How do Triplet Notes Work in Music?

How do Triplet Notes Work in Music?

Understanding how triplet notes work and being comfortable using them melodically is an essential skill that any musician should have. The only problem, however, is that the concept can be quite confusing to wrap your head around, especially if you are just getting into the world of music and music theory.

So how do triplet notes work? That is a great question, and a question music students have been asking since…well, since triplets were invented!

First things first. Let’s keep this as simple and as straightforward as possible. If you can keep the following definition in mind, the concept of triplets will become much clearer to you.

A triplet is nothing more than three notes occupying the space of two notes. In other words, three evenly spaced notes will take up the same space as two notes of the same rhythmic value.

The most common triplet and the one you’ve undoubtedly seen the most is the 8th note triplet. While that is a good place to start, I really feel that starting with 1/2 note triplets, as odd as they are, will begin to make things click for you.

Having a bird’s eye view of how the beats are counted versus when the drum hit takes place, you’ll more than likely have that AHA! moment you’ve been waiting for.

How do Triplet Notes Work in Music? Sheet music

How do you count triplets?

To begin with, there are a few different ways to count triplets as you play, meaning you’ll need to find one or two that work best for you. You might even need to change how you count mid song depending on the context.

Here are examples of how to count triplets in 4/4 time:

  • One-trip-let, two-trip-let, three-trip-let, four-trip-let, etc.
  • One-and-uh, two-and-uh, three-and-uh, four-and-uh, etc.
  • One-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, one-two-three, etc.

As you can see, you’ll probably have to do a little experimenting until you find one that works for you.

I’m personally going to count out the following examples as one-and-uh, two-and-uh, three-and-uh, four-and-uh, etc.

Now before I go any further, let’s do a quick recap of notes and their time values. I’m sure most of you already know this but just in case you’re hazy on the details, this will be a good refresher.

A whole note:

Whole note

Is equivalent to two half notes:

Two half notes

Is equivalent to four quarter notes:

Quarter notes

Is equivalent to eight eighth notes:

Eighth notes

Is equivalent to sixteen sixteenth notes:

Sixteenth notes

As you can see, the notes can continue to be subdivided into 1/32 notes and even 1/64 notes and beyond. Apart from the 1/32 notes being played on the bass drum in metal type music, you probably won’t be using them all that often as they are quite fast.

Now, with all that math out of the way, let’s do some more math!

So tell me, how do triplet notes work in music?

As I mentioned earlier, a triplet is nothing but a set of three notes, played over the span of two notes. So let’s take those two half notes that you see above and pretend to play the kick drum for those notes.

It would sound something like: One-two-three-four.

The bolded numbers one and three are when the kick drum would be played.

Now we are going to play half note triplets on the snare drum. But how do we do that?

Well, since there are two half notes per bar, that means we need to play three evenly spaced snare hits across that same bar.

This is what half note triplets look like on paper:

Half note triplet

As you can see, it’s nothing more than three half notes. Notice the bar and the number 3 tying the notes together letting you know that those half notes are triplets and it’s still in 4/4 time.

So the challenge becomes, how do you hit the bass drum twice per bar while hitting the snare drum three times per bar, making sure they are evenly spaced?

Luckily, there’s an easy way to think about it and count it out.

Envision this:

Triplet counting

The picture above is what will make everything clear in just a few minutes.

As you can see, there are four groups of three notes each. Ignore everything else, and pretend each one of those groupings of three are worth one quarter note.

Easy right?

Here’s how you are going to count that. One-and-uh, two-and-uh, three-and-uh, four-and-uh.

So what does this have to do with half note triplets?

It means that the four groupings of three notes each can be applied to any kind of triplet you want to count out.

I’ll show you what I mean below:

S = Snare

B = Bass drum

Half note triplets

Half note triplet example

For half note triplets on the snare, and regular half notes on the bass drum, it breaks down like this:

The snare drum and bass drum play the very first beat together. Then the snare plays on the and of beat two, while the bass drum plays on the beginning of beat three (the second half note), and finally the snare drum plays on the uh of beat three.

So try counting the above example out loud a few times and notice where the base and the snare drums fall during the count. One-and-uh, two-and-uh, three-and-uh, four-and-uh.

Quarter note triplets

Here is the same thing but with quarter note triplets on the snare drum:

Quarter note triplet example

Notice there are twice as many snare hits while playing quarter note triplets.

Also notice that for every two quarter notes there are three quarter note triplets. The bass drum still hits on one and three.

It would sound like one-and-uh, two-and-uh, three-and-uh, four-and-uh.

Eighth note triplets

Finally, let’s take a look at eighth note triplets:

Eighth note triplet example

Each quarter note is equivalent to two eighth notes, meaning we would need three eighth note triplets per quarter note.

You might have also noticed I added an extra base drum hit on beats two and four, just to really break up the snare hits into groups of three.

Hopefully this cleared things up for you if you’ve been struggling to unravel how triplets actually work.

Don’t worry if you don’t get it the first time. Take a break and grab some juice or a coffee and let your mind clear for a bit.

Sometimes that’s just what you need to do when learning new things!

What to do next?

If you are brand new to music, music production or are interested in learning to play the drums, you can check out my article: How to Hold Drumsticks

You might also want to check out this article: Acoustic Vs. Electronic Drums – Which One is Right for You?

If you are looking at buying your first drum set or any other musical instrument for that matter, take a look at Zzounds. They have a variety of acoustic drum sets and electronic drum sets for purchase.

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Andrew has been a life long lover of music. Although starting his musical journey on the guitar, (we won't talk about his skills on that particular instrument) he found his true passion was for drumming and making music to share with others. He also enjoys writing blog posts about off the wall subjects that are very much real—such as Bigfoot, UFOs, and what's up with European mayonnaise. Why is it sweet???
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