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I'm a software developer creating a MIDI player that can play with "triplet feel" -- that is, when it sees two eighth notes, it plays them as if they were a triplet of quarter note + eighth note. This is traditionally notated like so:

Triplet feel notation

From a programming perspective, here's how I'm handling this for eighth notes:

  • For any eighth note that falls exactly on a beat, its duration gets multiplied by 4/3.
  • For any eighth note that falls exactly on the "and" of a beat, its duration gets multiplied by 2/3.

My question is: how does triplet feel affect non-eighth notes? Clearly quarter/half/whole notes are not affected, but what about dotted eighth notes, sixteenth notes and thirty-second notes?

Also, am I correct to assume that, for eighth notes, I should only alter their durations if they fall directly on a beat or the "and" of a beat?

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Swing doesn't affect eight notes as such but changes the meter of the bar. Any note longer than a sixteenth that falls on the 'and' is delayed. Typically, this happens with eights but it can also happen to quarters which start on the 'and'. Same for dotted quarters.

Sixteenth (or shorter) are exceptions: they remain straight and are never swung (when eights are swung). A typical swing composition would use this for special effects only and would try to avoid eights and sixteenth to overlap.

Sixteenth are swung in Shuffle style music, however, e.g. in Funk, "New Jack Swing" from the 90s etc. The notation is then "two 1/16 = triplet of 1/8 and 1/16s". It means that sixteenths are treated like eights in Swing. Otherwise, the rules are the same.

Rarely, there is another exception in older Big Band swing arrangements: a series of staccato eights is not supposed to be swung. Example: trumpet line at the very end of "In the mood".

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    In the jazz circles I've played with (perhaps biased as a trumpeter) the idea of not swinging certain passages came up frequently, and in fact some of the most 'hip' (their own terminology, heh) jazz artists I have known seem to indicate that the best form of 'swing' is so subtle that you're never quite sure of the note durations - triplet feel works in some styles, dotted-eighth-sixteenth feel works sometimes, and quite often - especially in faster pieces - the swing is a lot closer to articulation differences between almost totally straight eighths. Quantized swing in MIDI is not the same :P – Darren Ringer Dec 26 '14 at 23:58
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As always in music, it's very subjective. There is no one rule that applies to all and everything. This is particularly true for jazz, it is very free.

1. On triplet feeling

Swing feeling does not necessarily place the eighths exactly on where exact triplets would. Exact triplets make a song sound kind of stiff and not very "swingy" (again, subjective). It might fit for a dixie tune, or old swing. It wouldn't be good for another genre. My recommendation if you are writing this program is to give the user the opportunity to relax or tighten up the triplet feeling.

2. Which notes get affected?

So my answer is: it depends. If you have a group of four 16th, a human musician might very well want to play them long-short-long-short. There is no rule that always applies.

Also, am I correct to assume that, for eighth notes, I should only alter their durations if they fall directly on a beat or the "and" of a beat?

Are there any other cases? Do you mean 16th rest, 8th note, 16th rest? Deal with that case as you would a 16th.

3. What is swing feeling?

One definition of "swinging" a tune that I like better than just giving eighths a triplet rhythm, is that the accentuation is on the off-beat. In a group of eight 8th, you would play the second, fourth, sixth, and last note stronger that the other ones. This leads quite naturally to these notes starting a bit later, thus getting a more loose rhythm towards triplets. Try to give these off beat notes a little boost in velocity, I think that would be a nice effect.

This is also what would make the "triplet feeling" apply to the group of 16th I mentioned earlier. Weak-strong-weak-strong, and you naturally get this loose rhythm.

It is quite usual to hear musicians (often classical) who are new to jazz play with exact triplets and accents on the beats. It doesn't swing very well.

This all is of course a bit depressing for someone trying to write software.

Some more food for thought: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swung_note#Swung_note


You had me read a great article about swing feeling:

http://jazzadvice.com/developing-a-concept-of-swing/

Yes, everyone is taught the standard “off beat” articulation of swing eighth notes, and you’re right, swing is much more complicated than that. It’s not even that it’s more complicated. It’s that swing cannot be defined by anything that you can write down.

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From your comment on Dom's question, I see you are familiar with playing jazz yourself.
You can try to play different swing feel music you know well, and record it. Then use some sound software to find out how it is by examining the sound waves and examine the length and velocity of the swing notes. This way you can find out what technically makes the swing feel. You will probably find that there are different things for different styles, but you have to try to find some common middle way, or find out how to best notate and differentiate the different styles in the midi language.

An alternative to record it yourself is of cause to rip existing recordings from CD that represent the style you want to express.

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If swing rhythm is notated with straight eighths, then the best approach is probably to say that the first half of each beat is played at 3/4 normal tempo (so a half beat notated would last 2/3 of a beat) and the second half at 1.5x normal tempo (so half a beat notated would last 1/3 of a beat), but negate such an effect for any beat which contains a triplet or "duplet" bracket.

My personal preference is to notate swing rhythm using dotted-eight+sixteenth. This can be accomplished by treating each group of four 16th-note beats with the first and last notes at 3/4 normal tempo and the middle two as 1.5x normal tempo. This has the advantage that notes written out as straight eighths will have equal duration, and both swing and reverse swing figures can be written without needing triplet brackets. Even triplets could be written without using triplet brackets (since notating sixteenth-eighth-sixteen would yield three equal-length notes) but using triplet bracket for those would almost certainly improve readability.

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