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I am aware of how in theory these two are different, that the triplet are three notes with same length and the dotted-quaver/dotted-quaver/quaver have the third notes slightly shorter in tempo. But I want to know in terms of sound and composing, what would led you choose one over the other?

  • 2
    Not a dupe, but related - 'Handling of dotted-eighth rests when a 'swing rule' is in place...'
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 6, 2021 at 6:59

6 Answers 6


The following are the exact same rhythms you posted, but each one is divided into smaller values and they are placed on top of each other to make the comparison easier.

As you can easily see, the two notes you said don't fall at the same beat. They are slightly off.

As you can see with the triplets

This is because in the case of the triplets, you divide the beat by 3 (and play the first and third note), whereas in the case of the dotted eighth, you divide the beat by 4 (and play the first and fourth note). The difference isn't that big, and an amateur player might not be able to hear/play it, but it is there and it is important.

Now as far as which one to choose, it would be totally up to the composer. If played correctly, they have a different feeling and the choice depends on what the composer wants to do. For me, the triplets have a more laid back feeling and the dotted eighth has a more sharp feeling. It would also depend on how the rest of the piece (or part of the piece) goes. It's quite common to have a part of the piece that has triplets all the time, so the composer would add the dotted eighth to create a small difference in this specific passage, or vice versa, when a piece has a lot of sixteenth notes, adding quarter triplets might feel like the piece is "slowing down". I, personally, love this "slowing down" effect and use quite often.

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    Well done. If the OP wants a common denominator quarter triplets are 8/24ths of a half note, dotted eighths are 9/24 and eighths are 6/24ths os a half note respectively. . Commented Apr 6, 2021 at 6:29
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    @JohnBelzaguy - with two metronomes, I guess it's possible to set them off together. Shades of early Elvis rhythms...
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 6, 2021 at 6:53
  • Yeah, I suspect the noticeable "slowing down" effect may be in part due to the dotted rhythm being on the 16th-note subdivision level (one-eighth of a half-note), and the triplets being on a much slower subdivision level of one-third of a half note. Eh?
    – user45266
    Commented Apr 6, 2021 at 7:24
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    Oops, your first sentence confused me - you are referrring to your examples, not the OP's Commented Apr 6, 2021 at 15:52
  • Similarly, beginner musicians often play a Five-group as "12- 123" , making it into two sixteenths followed with a sixteenth triplet. More advanced players can play the Five as five evenly spaced notes. Commented Apr 6, 2021 at 15:56

Beyond the obvious - the two rhythms are different - it helps to have some context on the history and use of the second rhythm.

The second rhythm is often known as the tresillo and is historically popular in Latin American (particularly Cuban) music. It is however African in origin, having been bought to the Americas by slaves.

More recently the tresillo has been used extensively in reggaeton, from which it has spread further into Western pop music. The most famous/successful recent example of it's use is in Despacito by Daddy Yankee and Luis Fonsi.

There's a nice video discussing it (with many more examples) here:

  • It is also known as the tango rhythm, the Charleston rhythm, ...
    – user207421
    Commented Apr 7, 2021 at 3:46
  • @user207421 Tango does use the tresillo, among several other rhythms, including embellishments of the tresillo. My impression of the Charleston (though I'm really not familiar with it) is that it generally omits the final quaver - I guess it might have a related history?
    – stuart10
    Commented Apr 7, 2021 at 9:15

I don't know why we're getting such complicated answers/comments to this simple question. The triplet is a smooth rhythm with three equal notes. The other is a more jerky, syncopated rhythm. They're not just different 'in theory'. They're similar but different, period. Like apples and oranges are both round fruits, but they're DIFFERENT round fruits. Write the one you want to hear.


I'm confused by some answers. These are different rhythms entirely. Triplets have three evenly-played notes, and two dotted eighths + 1 eigth = 3 + 3 + 2 beats.

I'd use the first if I wanted 3 identical notes. I'd use the second if I wanted a more syncopated feeling.

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    This is more of a comment than an answer.
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 6, 2021 at 8:10
  • 4
    If I said, "I know apples are different than oranges, but I want you to tell me when to eat which," then how do you answer that? They are different. Use each when it's what you want. As for my answer: "I'd use the second if I wanted a more syncopated feeling." Commented Apr 6, 2021 at 8:16
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    How about this: "A will sound Blue Danube-ish, and B will make it sound more Rite of Spring-ish." :D Commented Apr 6, 2021 at 9:08
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    @Bennyboy1973: I read the question as more like “How do I decide when to use apples or oranges, in my cooking?” Sure, you can answer that with “Use which you want” or “Use what the recipe tells you”, but you can also usefully say “Oranges can add more refreshing tartness, or aromatic notes, and go well with XYZ other flavours. Apples work better with ABC flavours, and add more depth of flavour.”
    – PLL
    Commented Apr 6, 2021 at 16:15
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    For more references: Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata is in straight triplets; while Astor Piazzolla's Libertango has the syncopated rhythm running right through it (if a little slower).
    – gidds
    Commented Apr 7, 2021 at 8:59

(As mentioned in other answers) the triplet sounds like a smooth 3-beat bar; because it's written as a triplet (rather than as a 3/4 measure with a slightly slower tempo), this structure is useful as a contrast to a piece written in 4/4 with a 4-beat bar (or 2-2 with a 2-beat bar.)

The other measure sounds more like a 3+3+2 additive measure than a division of 4 or 8 beats into 2 or 4 (or 3 in the question). This structure is often set against a 4-beat measure in an interlocking manner (but different from a 4 against 3 sound.) This structure is extremely common in tango music and is used in cha-cha-chas and rumbas also (and in American style bolero music.) Division of 8 beats (or half-beats) into 3+3+2 against a 4/4 background works well even over long time spans (like a minute or so.) The combination of 4/4 (four quarter notes) vs 3+3+2 (two dotted quarters +quarter) can be set nicely against a clave rhythm (either son or rumba clave). The interlocking accents add just enough syncopation to keep rhythmic interest for several minutes. Of course, different instruments can trade off playing a given rhythm.


The difference is: they are not the same at all, like you say in the triplets the length values are equal while the dotted example the 2 first notes are longer than the third!

When apply the different notations?

In my ear I hear two different stiles:

  1. The triplets I’d use to indicate for a legato or tenuto interpretation, extending to rubato in a slower section.

  2. the dotted version is applied in a faster, rhythmic, accentuated and rather staccato passage (especially the last beat which is somewhat shorter than the 2 precedent.

(e.g. 1 = Jazz, 2 = Rock)

There are other pieces like a March or a Scherzo where the triplets are also staccato - and not smooth.

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