I was wondering about triplets : when and where were they used for the first time in scores? More generally, when were triplets used significantly (i.e. not one single time on one particular score, but used several times by many composers)?

As an example for what I'm looking for, here is an appearance of a triplet in the Grande valse brillante in E-flat major, Op. 18, composed by Frédéric Chopin:


According to Oxford Music Online, « the slur and figure used in this way do occur in the 16th century, but were not common until the 19th ». I've never seen a baroque piece using triplets (I don't know many compositions from this epoque, though). On the contrary, tuplets are more frequet in Chopin's works, for instance.

I'm interested in any relevant piece of information. Thank you in advance!

  • 2
    Still not clear. Note that "musically triplets" are very often used in baroque music, they were just not indicated as triplets, because it was common sense which notes were triplets and which not. Maybe this helps you to understand my question to you.
    – tommsch
    May 4, 2018 at 19:10
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    @tommsch : thank you for your clarification. I guess that I would like appearances of triplets as notation on scores. 1) Does this question makes sense to you? 2) However, would you have a precise example of a "musically triplet" which is not indicated on the score? Do you have a reference about this? I would be interested to learn more about that topic.
    – Watson
    May 4, 2018 at 19:16
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    As a concrete example of triplets in the baroque period: the third movement (Tecum principium) of Händel's Dixit dominus (imslp) features triplets in its main melody. Because it also features duplets (e.g. in measure 8), it cannot simply be rewritten as 9/8 (not an uncommon time signature in the baroque period).
    – Remy
    May 4, 2018 at 20:45
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    Regarding the above comment about 9/8, note that sometimes J. S. Bach combines it with 3/4 for notational convenience. For example, in the very well known last piece from the cantata BWV 147 the "triplets" are notated on a 9/8 staff and the other parts on 3/4 staves.
    – user48353
    May 5, 2018 at 1:19

4 Answers 4


...I've never seen a baroque piece using triplets...

Bach autograph, Wilhelm Friedman Noteboook...

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Handel, Chaconne HWV 484, var. 12...

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Corelli, Violin Sonata Op 5, no. 12 La Follia, var. 12...

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... not one single time on one particular score, but used several times by many composers...

Three composers (pun intended), the triplet aren't singular moments in the music but clearly indicate a triplet subdivision of the beat through out the piece. I'm not sure why you made this particular requirement. The Chopin example mostly divides the beat into two eighths and the triplets occur only in isolated places about once every 8 bars. Either way, these examples clearly show triplets were used by Baroque composers. I could only find an autograph for Bach, but that shows the triplet numeral and the slur above.


Mensural music was ambiguous about whether there were two or three notes to one division. So triplets clearly were already part of the music then even though notation did not distinguish them. In Baroque music, the subdivisions were already smaller and triplets typically indicated by beaming (or brackets).

I think the italic 3 is a later convention.

  • 3
    The 3 is not a later than Baroque convention, it is used by Bach in his autographs.
    – user48353
    May 5, 2018 at 1:11
  • Mensural music was fairly clear about the number of notes in one division at the latest in the works of Dufay (ca 1400-1474). For instance, in Helas Mon Dueil, there's a prominent triplet at 0:45 in this recording (sorry, I couldn't find a score online). youtube.com/watch?v=6n5znNb3-Rc May 9, 2018 at 7:59
  • Although the notation was identical, 14th century mensural notation performed in the "French style" was interpreted as triplets, and in the "Italian style" as a more even division.
    – Tom Serb
    May 24, 2019 at 14:06

There are a lot of rhythms we would now notate with tuplets in medieval music, although mensural notation works differently (there is, for example, a 9 over 4 polyrhythm in Ph. de Caserta's ballade 'En remirant', from about 1380; ars subtilior music is full of such things). In music before Franco of Cologne's innovations, you can also find things that must be tuplets of various lengths (for example in Notre Dame organum), but which are notated spatially, a bit as in graphic notation, as well as in the music of the late thirteenth century (Petrus de Cruce, etc.) I'd be interested to know the earliest example of using a number over a group to indicate a tuplet; I'm not entirely certain, but the practice was certainly in place by Bach's time. (You can see most, if not all, of these examples in the Norton Anthology, vol. 1)


I'm no scholar, but I have studied Ganassi's Fontegara 1539 and I do not recall a single instance of triplets. His time signature is 4/4 but his beat is two to a measure. So he is showing how to divide notes to decorate the score, referred to as divisions. (Baroque music used divisions on a ground, for example. And Van Eyck's Garden of delights (early 17th c.) is a good place to see the process at work.

Ganassi used a figure similar to triplets, but not evenly dividing the beat. Thaat is, if you treat 2/2 as 2 beats of 16th notes, he notatates the equivalent of 8 16th notes as 2 dotted 8th notes and one eighth note, so the proportions are 3 3 2, arranged also as 3 2 3

It takes a lot of practice to get the feel of this figure, but it is not preciselly triplets.

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