First staff in 'Patterns for Jazz' (1970) by Jerry Coker+, doesn't seem to add up to the time signature. How would you interpret this? I'm just starting to learn notation, so not sure if this is normal, but I thought it should add up..

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5 Answers 5


They add up fine. The first three notes you see, with the 3 underneath them are to be played on the count of one quarter. These are called triplets. The same for the second three notes and then the half note lasts for two quarters, all of which sum up to 4/4.

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Are to be played on the count of one quarter.

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The same as above.

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Lasts two quarters.


It actually adds up pretty nicely! From what I can see you interpret the first six notes as eighth notes. The thing with those are that they are grouped into three notes and notated with a 3 right below them. This means that they are triplets and not eighth notes.

The confusing thing about that is that they are written as eighth notes. How that works is that they are eighth note triplets. This means that three eighth note triplets last one quarter note (1/4). They should be divided in three equally big parts of one quarter note.

The trick is to look for that little 3 written below them (or above them if they would be written higher up).

What this also means is that your 1/4 notations should be changed; move your second 1/4 one note to the right and remove the last 1/4.

(There are also quarter note triplets, where three of those lasts a half note. Also sixteenth note triplets, where three of those lasts one eighth note. So, the general thing is that three triplets of one "speed" lasts one value of the "next slower speed" straight note. Like the three cases I described above.)

  • @Shevliaskovic haha, that was a silly mistake. Thanks for correcting that. And your answer was nice and simple, btw. Great with a link to Wikipedia as well.
    – razofz
    Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 14:19
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    so is it required or normal to notate a triplet with a "3" ? And could the second staff also be grouped in 3's instead of doubles, while still being 1/4-notes?
    – bretddog
    Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 14:38
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    @bretddog if you want the notes to be played as triplets, you have to notate them as such. I'm not sure I understood your second question Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 15:10
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    @bretddog If the second staff example were grouped by threes it might seem unusual but it would not indicate necessarily that they were triplets. It could just be that they are to be stylistically grouped that way when it comes to articulation (or breathing on wind instruments). Then again, as Laurence Payne's answer below shoes, occasionally the triplet will be implied by such a grouping if it follows a clear precedent. A triplet division of a beat into three parts must always be identified with a "3" to avoid confusion, but not all editors are so kind. Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 19:24
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    @bretddog One possible exception is in a meter like 6/8, where although the count is six (eighth-note) beats per bar it is frequently counted in two with a triplet feel (1[23]4[56]). In that case you will commonly see two groups of three eighth notes per bar, and play like they are triplets in two. 9/8 and 12/8 work similarly as being in three or four. P.S. Whenever you encounter a grouping like your original example (but without the 3), but the only way to get the correct number of beats per bar is to play triplets, you can usually safely assume they are meant to be triplets. Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 19:27

This should clarify the various possibilities.

Triplets indicated by the number 3. If the pattern persists, it's acceptable (though not completely 'correct') to omit the number. The 'sim.' notation confirms this, but is not obligatory. Only do this if there is no possibility of confusion. Not triplets. Just normal 8th. Still normal 8th, but a 'cross rhythm' indicated by non-standard grouping. A sort of 3/8+3/8+2/8 feel. If you do this, make sure any actual triplets clearly DO have the number 3!

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    I appreciate the detailed explanation, but since the text is in the picture, it's unfortunate that it won't be searchable/indexable. Could you instead put the text as plain-text, or add the caption to the image instead?
    – Andrew T.
    Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 17:05
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    Worth noting that omitting the “3” on triplets is very common in classical music, especially in pieces from about the early/mid-1800s. It’s considered completely standard/correct in that context, and is unambiguous there since irregular rhythms like your 3/8+3/8+2/8 example pretty much weren’t used in that period. (And on the rare occasions they were used, they weren’t notated by regrouping the stems of the 8th-notes like they usually would be today, but instead by adding accents over the first 8th-notes of each group).
    – PLL
    Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 20:44

The current answers are all good, but I think it would helpful to make one thing very clear:

When you have a triplet, the entire triplet takes up the space of two of the rhythmic units within the triplet. (This assumes the triplet is comprised of three equal note values.)

For instance, in your example, you have a triplet comprised of eighth notes. Thus this entire triplet will last a duration of two eighth notes, or one quarter note. (Now you see the very clear 1 + 1 + 2 pattern in the first measure.)

If you have triplets made of quarter notes, the entire triplet will last a duration of a half note (= two quarter notes). If the triplet is made of sixteenth notes, the entire triplet will be the duration of an eighth note (= two sixteenth notes). And so on.

  • "When you have a triplet, the entire triplet takes up the space of two of the rhythmic units within the triplet." isn't this an oversimplification? I'm not a musician, but I sometimes write a music on DAW, so I don't know if this is a norm, but what about a triplet consists of "twos 8th & twos 16th"?
    – Andrew T.
    Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 17:13
  • It was an oversimplification, just based on the level of OP's question. But I'll edit accordingly, thanks!
    – Richard
    Commented Aug 27, 2017 at 17:25

As has been pointed out the notes add up. When you're counting triplets saying "ONE triplet, TWO triplet" etc. works well. Similarly if you have four barred eighths, you can count them by saying "percolator".

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