I'm practicing a choral accompaniment on the piano, and it indicates swung 8ths. However, in some places the rhythm is notated as 3 eighth-note triplets, and in others, it uses 16th-16th-8th. Initially, I thought that these two rhythms would be realized identically, and I didn't know why it would be notated in two different ways, but then it got me thinking: is a beat containing 16th notes "exempt" from the swing indication?

Here are some examples to illustrate my question.

Ambiguous 16th-16th-8th One possible realization Another possible realization

In this case, I've been playing realization 1, but I'm starting to think maybe I should be playing realization 2 with the straight rhythm.

Ambiguous 8th-16th-16th One possible realization Another possible realization

In the opposite case, where the 16ths are on the second half of the beat, realization 1 makes more sense to me.

In short, when 16th notes occur in a piece with swung 8ths, does the swing get calculated first and then subdivided, or does the beat containing the 16ths break out of swing and get played straight? What about smaller subdivisions?

EDIT: I have noted that Dorico playback uses Realization 2 in both cases.

  • 4
    The swing marking itself may look unambiguous, and some people take it literally, but the writer didn't necessarily mean to say "divide the lengths in exactly 66.66666...% and 33.33333...% ratio". Maybe they actually meant just some kind of swing. In which case, is the notation itself incorrect, or is its literal interpretation incorrect? Is literal interpretation of human communication ever correct? Opinions and practices vary. I always try to play something that sounds good, regardless of what's written. But that's not a good answer. Commented Nov 30, 2022 at 13:20
  • 5
    I would play "realization 2" in both cases unless otherwise indicated. One way to think about it is to suppose there were four sixteenth notes. In that case, they'd clearly be played "straight". That can then be extrapolated to the situations above.
    – Aaron
    Commented Nov 30, 2022 at 17:37

5 Answers 5


The swing rhythm notation convention I'm familiar with is the following:

  • groups of eight notes are swinged
  • eight note triples are notated as eight note triplets
  • groups including sixteenth notes are played straight

Looking at your example 1:

  • realisation 1 is incorrect. If you want to notate a triplet, write a triplet
  • realisation 2 is correct

Example 2:

  • realisation 1 is incorrect. In turn, if you wanted to notate a rhythm to be played this way, you would notate it exactly this way: 2 eight notes and 2 sixteenth notes under a triplet mark
  • realisation 2 is correct
  • This seems to be the way Dorico plays these rhythms back. It makes sense, especially if you had 4 16ths, in which case they would naturally have to be straight. Commented Nov 30, 2022 at 19:21
  • @JohnAlexander: I wonder why it isn't more common to use dotted-eighth+sixteenth as shorthand for triplet-quarter+triplet-eighth, with a more precise reckoning being that in a group of four sixteenth-note durations, would be equivalent to triplet eighth-sixteenth-sixteenth-eighth? So notated sixteenth+dotted-eighth would be a triplet-eighth+triplet-quarter, a pair of two notated eighths would be a pair of straight eighths, and a run of sixteenth would be a rapid "chim-chimimy" rhythm.
    – supercat
    Commented Dec 1, 2022 at 20:16
  • @supercat The answer is: 1. there is already a notation for it (proper triplet) 2. how would you notate a dotted eight + sixteenth note then? Commented Dec 1, 2022 at 20:22
  • @user1079505: Probably with a bracket and a number 4, if I needed such a thing in addition to the triplet-based figures. My Toyshop Trouble theme demonstrated at youtube.com/watch?v=miN90xEJh3s subdivides each phrase into 128 subdivisions in a long-short-short-long pattern, and features a fair number of straight eighths but no straight sixteenths. If I were transcripting it, I'd notate groups of three triplet eighths as triplets rather than sixteenth-eighth-sixteenth, and groups where all four subdivisions of a beat are played as triplet eighth-sixteenth-sixteenth-eighth, but...
    – supercat
    Commented Dec 1, 2022 at 21:14
  • @user1079505: ...those places could put the triplet marker on the beam without needing a bracket. Using dotted-eight+hsixteenth or sixteenth+dotted-eighth pairs seems much cleaner than using scads and scads of brackets.
    – supercat
    Commented Dec 1, 2022 at 21:19

Assuming that this is an arrangement of an established piece, you should listen to a recording of the original and play it as close to that as you can. Choral arrangements are notorious for having poorly-transcribed rhythms, in my experience. The publisher will often simplify rhythms, which leads to a difference between how the song actually goes and how the music says it should go. This is particularly true for music in the K-12 educational market.

If it's an original composition, write the composer and ask.

  • 2
    Yep, you nailed it... it's K-12. I heard one live recording that uses triplets, but the JW Pepper version uses straight rhythms (although it's a super un-musical rendition). I'm opting for triplets, since it sounds the best to me. Commented Nov 30, 2022 at 19:20

16th-16th-8th is not an idiomatic swing rhythm and if you see it written it's a sure indication that the composer/arranger is not familiar with the style. Since the notation is ambiguous, play whatever you think works musically: straight (classically), triplet eighths, or something in between.

  • 1
    I've opted for the triplet realization, even though I suspect the composer might have intended the other. I think it works better. It might be that the arranger didn't transcribe it correctly; I do think the composer (Rollo Dilworth) knows the idiom. But, as someone else said, such are choral accompaniments. Commented Nov 30, 2022 at 19:16

A lot of the time, realisation 1 (the top one) will end up being played. But in reality, the semi-quavers in the top realisation 2 can still be, and should be, part of the swing (triplets) rhythm. As in there would be 3 triplets timing, and the 2 semis get played on the 1st of those quavers, leaving the 3rd quaver played as the 3rd quaver triplet. Very slightly different timing.

In the 2nd example, realisation 1 would be how it was expected to be played - there's no ambiguity - the sign is there to show all pairs of quavers need the first to be twice as long as the second. And that will be reflected where the semis are, too. The semis played on the timing of the last 2 'quavers', leaving the two 'semiquavers' (now in reality a triplet quaver) played in their proper timing.

It will depend on how fast the tempo of the piece is, and how hard the swing is. The only way to check out the difference in reality is to use a metronome set at a rather slow speed, and count like heck, trying out both of the options. I suspect it'll morph into 3 equal triplets at some point as the tempo increases. But at slower tempos, it's an important consideration - especially when there may be others playing at the same time.

There again, if it's jazz, and there's only the one player for that part, it's pretty well acceptable to 'go with the flow', and play with whichever timing you feel at the time!

Not an easy one to explain in words, but I tried... Good question!

  • 2
    I'd expect Realization 2 to be more common than Realization 1 for the top example, especially since notated 8th-note triplets are common in swing jazz. Note that a beamed group of 4 16th notes is also expected to be played completely straight in swing jazz (assuming the usual 8th-note swing).
    – Dekkadeci
    Commented Nov 30, 2022 at 12:19

Ok, let's have a look at triplet systematics first.

A triplet has 3 equidistant positions in time. If you play a note (loud event) or a rest (silent event) at any of them, there are 8 combinations A - H of note and rest for a triplet. The most prominent one in Jazz or Blues is C, the heart beat.

all 8 combinations

Now, let's go back in time, when Jazz musicians played all night in bars with lots of smoke and dimmed lights. Assume you want to note down melodies during performance or rehearsal under these conditions. The correct way to notate the heart beat is using notation C.

However, it's time consuming, and it tends to look quite ugly for a Jazz piece with lots of heart beats, e.g. alternating with regular quarter notes (ECEC for a measure, if you like). The visual appearance is that of 2 eight notes straight. So people started to use that shorthand notation AND indicate "swing", i.e. meaning "play the heart beat C instead of eight notes straight".

Now, there are songs, which further subdivide any of the two heart beat notes as another heart beat (C), which is probably what you are puzzled with. But this would be a very unsusual feel. As has already been mentioned in other answers, you won't be able to hear this nuance at high enough tempo (where already 70 BPM can be fast for this effect). If you can listen to this song or have additional information, you can follow this route.

However I tend to percieve your 6 notations as sloppy notations, meaning all the same thing in timing. Let me show you, why.


With the swing-convention stated above, the triplets named C are obvious heart beats, while the third one can only be A, assuming sloppiness. Then it's a pecuiliar, but logical way to notate the triplet with 3 notes: the bar simply indicates the shift to the middle position.

With this in mind, it's easy then to perceive all 6 notations as exactly the same pattern in time. Peculiar as these variations are, the'd follow a consistent logic to "somehow mark the middle position of the triplet", be there a rest or a note.

all 6

  • A clear way to explain triplets. Bear in mind, though, that E, F and G should all show quavers, not crotchets. I agree that 'heartbeat' as in C is the usual, except that we tend to play with a crotchet and a quaver combined to make the triplet - not 'play' a rest in between two quavers. And there are plenty of folk out there who disagree that swing is triplets. I happen to disagree with them!
    – Tim
    Commented Nov 30, 2022 at 15:37
  • Thank you. Well, on a drumset playing rests is a perfect way to perfect timing. E.g. hitting air instead of a drum allows keeping motion at constant frequency, avoiding e.g. unwanted acceleration. // BTW, it are just notes from a triplet, neither crotchets nor quavers. // Well, when performing it‘s not necessary to match exactly a triplet. However, the range is small. E.g. you can easily sound like a latin rhythm.
    – MS-SPO
    Commented Nov 30, 2022 at 16:48

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