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I had a discussion with a friend today about how a certain part of a song is supposed to be played. Over time, several more people came in and added their own opinions and explanations, and now there is total confusion. Unfortunately I wasn't able to find the right keywords to google this problem, so I'm asking here. (English is not my native language, so I'm not sure if I know all the music-related words - feel free to edit of course.)

We have a song with a "swing rule" at the beginning which turns all 3/16+1/16 notes into triplets which I consider 2/12+1/12: img1

There are pieces of the song where notes which are written as actual triplets occur at the same time as 3/16+1/16 notes, such as the areas marked using rectangles in the following picture (ignore the upwards arrows, they were manually added by my friend): img2

Now, my interpretation is that:

  • The parts I marked with horizontal bars are affected by the "swing rule" and played as 2/12+1/12 instead of 3/16+1/16.
  • The measures in the rectangles are played liked this (excuse the crude sketch and misaligned notes): img3
  • The notes I circled are played at exactly the same time.

For reference, this is the original soundtrack from which this song originates - I already skipped to the relevant part, starting with the first measure in the second picture I posted (at 0:37):

The same as orchestral version (at 0:35):

Now the following questions came up:

  • Does this "swing rule" apply to 3/16 rests + 1/16 notes as well as 3/16 notes + 1/16 notes, even though only the latter is shown in the example notation next to the tempo? (I thought yes)
  • What is the real, correct name of this "swing rule" (so we can Google it)?
  • Is it true that the circled notes in bass and treble are supposed to be played at exactly the same time, so there is no polyrhythm (when looking only at the notes sheet)? (I thought yes)
  • Are they actually played at the same time in the original soundtrack? (For me it sounds so, given that the bass instrument has a softer "fade-in" of each note - somebody else said there is a slight delay)
  • Does the actual physical position of the notes on the sheet matter? Somebody said that there is a slight delay in the original soundtrack (something like 1/32-1/64 which I didn't really hear) and it is also visible in the notes sheet because the 1/16 note is slightly shifted to the right relative to the third triplet note.
  • Is the duration of the three notes inside a triplet of equal length? (I thought yes - 2/3 the length of the non-triplet version of the same note)
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•Does this "swing rule" apply to 3/16 rests + 1/16 notes as well as 3/16 notes + 1/16 notes, even though only the latter is shown in the example notation next to the tempo? (I thought yes)

Yes, it applies to any combination of notes and rests.

•What is the real, correct name of this "swing rule" (so we can Google it)?

No idea, but this notation has been commonly used in classical music for centuries before Jazz was "invented." Back in the 18th century, nobody bothered to write the explicit instruction - it was just considered to be "musical common sense" and it avoided writing "quarter + eighth-note" triplets. Often, triplets were not explicitly marked with a "3".

Note, in a slow tempo in classical music, the 1/16 note may be shortened to 1/6 of a quarter note, not lengthened to 1/3. For example the first movement of Beethoven's "Moonlight sonata" is usually played that way.

•Is it true that the circled notes in bass and treble are supposed to be played at exactly the same time, so there is no polyrhythm (when looking only at the notes sheet)? (I thought yes)

Yes.

•Does the actual physical position of the notes on the sheet matter? Somebody said that there is a slight delay in the original soundtrack (something like 1/32-1/64 which I didn't really hear) and it is also visible in the notes sheet because the 1/16 note is slightly shifted to the right relative to the third triplet note.

A professional music engraver would probably make the 1/16 note line up with the third note of the triplet. But most recently-published music is created using notation software that doesn't do that sort of thing by default, and used by people who just assume the computer will do everything right.

If the score is played by a notation program, that will also ignore the timing adjustment, unless somebody adjusts the timing of the 16th notes by hand. In a quick tempo, it's hard to hear the difference anyway. This is more an instruction to a human player not to try to separate the last note of the triplet and the 16th note.

•Is the duration of the three notes inside a triplet of equal length? (I thought yes - 2/3 the length of the non-triplet version of the same note)

Yes. To be pedantic, they are not supposed to be obviously different lengths - humans hardly ever play music in absolutely strict tempo.

  • Thanks a lot for your answer! Just to clarify, so the physical position/alignment is largely irrelevant, only the durations count? Or not? This part of the answer wasn't totally clear to me. – CherryDT Jul 27 '16 at 9:25
  • I've seen the triplets placed relative to dotted-eighth-sixteenth figures as indicated in the original post in a lot of music that predates the use of computerized music layout. I think it's simply a result of the layout artist literally interpreting the timings of the music, rather than figuring out how it should actually be played. – supercat Apr 25 '17 at 5:15
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Your interpretation is correct. The triplets would not change the general swing feel with the 16th notes. It is just a notational convention.

Here are some references for further study:

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There are important points here, worthy of Answer status.

If the composer really wants triplets, he should write triplets, or use 12/8 time.

If he wants Swing, he should write straight 8s and indicate "Swing".

Computer playback is absolutely TERRIBLE at interpreting Swing!

The notation of this excerpt is sloppy and inconsistent. A computer will make a mess of it, if interpreted literally (as has been demonstrated). But, strangely enough, a live player would have little difficulty in interpreting it and giving a stylish performance.

  • If music contains a mixture of straight and swing eighths and no "real" sixteenth notes, the indicated notation can be a lot cleaner than using triplet-bracket quarter-eighth patterns everywhere. – supercat Apr 25 '17 at 5:16

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