does very similar things, even though his ornamental breaks are less conventionally virtuosic.

So too little lilt, we get a beat that is too evened out, too much lilt, a kind of corny two-step. The lilt is an element of old-fashioned jazz that survives past bebop.

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