Understand tuplets and their basic applications.

Why Tuplets?

We have talked about breaking the beat into halves and thirds, but what about fifths or sixths?

Tuplets make this possible.

A tuplet takes any quantity of time and splits it into however many parts you want. Want to split a beat into 9 parts? Use a tuplet. Want to split 3 beats into 2 parts? Use a tuplet. Whatever your situation a tuplet can be used.

Tuplets are often used for these reasons:

  1. Fit however many notes you need into however long you need
  2. Barrow meter (Borrowed division) temporarily
  3. Smoothly speed up or slow down
  4. Polyrhythms

Tuplet Fundamentals

Fundamentally tuplets allow you to fit however many notes you want into a given space. Say you are in 4/4. Normally in 4/4 it takes two 8th notes to use 1 beat. But lets say you want to use 3 8th notes for 1 beat. Well, in this case you need a tuplet.

You simply write the notes you want and put a 3 around them. To show that these notes should be put together to take up 1 beat. Since this is 3 notes we call this a triplet. We could just as easily use 5 (a quintuplet), or 6 (a sextuplet).

The name simply comes from the number of notes that would be used. Tuplets can get … complicated. So here we only will focus on triplets and duplets and explore the other versions as needed. An example of getting “complicated” is the tuplet could be something more than just 3 notes of the same value, it could be an entire rhythm that has been stretched or squeezed into a particular range. This is the kind of stuff we are going to avoid.

The Triplet and Duplet

There are two main tuplet types we are going to deal with. The triplet and duplet. The triplet is when you take something that originally only had 2 and squeeze a third thing in. For example, 3 8ths in the space of 2.

Example 1

Here the 8th notes are now all a little faster because 3 of them fit in the same amount of time that 2 used to take up.

We have converted from simple meter to compound meter, or in other words we have borrowed compound meter. Since we are in compound meter for this beat we will use compound counting: “1 La Le”. Some people use the word "trip-el-let" or any other word that fits the given tuplet to count them. We will stick to the "1 la le" we learned in the Rhythm 1 lesson although as a reminder I am not aware of a compound counting system that is standard.

Example 2

Another example of a triplet is 3 quarter notes in the space of 2 (as shown in the second example). Originally each quarter note was worth 1 beat so it took 2 quarter notes to take up 2 beats. Now instead it takes 3 to fill up 2 beats! It is just a little faster. You could do this with any note, however the 8th note use is by far the most common.

Example 3

Duplets work the same way (shown in the 3rd example), say we are in 6/8. Normally 3 beats is 3 8th notes, but a duplet would use 2 to fill the same 3 beats measure. We have gone from compound meter to simple. We will count this as 1 +. Doing this means the 8th notes in the duplet are now a little “longer” because before there were 3 but now there are only 2. The "1" lands on the beat and the "and" lands on the half way point, which in this case is beat 1.5 because the notes together take up 3 beats.


Say you need 9 notes in 1 beat. Well, just put the notes in and put a 9 above it. There you have it. Need 10 instead? Add a note and put a 10. It’s that easy.

Borrowed Meter

Say we are in a simple meter, so the beat breaks into two parts, but for a single measure we would like to use a compound meter for just a single beat. We could split the measure up, say its 4/4 but the last beat is compound. We would need a measure of 3/4 and a measure of 3/8, but this is very clunky, hence tuplets. They allow us to do this small temporary changes without the need for some very odd time signatures.

In the first part of the example piece we see that that we are in a simple meter and the beat is regular composed of 2 eighth notes, so when we put 3 8th notes in the space of what was 2 8th notes we have “borrowed meter", meaning it is like we used a time signature which tends to group things into 3 for that one beat, such as 3/8. This is in the first example by using a triplet.

Later in the second part of the piece we are in 6/8. Here we are in compound meter and we see the dotted quarter note gets the beat. We can see this because the 8th notes are grouped into sets of 3. At the end however 2 is used to fill that same amount of time causing us to be in simple meter for those 3 beats, this is also borrowing meter by using a duplet.


Tuplets offer a way to speed up very smoothly. We could for example go from a quarter, to an 8th, to an 8th triplet, to 16th notes. The 8th triplet is slightly faster than an 8th note creating a smoother transition.

This kind of use is very popular. Just call up the tuplet for the note you want to speed up to create the effect. For example, we could smooth it out even further by going from quarter note, to quarter note triplet, to 8th, to 8th note triplet to 16th notes.


Polyrhythms are multiple rhythms in different divisions of time that use 2 different rhythms that fit into each other. For example, 2 against 3. Or 4 against 5. We won't focus on these but they are fun use case you could try experimenting with.

That's tuplets! You should now be able to identify them and interpret what they are doing and possibly why they are there. They can get more complex but it's nearly always an extension of one of these ideas.


Labeling Tuplet Rhythms

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