Understand tuplets and their basic applications.

Why Tuplets?

We have talked about breaking the beat into halves a lot, but what about thirds? What about fifths? 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 time (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.

Here the 8th notes are now all a little faster because 3 of them fit in the same amount of time. The counting for triplets we will use is “1 La Le” however this is not standard and I don’t know of a system that covers the other tuplets. Some people use the word "trip-el-let" or any other word that fits the given tuplet to count them.

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, but now they are worth a little less because there are 3 now. You could do this with any note, however the 8th note use is by far the most common.

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 will count this as 1 la. Though again this is not a standard used by everyone. 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.


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 Time

When we write in a particular time signature we are in a particular meter. We will cover meter more in detail later but for now say we are in 4/4. This means the beat fundamentally breaks into 2 pieces. This is part of what makes 4/4 sound like 4/4. If we break it into 3 pieces we change this “sound”. This change of sound is sometimes called “borrowed time” or “borrowed meter”.

In the example piece we see that that 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 time”, meaning it is like we used a time signature which tends to group things into 3 for a moment, such as 6/8. This is in the first example by using a triplet.

Later in the second example in the piece we are in 6/8. Here 3 8th notes are grouped to form half the measure. At the end however 2 is used to fill that sample space, this is also borrowing time 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.

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.


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