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All About Triplets – How to Count and Play Triplet Rhythms

Playing triplets is like riding a bicycle. Until we get the feel for it, they’re awkward and difficult.

Then, once they “click”, it’s a joyride.

The question is: how can we get them to “click”? How and what do we practice so we play triplets expressively and musically?

But first, what is a triplet?

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What is a Triplet?

A triplet is a type of “tuplet”. And a “tuplet” involves splitting a beat into any number of equal parts. (We call these equal parts “subdivisions”.)

For instance, sixteenth notes split a beat into 4 equal parts (subdivisions). Eighth notes split a beat into two equal parts.

Triplets split a beat into three equal parts.

rhythm

Eighths = One beat divided in two

Triplet = One beat divided in three

We may also encounter other, less common, tuplets, such as quintuplets (5), sextuplets (6), and so on.

Note: Eighth note triplets are the most common, and what we’ll be focusing on here. We also discuss other triplets toward the end of the article.

How to Count Triplets

It’s helpful to count aloud when we’re learning a new piece, or figuring out a rhythm.

To count triplets, we can use either of two common counting methods:

  1. Tri-p-let, Tri-p-let
  2. One-trip-let, Two-trip-let

count triplets in music

Either will work. The second has the benefit of naming the beat within the measure. This can help in learning and memorization.

Use Your Mouth (It Helps.)

While it may take some getting used to, counting aloud is a powerful tool in practice.

Unless we know what we’re doing, we can’t say the words aloud in rhythm. When we clap and count a rhythm, we must know exactly where we are within the measure. And we must know where each note fits in relation to the others.

When we count silently to ourselves, we often “cheat”. When we become confused we stop counting, often without realizing it. We think we know the rhythm, but we don’t.

For more on counting aloud, take the free 14-day metronome course.

Rule #1: Triplets Are Even

Rule #1 when playing triplets is this: Triplets are even. This means they are of equal length.

Further below, we’ll examine some of the most common mistakes when playing triplets. Most mistakes playing triplets involve breaking this rule in some way.

Tip: Include the Next Downbeat (think 4, not 3)

When we count and play triplets, it’s helpful to include the next downbeat (the next note after the triplet beat).

Instead of thinking of the triplet as three notes, then the next note, we can instead include the next note. This makes four notes, not three.

A common mistake is to pause between the last note of the triplet and the next downbeat.

group triplets with the next downbeat

Think 4 equal notes, with no pause before the 4th.

When we think “forward” in this way, we more clearly demonstrate where the music is going. Short notes usually lead to long notes. So the notes of the triplet “want” to arrive at the downbeat (the note on the beginning of the beat or measure).

As a result, both we and listeners more clearly understand the music. It’s feels more “right” that way.

Related: Strong Beats and Weak Beats

The Most Common Mistake Playing Triplets

The most common mistakes when playing triplets involve transforming the triplet rhythm into a sixteenth note rhythm.

Instead of three equal subdivisions, we get something like:

The Most Important Note in a Triplet

One note of the triplet has a larger role in communicating the rhythm than the others.

The downbeat (the note on the beginning of the beat), is in the same place regardless of whether we’re playing 8ths, 16ths or triplets.

It’s on the second note that we learn of the triplet.

So the placement of the second note of the triplet is the most crucial. When this note is placed with precision, we (listeners) know that the beat will be divided into three.

The placement of the second note of the triplet is the most crucial.

If this second note is placed slightly off 1/3 mark, the rhythm will too closely resemble a 16th note rhythm.

That said, if we’re not sure exactly where to place it, there’s a trick we can use….

When in Doubt, Stretch ’Em Out

It’s better to stretch triplets out (make each subdivision too large, though still equal) than to compress them.

When we play triplets too fast, we either change the rhythm to example A above, or we get to the next downbeat too soon. This makes the music sound rushed (because it is).

It’s better to stretch triplets out than to compress them.

As blasphemous as it sounds, it’s often more important to communicate the idea of the triplet (a rhythm that “floats” over the 16th note pulse) than it is to be metronomic (in strict time).

Rhythm (once mastered) can be used as an expressive device. This means that we can play more to the intention of the music (the expression) than the “letter of the law” (the metronome). To do this well, we must first be able to play in precise time. Otherwise it’s mayhem, and will likely come out schmaltzy, or just weird.

So practice triplets with precision, but when in doubt, stretch them out. It may not be “right”, but it may be less wrong.

How to Practice Triplets

So how do we master the triplet? What should we practice so we can play triplets with confidence and drive?

Triplets always exist within a context. But a piece could be all triplets. If so, once you start the ball rolling, it’s easy to continue.

Other classical guitar pieces use quarters, eighths and sixteenths. Here, we must play the triplet alongside one of those three other subdivisions.

So to master triplets, master transitioning from each of these three subdivisions to triplets and back.

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Triplets Against Quarters

The first step in mastering triplets is to gain confidence going from quarters to triplets and back again.

At this stage, count triplets when playing the quarter notes (just clap on the downbeat, but continue to count triplets throughout the beat). This way, we can “drop in” the triplets when we come to them. This means we’re not pulling the triplets “out of thin air”, but placing them in the right place.

Many metronomes offer the option clicking on triplets. This feature may be helpful at first.

Alternate between triplets and quarter notes.

Triplets Against Eighths

After we master triplets and quarters, we can move to triplets and eighths.

This is where a metronome set to quarter notes is recommended. Otherwise, we don’t get the feedback we need to make corrections.

triplets and eighths

Once you’ve mastered triplets and quarters, add in eighths.

Tip: alternate between quarters and eighths, and quarters and triplets. When that’s comfortable, alternate between eighths and triplets.

Triplets Against Sixteenths

Remember, eighth-note triplets last longer than sixteenths notes. Up until now, triplets “sped up”. Now, each note last longer than the sixteenths.

We can now build on our work with eighths and triplets to add in the sixteenths.

triplets and sixteenths

Then we can work on playing triplets alongside sixteenths as well.

Quarter Note Triplets

Note: if you’re completely new to triplets, save these for later. Spend your time on the triplet rhythms above, and come back later.

While most triplets are eighth-note triplets (1 beat subdivided into 3 equal parts), we also have other forms of triplets.

Just as three eighth-note triplets take the time of two regular eighth notes, three quarter-note triplets take the time of two regular quarternotes.

To play quarter note triplets with precision, first subdivide the quarters into eighth note triplets. Then play every second note. See the accents below.

quarter note triplets

Don’t guess: know the math and subdivide.

Half Note Triplets

In the same fashion as above, three half-note triplets happen in the space of two regular half notes.

And we can use the same method as above to find the exact placement of each note.

half note triplets

Practice slowly, then speed up.

Note: When first figuring out these types of complex rhythms in a piece of music, we may have to play extremely slowly. That’s fine, and is all part of the job. Speed creates the illusion of perfection, so keep it slow until you know.

Start Small

Some players find triplets daunting at first. But with time and attention, they become just another rhythm.

We can “baby-step” into triplets by playing a piece that only has one or two triplet rhythms. That way, we can focus on a specific musical problem.

At the same time, any work we do on triplets as a study unto themselves is an investment in good music-making.

 

2 Responses to All About Triplets – How to Count and Play Triplet Rhythms

  1. Jacques Mercier September 2, 2017 at 5:12 am #

    Aleays like your posts and your vidéos on YouTube; would also like to see you play a whole pièce.
    In French we count triplets: 1 te ta 2 te ta etc…

    Jacques
    Montréal, Qc.

    • Allen September 2, 2017 at 8:17 pm #

      Thanks, Jacques,
      To hear me play, I have recordings of all the pieces I offer as courses, and you can also see my (not-so-updated) personal youtube channel.

      Thanks again!
      Cheers,
      Allen

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