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I understand that in swing time, a pair of quavers should be played with a ratio of roughly 2-1 (up to 3-1), making it sound like a crotchet followed by a quaver.

But if I want to split the first note into 2, giving a ratio of 1-1-1 (up to 1.5-1.5-1), what is the best way to write it?

To me 2 16th notes make sense (Option #1), but should it be written as a triplet (Option #2), even if the ratio might not be even?

Are 16th notes even played in this way in swing time?

Music in straight time (2-1 & 3-1 ratio) and notation option 1 & 2

Edit: To make clear, the straight time are to illustrate the desired rhythm, I am choosing between Swing Time Option #1 & #2.

I want the time taken to play the two notes at the start of each triplet to be equal to the time taken to play an eighth note in the same position (so that the third note of each triplet lines up with the half-beat). This time is dependent on the swing ratio.

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What you named "Swing time option 2" is the standard notation of swinged eight notes and triplets used in jazz scores. See e.g. this example of Dizzy Gillispie's Night in Tunisia:

enter image description here

Note that the word "swing" is not even written in the score, as it is left to the musician's taste whether and how deeply swing the eight notes.

Edit: It was pointed out in the comments that Night in Tunisia was composed in straight feel, and while some notable musicians performed it in swing feel, I tried to add some less controversial examples.

Charlie Parkers's Donna Lee: enter image description here

The triplets are played as triplets, the eight-notes are swinged.

Sixteen notes appear rarely in lead sheets, more often in solo transcriptions, but I found this example of Armageddon by Wayne Shorter: enter image description here

Sixteen notes are meant to be played straight, and groups including sixteen notes as well, so here at the beginning we have a sixteen-note triplet, followed by two sixteen-notes, followed by 4 sixteen-notes, followed by swinged rhythm in the next measure.

However in this example from Charlie Parker's Billie's Bounce:

enter image description here

The group is meant to be swinged, i.e. the sixteen-note triplet should take time of the first swinged eight note. The resulting rhythm might not be easy to notate explicitly but at high tempo of the tune the swing will be rather shallow and the whole sequence can be played as an ornament, following intuition.

And for completeness All of Me by Gerald Marks and Seymour Simons: enter image description here

Quarter-note triples are to be performed as written.

I'd like to point out that rhythm in various jazz performances often vary significantly, and is modified by the musicians. The widely circulated scores in turn are often not written not by composers, but transcribed from some particular recordings. Therefore one can certainly find performances which don't match examples I provided, and also different versions of the scores.

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  • I must have played this in at least a dozen subtly different rhythm feels! Each band has its own take on how it goes. So, I feel the dots will only ever be a close approximation, although there probably was a band which played accurately the pattern here.
    – Tim
    Aug 31 at 16:13
  • 2
    "A Night in Tunisia" is in no way a swing tune. It's played straight.
    – Aaron
    Aug 31 at 16:51
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    @Aaron - might well depend who's playing..!
    – Tim
    Aug 31 at 17:32
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    @Tim ...and in the distance, we could hear Lawrence Welk saying "an' a one, an' a two..."
    – Aaron
    Aug 31 at 17:39
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    @Aaron Donna Lee, Billie’s Bounce, Armageddon all have swing 8ths. What do you mean by “real” swing? Also, if you listen to Dizzy and ignore the rhythm section he’s swinging the melody in the Latin sections too! Sep 1 at 5:40
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This question veers into "Opinion-based" land, I fear. My gut response goes something like:

For the paired eighth notes: If you write straight eighths but mark the music "In Swing Rhythm," Then the performers will know what to do and can adjust the magnitude of the swing (not necessarily an exact triplet).

But if you write quarter + eighth triplets, the music will sort-of swing but be viewed as calling for a more strict rhythm.

For the triplets: What you've notated produces radically different timings, so I can't tell which one you want. "Straight time 2" has longer 1st and 2nd notes while "swing time 1" has much shorter 1st and 2nd notes than the third one. FWIW, I would probably swing those triplets as (roughly) [nontriplet] sixteenth - eighth - sixteenth pattern. Or alternatively as [triplet] dotted eighth - sixteenth - eighth.

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  • The "Straight time" are what I am trying to reproduce (e.g. put this into a computer to play it exactly), depending on what ratio (2-1 or 3-1) the swung notes should have.
    – Djzin
    Aug 31 at 15:19
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It depends on what you want. In both of your 'swing' examples, players will attempt to play the second bar more or less as written.
More generally, swing usually only applies to eighth notes. Sixteenth and triplets are played as written.

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  • 1
    I want the time taken to play the two notes at the start of the triplet to be equal to the time taken to play an eighth note in the same position (so that the third note of each triplet lines up with the half-beat). This time is dependent on the swing ratio.
    – Djzin
    Aug 31 at 15:26
  • i.e. split the eighth note in two. It is very surprising to me that 2 16th notes do not make up an 8th note to be honest.
    – Djzin
    Aug 31 at 15:28
  • @Djzin - yeah in both jazz and the french baroque, 2 16th notes do not always make up an 8th. Notation is weird and subject to 'local' dialects. Aug 31 at 20:33
  • @Djzin Notating a triplet will get you very close to what you want. Any other way of trying to notate it would look seriously weird.
    – PiedPiper
    Aug 31 at 21:03
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'Swing time #2' seems what you're trying to achieve. For the sake of argument, swing is roughly triplets, so the two quavers in bar 1 will behave like crotchet/quaver triplets, due to the legend 'swing', while the second bar will all be triplets, following exactly the same rhythmic pattern - be-it gentle or hard swing.If in fact you wanted exact triplets as your swing feel, 6/8 is easy to both write and read.

Having said that, it's not crystal clear which rhythm you're actually after - understandable - so would any answer be correct?

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In the swing music I've heard that use 8th-note swing, 16th notes were always played exactly, in straight time. This means that the 16th-16th-8th patterns in the second measure of your "Swing Time Option #1" will be played exactly.

With that being said, as far as I've heard, triplets in swing time are also played exactly. I'm afraid there's no music notation for what you really want: the first 8th note in an 8th-note swing pair being divided cleanly into two, regardless of the swing interpretation.

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  • I've seen a lot of sheet music that writes triplet-quarter+triplet-eighth as dotted eighth+sixteenth, often with a notation to that effect. I'm not sure why that approach isn't more common, since it makes visually obvious which notes should be longer and shorter and interacts well with straight eigths, which occur much more often than straight sixteenths.
    – supercat
    Sep 1 at 19:00
  • @supercat - I think the reasons why that approach is so rare is that it both directly contradicts what we've been taught in elementary school music class (rather like swing) and music that involves triplets and dotted 8th-16ths playing at the same time where the 16ths and ending triplet notes do not coincide are too common in classical music (Schubert's Impromptu in C Minor, Elgar's Pomp and Circumstance March No. 2 in A Minor, probably more).
    – Dekkadeci
    Sep 2 at 3:13
  • While there are some pieces of music that feature dotted-eighth+sixteenth and straight-sixteenth rhythms and also have a few triplets, genuine sixteenth notes are far less common than straight eighths in most pieces that have a "swing feel". When pairs of eighth notes are used to subdivide a beat into 2+1 triplet eighths, subdivision into 1+1+1 with a triplet bracket works fine, but 1.5+1.5 and 1+2 are both awkward, as are combinations that include rests. When using dotted-8th+16th notation, 1+1+1 is notated normally, 1+2 is sixteenth followed b dotted eighth, and 1.5+1.5 is two eighths.
    – supercat
    Sep 2 at 16:47
  • If one adjusts the duration of the sixteenth note in each group of four as long-short-short-long, then anything that looks like a sixteenth at the start or end of a beat will be a triplet eighth, anything that looks like an eighth note at the start of the end will be a straight eighth, and anything that looks like a dotted eighth that starts or ends on a beat will be a triplet quarter. Writing sixteenth-eighth-sixteenth would yield three triplet eighths, but that pattern could be better written using a triplet with a 3 over the beam.
    – supercat
    Sep 2 at 16:53
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"Swing rhythm" indications near universally apply to eighth notes. In order to get the rhythm you want, in which the first two notes represent the first (longer) swing eighth, and the third note is the second (shorter) swing eighth, it should be written as sixteenth-eighth-sixteenth. That will be understood by jazz players and executed the way you want.

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    Are you sure it won't get interpreted as straight 16th-8th-16th notes?
    – Dekkadeci
    Sep 1 at 0:26
  • @Dekkadeci In essence, there's no such thing as "swing sixteenths". But even allowing for what you're saying, I think that interpretation will be close enough to what OP is asking for.
    – Aaron
    Sep 1 at 0:42

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