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Duplets and beyond

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We've already encountered triplets as a way of playing three notes in the time of two. Now we'll look at ways to play other combinations of notes that aren't possible using conventional subdivision.


Triplets are very useful in simple time, when you need three notes in the time of two.

Conversely, in compound time there is a similar method for notating two notes in the time of three: duplets.

Duplets look very similar to triplets, with the obvious difference of being a group of two notes rather than three, as shown in the following example:

Some music featuring dupletsSome music featuring duplets

As with triplets, duplets cannot be used across a barline.

Duplets are much less common than triplets, because there is another, arguably clearer, way to notate two notes in the time of three, in compound time: by simply adding dots or using ties. This is shown in the following example:

An alternative way of writing dupletsAn alternative way of writing duplets

Duplets can also be used in simple time, but in simple time it is much clearer to notate them by using dots and ties, as in this example:

Duplets in simple timeDuplets in simple time

It is not possible to re-write triplets in this way, which is why triplets are much more commonly found than duplets.


So far we have looked at triplets (3 notes in the time of 2) and duplets (2 notes in the time of 3).

It is possible to apply this idea to a general principle of playing any number of notes in the time of a different number of notes. We could, for example, have 5 notes in the time of 4, or 9 notes in the time of 8.

A general name for these combinations is a tuplets - which is just short for "quintuplets" in the case of 5 against 4, for example.

The following example shows several instances of tuplets, together with the equivalent number of ordinary notes that the tuplets have replaced.

Various kinds of tupletsVarious kinds of tuplets

Note that the number of a tuplet is always greater than the number of the same value that the tuplet replaces.

So, the example above begins with quintuplet quavers, and 5 notes replace 4 normal quavers. Next, septuplet semiquavers: 7 semiquavers replace 4 semiquavers. Then sextuplet semiquavers and quintuplet semiquavers also replace 4 semiquavers each. Finally, septuplet and sextuplet quavers with a mix of note values each replace 4 quavers.

Tuplets in the real world

There are two common occasions when you might come across tuplets, and in both cases tuplets are used when subdividing a fixed span of time is not possible:

  • Ornaments: When ornaments are written out in full (as discussed in Ornaments), it is often necessary to use tuplets to fit the required number of notes into the time available.
  • Runs: Often a composer will want the performer to play a scale between two widely-spaced notes in a fixed amount of time, and usually the number of notes required does not easily fit into neat subdivisions of the time available.

Both of these cases are illustrated below in this music by Beethoven for piano:

from Beethoven, Sonata no. 8 op. 13 'Pathétique'from Beethoven, Sonata no. 8 op. 13 "Pathétique"

Tuplets of all kinds are quite common in modern music, and also in music of the late 19th and the 20th Century, particularly when the composer is seeking a very free, fluid sound, as in this example by Rimsky-Korsakov, for clarinet:

from Rimsky-Korsakov, 'Scheherezade'from Rimsky-Korsakov, Scheherezade


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