[First time using ABC notation and I'm working on a phone. Bear with me]

I recall from my private lesson days that when I see

%%score (RH) (LH)
V:RH clef=treble
V:LH clef=bass
[V:RH] c>G c>e g>e f>d | c8 |
[V:LH] (3G,,c,,e,, (3G,,c,,e,, (3G,,c,,e,, (3G,,B,,d,, | C,,8 |

in a composition of Haydn, say, I should interpret the right hand part as

V:RH clef=treble
[V:RH] (3:2:2c2G (3:2:2c2e (3:2:2g2e (3:2:2f2d | c8 |

So my question is, which composers used the former shorthand? When did it go out of favor? Are there classical compositions in which the sixteenth note rhythm should be interpreted literally against a triplet accompaniment?

  • 2
    It went out of favor when composers stopped assuming that performers were intelligent human beings. The biggest step change in that direction was the introduction of computer playback in the 20th century.
    – user19146
    Commented Feb 19, 2017 at 17:51

4 Answers 4


I think we can assume it no longer applied by the time Schubert wrote his Variations, D.624. (Example attached) It's hard to believe he wanted the theme's rhythm modified for the triplet accompaniment in Var.I.

Even in Haydn, it maybe isn't a firm rule. Roland Jackson writes:

"Notated rhythms in binary meter, e.g., dotted 8th and 16th. occasionally appear against triplets in Haydn's works. If the third note of the triplet involves a harmonic change, assimilation is likely, the 16th note coinciding with the third note of the triplet. Assimilation of this kind is mentioned by C. P. E. Bach (1753, trans. 160). However, if no harmonic change takes place during the triplet a literal realization of the rhythms is most likely called for. Supporting this latter approach. Quant/ (1752, trans. 68), writes, "you must not strike the short note after the dot with the third note of the triplet, but after it."' Haydn's written-out double-dotted 8lh plus 32nd note against two 8th notes (e.g.. Hob. xv, 19/3rd mvt.) does not call for assimilation."

enter image description here

  • This is all grist to the interpretation mill, but I would question whether any composer before the 20th century intended that dotted rhythms faster than the "beats" of the music should be played in a mathematically exact fashion. If you don't want to assimilate the rhythms, play the dotted rhythm as 5/6 + 1/6 of a beat, not "exactly" 3/4 + 1/4.
    – user19146
    Commented Feb 19, 2017 at 17:49
  • Where are the double dotted notes?
    – Tim
    Commented Feb 19, 2017 at 18:01

Can't believe that if it's written so, it shouldn't be played so. Assuming both parts need to be triplet feel and timimg. why would anyone write out one rhythm for one hand and a different one for the other, if they're supposed to be the same timing? If one is triplet , the other quaver/semis, then surely that's how the composer wanted it played.

  • No, quite certainly not. The 8. 16 notation is much easier to read than triplets, whose notation is much more complex.
    – yo'
    Commented Feb 19, 2017 at 18:14
  • @yo' - my point is not the ease of reading, but the fact that if a composer wanted all parts to be triplets, with r.h. and l.h. played together, then he would write it as such, wouldn't he? If he wanted some disparity then it needs to be written with triplets in one hand, and dotted quaver/semi in the other.
    – Tim
    Commented Feb 19, 2017 at 18:25
  • And I say, not necessarily. Note how "imprecisely" are baroque sheets written down. Or how many songs are played medium swing but noted straight. Etcetera.
    – yo'
    Commented Feb 19, 2017 at 18:31
  • Pieces where each hand has a subtly different rhythmic pattern to play? True, a lot of stuff is written 'straight' and played swung - I do it frequently, but those should have a legend at the top 'swung', and you don't swing one hand and not the other, unless expressly told to, by the dots written as at the top of the question.
    – Tim
    Commented Feb 19, 2017 at 18:39
  • Convention is always changing. Mordents start on the upper note in Baroque-period convention, and on the lower note in Classical-period convention. Grace notes are often played using a similarly weird convention to the dotted eighth-sixteenth thing in the OP. I'm just looking for a rule of thumb about when they changed. Commented Feb 19, 2017 at 22:34

It's all about context. Playing a note after the triplet distorts the overall feel, unless the melody is all clearly in duple time.


There is more discussion here: https://www.pianostreet.com/smf/index.php?topic=7029.0

I think it to be good by what feels musical rather than to intellectually satisfy a supposed notation.

Another question is whether Beethoven meant a forte mark as an absolute value or a relative value. In the sempre FF coda of his 9th symphony he also frequently writes F each half bar. Would you then take F to be an absolute level softer than FF?

Where are the letters or instructional books about changes in notation rules circulating at the various times?

  • 2
    Would you mind sharing the main aspects shown in that link, just in case the link were to go down someday?
    – Richard
    Commented Jan 9, 2018 at 0:17

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