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We have already seen how a crotchet can be divided into two quavers. Let's now investigate how we can instead divide it into three: triplets.
Subdividing the beat
Have you noticed that all of our note symbols (semibreve, minim, crotchet, quaver, semiquaver) all divide into twos? A minim is worth two crotchets, a crotchet is worth two quavers, and so on.
In order to create a note type three units long we had to add dots: a dotted crotchet, for example, is worth three quavers.
Dividing into three
However, what if we want to divide a normal beat (without a dot) into 3 instead of 2? In other words, three notes in the time of two? For this we use a new bracket-like symbol called a triplet.
A triplet quite straightforwardly indicates to the performer that three notes are to be played in the time of two.
Triplets can be of any time value: three triplet crotchets take the place of two normal crotchets; three triplet quavers take the place of two normal quavers, and so on.
As with simple note and rest values, we use the largest note values for the triplet we have in mind. Therefore, if we want triplets to span a minim, we use triplet crotchets rather than any shorter values. Shorter values can be used to make rhythms within the triplet, but the basic triplet consists of three crotchets.
In all cases, the triplet note durations must add up to the same as the dotted version of the duration replaced.
Triplets can almost be thought of as the "opposite" of a dot. For example, three triplet crotchets equal a minim and three normal crotchets equal a dotted minim.
Triplets and barlines
Triplets can therefore span several beats within a bar, or even a whole bar (for example, triplet minims in 4/4).
However, triplets never cross a barline. They work a little like beams: they join notes together with a beat group and within a bar, but usually do not run across the beat group, and never across the barline.
Triplets can be notated in several different ways as shown in below. All are equally valid, and you might see any of these in music you play or in a music theory exam.
Be warned! Sometimes you may find a whole piece of music in which there is a recurring, constant triplet pattern (for example, an accompanying left-hand pattern in piano music) notated without any obvious triplet marking.
This is potentially confusing, but the meaning should be obvious in printed music. You should, however, avoid this practice: always make triplets very clear to the performer, by using one of the methods of notation shown above.
Rhythms within triplets
When we use a triplet we are specifying that the span of time is divided into three rather than two (for example, the span of 2 crotchets is divided among 3 crotchets). We can therefore write any rhythm we like within that span long as it adds up to those three units.
The example below shows several instances of both rests and mixed time values within triplets, but notice how in each case, each triplet adds up to the correct three units: the first beat of the first bar, containing a triplet crotchet and quaver, adds up correctly to three quavers, which take the time of two quavers.
Adding up bars
Triplets add extra complexity to a bar, and this makes some jobs more difficult.
It can be harder to check that a bar adds up to the correct amount given the time signature used, or to work out what that time signature should be, or to know where the barline should be placed. You may find it helpful to pencil in the duration that the triplet unit replaces before adding up the bar.
In the example below, we are asked to give the correct time signature:
If you are not careful, you might look at the four crotchets and be tempted to quickly say "4/4". But you would be wrong!
Look closer: those three triplet crotchets take the place of only two normal crotchets. That means there is a total duration of only three normal crotchets in the whole bar, which means that the correct time signature is in fact 3/4!
Are you sure you've understood everything in this study guide? Why not try the following practice questions, just to be sure!