I just exported a Piano score from Sibelius with a swing feel:

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I wanted to edit the MIDI in my DAW and noticed, that the notes actually weren't in a triplet duration. The second note was always off the triplet grid:

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So I went back to Sibelius and searched for the reason. I noticed, that in the playback options, it gives the first note a duration of 61,7% and the second one 38,3%

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So my question is... Why would this be the default option?

Do you really play the swing feel like this. If the metric modulation is notated like above, shouldn't be the note duration actually 66,6% and 33,3% instead?

  • 1
    It's a lazy, relaxed triplet feel, not literal. The notation given is a close and convenient representation only.
    – Jomiddnz
    Dec 12, 2019 at 19:08
  • What ever it is default, you can adapt the ratios and the dynamic emphasis. But only dilettantes will like e.g. military band chiefs will make us believe that it has to be always strictly the same! Dec 12, 2019 at 21:26
  • 3
    In comparison, the Musescore default is 60:40.
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 13, 2019 at 0:50
  • What version of Sibelius is this? At least in Sibelius 6.2 (the last good version IMO), there are no such metric modulation symbols in the Playback Dictionary. Dec 14, 2019 at 8:33
  • @piiperi It‘s the latest version of sibelius ultimate 2019.
    – Andy
    Jan 8, 2020 at 10:55

4 Answers 4


If you study the timings of human players, you will notice that they almost never play mechanically exactly what the theoretical written values would be. Timings, pitches, dynamics, everything. Musical notation is a means of written communication about musical ideas from humans to humans. It's meant to be subjectively interpreted by a performer.

Exact triplet swing tends to sound awkward, and the faster the tempo is, the more you have to straighten out the swing.

Why it's the default - maybe they listened to the 66.6/33.3 swing and decided that it didn't sound realistic? I think all of the things in the playback dictionary have been adjusted so that it would correspond to how people would actually play it. Another example is the note length percentages for normal vs. tenuto - I think it's just based on trying out different things and adjusting to taste.

The meaning of the metric modulation marking is actually explained in the Sibelius manual: (from version 6.2. Sibelius Reference)

Sibelius 6.2 Reference on metric modulations

I cannot provide any statistics, but in my experience the symbolic metric modulation marking is more widely understood than the English word "swing". And "swing 16ths" or "swing 8ths" would be even less widely understood... The symbols are a way to communicate the idea of swing without using English, even though there's the possibility of misunderstanding it to mean "to be played as triplet swing with machine-like mechanical microscopic accuracy".

To remedy the situation and cater for the microscopic interpretation - which might be becoming more and more common now that people experience life and communicate with each other through computerized filters instead of directly - it might be possible to use the "almost equal to" sign instead:

almost equal to triplet swing

The downside of starting to use this would be, it would be contrasted with the old symbol, and it would enforce the incorrect interpretation of the old symbol as meaning "robotically precise triplets". Which usually isn't the original intention.

Perhaps the better alternative would be to educate the microscopic precision folks about the actual real-life use of the metric modulation marking? :)

FWIW, the metric modulation swing marking in Sibelius 6.2 seems to produce a swing of about 60% when exported to a MIDI file. Here it is imported to Ableton Live, and the background is set to triplet grid.
Sibelius 6.2 metric modulation swing exported to MIDI

The swing isn't 66.6%, the length of the downbeat notes isn't precisely 100.0%, the notes don't have the same velocity...? That's because they specifically tried to program the Sibelius application so that its MIDI output would be close to a human player's interpretation of the notation.

  • 3
    It's more than that. No-one who has experienced Swing argues that it SHOULD be triplet. The metric modulation notation is not only unnecessary but also misleading. Stamp it out!
    – Laurence
    Dec 12, 2019 at 20:22
  • @LaurencePayne I agree that the metric modulation notation can easily be interpreted to mean triplet swing - and why shouldn't it - but if in practice few people play it exactly like that, even if they try...? Then what is a software company to do - it's in their best interest to make the program sound less mechanical whenever they can. :) This is just my speculation, but I suppose they thought the current default just sounded more realistic. Dec 12, 2019 at 20:54
  • How about options “swing” combined with “humanizer”? Dec 12, 2019 at 21:19
  • @piiperi Reinstate Monica the software company implement a perfectly good version of Swing playback - and it isn't triplets! They also make it possible to (mis)use Metric Modulation notation to give an inaccurate description of what is perfectly well just labelled 'Swing'.
    – Laurence
    Dec 12, 2019 at 21:31
  • 1
    It bugs me that we're calling this a metric modulation at all. To my eyes and in my experience a metric modulation means a very different thing. The 4/4 to 6/8 example is a metric modulation. But it implies a change in beat unit while keeping steady tempo. Swing notation is not usually associated with a tempo/beat unit change. The notation just looks similar.
    – nuggethead
    Jul 22, 2021 at 10:55

"Swing" only means "play exact triplets" in software where the authors didn't know any better.

For humans it depends not only on the genre of the music but also on the overall tempo. It can mean anything from only just over 50%, up to 75% or more.

If you include Viennese waltz rhythm as a sort of swing, the first beat is shorter than its written duration, not longer.

  • "Swing" only means "play exact triplets" in software where the authors didn't know any better." But this question is proof that that isn't true... You are neither answering the question or attempting to Dec 12, 2019 at 22:01
  • @ByBw, I think I disagree. The question asks "Do you really play the swing feel like this" and the answer here is pretty clearly answering "no." The question also asks "If the metric modulation is notated like above, shouldn't be the note duration actually 66,6% and 33,3% instead?" and the implied answer here is "no, because that's not really how swing is played." That's my impression of what the answer is saying, but maybe I'm missing something?
    – jdjazz
    Dec 14, 2019 at 4:27

One of the minor crusades of my musical life is persuading people NOT to use the 'metric modulation' notation when they mean 'Swing'. Swing covers a range of 'Notes inégales' but almost always isn't triplets. Sibelius playback recognises the word 'Swing'. So do live musicians. So does everyone, except some educators who seem frightened of the concept and prefer the precise but inaccurate 'metric modulation'. Don't do it!

However, Sibelius is not 'reading' the metric modulation directly. It's looking up that string of characters in the Playback Dictionary and performing whatever function has been assigned to it. And that assignation can be completely arbitrary! It would be quite possible to assign that metric modulation text string to 'Instrument change to Violin' :-)

In this case the programmers haven't been so mischievous! But they HAVE recognised that misguided composers often use a triplet when they want Swing. So they've made it provide something closer to swing. It's a nebulous concept, but we can be pretty sure that, at a medium tempo, Swing ISN'T triplets.

You can edit the definition if you like. But I expect if you'd WANTED triplets, you'd have written them. Or used 12/8.

  • Good luck fighting the windmills! ;) Dec 12, 2019 at 20:19
  • I’m not sure whether I understand you correctly. If you mean it is not necessary to notate ternary rhythm to indicate “ swing” as musicians and programs know what to do ... then I fully agree. +1 Dec 12, 2019 at 21:17
  • 3
    I think the problem with 'swing' is that there is no accurate proportion agreed upon. Get 18 musos playing together (as we obviously do - at least you and me) and there could well be 18 subtly different proportions going on. That's one reason why some bands swing, and others nearly make it.
    – Tim
    Dec 13, 2019 at 10:40
  • Lots of interpretations of 'Swing', yes. But a band generally reaches consensus pretty quickly. We musicians DO listen, you know! It's almost harder to NOT fit in than to fit in.
    – Laurence
    Jul 23, 2021 at 17:45

The question posted above poses a simply logical question : If the notation is accurately defined in the marking, - ie. 'duplet = triplet', why does the software not obey the clear terms specified? Fact is, if we write exact values, the software should honor them, especially in a function relating to metric modulation. That is, unless we use an interpretive function, such as the swing (as opposed to 'straight') option on whatever program we use. Then the software can interpret the swing according to its default percentage settings, and the composer has the right to alter those settings according to their sensibilities. One is exact replication, the other is approximated interpretation, and both are valid or invalid according to individual intentions and purposes, as is the case in comparing the functional purposes of 'Tempo giusto' to 'A piacere' or 'Rubato' in classical performance. A default fixed percentage of swing, no matter how perceived or preferred by software creators, is just that - fixed, not variable!

Therefore a {60:40%}, or a {66.6.:33.3.%}, or ANY other percentage default setting will not, by itself, offer a more accurate imitation of human/musical feel than another.

Now, back to our actual question : I am also a classically trained composer, and I use MuseScore to notate my work, jazz or otherwise. I do not use the swing function, because I am aware of the nuances inherent to different swing subdivisions, and because I want those to be accurately presented in my scores, to whatever extent practical, not to be limited to what a software company might try and dictate as being the best/most commonly accurate/most natural etc. Therefore, many of my charts, at the very least, involve a mix of triplet and semiquaver swing, and straight quavers/8th-notes, and some are theoretical charts presenting material demonstrating the logically available spectrum of unique swing divisions. When you become aurally aware of that spectrum, you become consciously able to identify the difference between a {2-1} swing, and a {5-3}(62.5%), or {7-3}(70%) swing. Knowing that, and writing like that [ie. - with microscopic precision] is way closer to natural than a fixed default, which will not transfer acceptably across tempo or style changes, let alone from section to section, bar to bar, or phrase to phrase. So, unless you perpetually groove with the one default setting, I'd say avoid them, unless you can apply them at any point in a score.

Finally, what is 'swing'? Ah, just go and practice your triplets for now folks.

I'm pretty confident that, to the average user of composing software, the colloquial Western term, swing has been assimilated and understood sufficiently the world over, and would likely be more readily comprehended than the advanced theoretical, pseudo-mathematical term, metric modulation. Furthermore, since swing is categorically not metric modulation (although they can relate to each other), I would say that to conflate them is a fallacious misnomer, only serving to confuse issues.

  • 2
    I have edited your post to remove the elements that didn't answer the question, were rude to others, and that should have been comments. I have also fixed the overuse of capitals as they really hindered readability. Please read our How to Answer page to understand the requirements for post quality. And remember, we don't tolerate rudeness or harassment of others here.
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    Jul 22, 2021 at 10:49

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