The Science of Ray Charles’s Swing

Rhythm that would put a metronome to shame.

By Dave Mosher|Tuesday, April 03, 2007
An analysis of Ray Charles' music shows the precision of his rhythm.
(Courtesy of Ken Lindsay, Information Scientist)
By breaking down Ray Charles’s rendition of Fever, Southern Ore­­gon University information scientist and music aficionado Ken Lindsay discovered a remarkably rigorous bit of rhythm: Charles’s finger snaps set the main beat with an accuracy of two and a half milliseconds—half the time it takes a honeybee to flap its wings once. “That precision gives the song its amazingly tight swing,” says Lindsay. “His ability to control rhythm was incredible.” To capture Charles’s rhythm, Lindsay wrote a computer program that isolates instruments by frequency and displays their activity as spectrograms (right). By comparing such multi­colored arrays, he was then able to plot a song’s notes into a map by the frequency, intensity, and time each note was played—the musical equivalent of a fingerprint. “A lot of the time, musicians don’t write down what they’re playing,” Lindsay says. “This is a way to capture the subtleties.”
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