Jazz is “Dance Music”

So far this semester, we have surveyed a variety of Western musical genres: monophonic religious plainchant from the Middle Ages, polyphonic religious hymns from the early Renaissance, operas, symphonies, chamber ensembles, and, now, jazz. All of these genres served a distinct social purpose: plainchant and polyphonic hymns were an integral part of Catholic mass; operas are secular musical dramas designed to amuse and entertain; symphonies are meant to entertain audience that has gathered in a concert hall for the explicit purpose of hearing Mozart’s “Jupiter”; and small chamber ensembles are generally used as background music at weddings and parties (at least, that’s what chamber music is used for today).

The majority of the music we have studied so far in class was composed for consumption by a stationary audience. We haven’t yet encountered “dance music” in this class—besides waltzes, which are decidedly different from jazz.  Jazz is the first Western musical genre we’ve discussed that is explicitly meant for dancing. Of course, you can listen to Duke Ellington’s “Take the A Train” or Louis Armstrong’s “Potato Head Blues” without dancing—but it’s difficult for me to remain completely stationary when I hear one of these upbeat jazz tunes. Even if I don’t jump to my feet and start dancing, I usually tap my feet or snap my fingers to the music.

Jazz music is “dance music”, because it’s constructed in a way that makes it easy to dance to. For example, “Take the A Train” is in duple meter; it has a consistent (and fast) tempo emphasized by a steady drum beat and cheerful plucked bass line; and its melody is repetitive. “Take the A Train” does not include any long pauses. The music does not grow incredibly quiet for thirty seconds and then suddenly become extremely loud (like in Mozart’s “Jupiter”). There is a consistent melodic theme throughout the song, though there are enough slight variations to the melody to prevent it from becoming tedious. And, perhaps most tellingly, the song is 2 minutes and 53 seconds long—which, coincidentally, is the longest amount of time I can dance energetically without suffering an exercise-induced asthma attack.

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