How to Count and Play Triplets in Music

Musical triplets on the staff.
Musical triplets on the staff.

Brandy Kraemer

A triplet—a type of “tuplet”—is a group of three notes played inside another note-length. It's a portion of musical time that’s been split rhythmically into three equal parts. A triplet is identified by a small " 3" above or below its note beam, bracket, or slur.

A triplet group’s total duration is equal to two of the original note-values contained within. For example, an eighth-note triplet spans two eighth-note beats (one quarter-note); a quarter-note triplet spans the length of a half-note, and so on:

In other words in the first example, three notes fit into the space of two eighth notes. Because triplets divide into threes, they can create a rhythm otherwise impossible or too convoluted to notate in many meters. Triplets written with other lengths include:

  • Sixteenth-Note Triplet: Equals two sixteenth-notes (or one eighth-note).
  • Quarter-Note Triplet: Equals two quarter-notes (one half-note).
  • Half-Note Triplet: Equals one whole-note.

A triplet’s contents may not always appear equal. They can be modified in value, so long as the total length of the note-grouping remains intact

Any individual note or rest inside a triplet has been reduced to two-thirds its original length.

Playing More Complex Musical Triplets

A triplet splits a portion of time into three equal parts. However, these parts can be modified using different note-lengths, music rests, or rhythmic dots as long as the total length of the note-grouping remains intact.

A couple of examples include:

  • Blues Shuffle (#1): Only two notes in the triplet are heard, the first note is twice as long as the second. This may be notated using two notes of different lengths or by tying together the first two notes.
  • Swing Triplets (#2): The middle eighth-note is replaced with a rest (one of the many variations of swing rhythm).

Also Known As

In music, you may see triplets referred to by several other names:

  • Terzina (It)
  • Triolet (Fr)
  • Triole (Ger)