Skip to main content
West Midlands Barbershop Harmony Club

Rhythm and Triplets

Submitted by John Eardley on Thu, 28/04/2016 - 14:11

Authored by George Badland.


The other day I was asked a question regarding triplets. The question was “how can you sing a triplet when it only has two notes in it”? Whilst the answer was not difficult to explain, it got me thinking a little more deeply on the subject of ‘rhythms’ in genera,l of which triplets and all the other ‘–plets’ are about. By this I mean such things as duplets, quadruplets, quintuplets etc etc.

Our music is mainly written in the time signatures of 3/4, 4/4, 2/2, 6/8 and 12/8. Each time signature indicates to the performer a particular type of rhythm. (don’t confuse rhythm with tempo as some are inclined to do. Tempo is defined as the speed, whereas rhythm is defined as the regular repeated pattern) So if we take 3/4 for example, we will get a regular rhythm if 1,2,3,1,2,3,1,2,3 etc. whereas 4/4 would give us a regular 1,2,3,4,1,2,3,4 etc 12/8 would give us a regular 123,223, 323, 423 making up 12 beats in each bar.

Now, if we want to change these regular rhythms, we can do so by introducing one of the ‘plets’ mentioned above, and the most common one we find in barbershop music is the ‘triplet’ i.e. three notes grouped together with a bracket over or under them with a little 3 placed in the bracket. (See music notation examples below)

Rhythm Example

However, the thing to remember here, is that we are grouping together the ‘time values’ of the three notes and giving them all a slightly shorter time value so they can fit into the time value they are replacing. We could just as correctly group notes with rests to make up a triplet. In this case the time value of the rests will also change along with the notes. So a crotchet rest and a quaver note can be made into a triplet, but the crotchet rest time value will have to be reduced down to twice the time value of the quaver note.

Why should we want to change the rhythm of the music you may ask? Well, if we have for instance, a piece written in 4/4 and we have to sing the words “Keep Right On To The End Of The Road” (this is especially for you Villa fans) The first three beats would be sung as 1Keep, 2Right, 3On. But the 4th beat would have to contain the words “To” and “The”. We can do that by making the duration of the “To” a dotted quaver, and the “The” word, a semiquaver.

However, if we change the words slightly to “Keep Playing Right On To The End etc we have a different set of syllables to contend with. The word “Keep” is still OK for the first beat, but for the second beat we have to get in the words “Playing” and “Right”. We can do that by breaking the word Playing into to two parts i.e “Play” and “ing” so we finish up with “Play-ing Right” to be fitted into the second beat time value. To do that we could use the ‘Triplet’.

So in this case you will see that the lyric change has indicated that a change of rhythm is required in order to fit the words in. This is true of many songs we sing where the normal rhythm of the song has to be changed to incorporate the lyric. We also see it done to add colour or emphasis to a lyric, but that’s another subject.

Remember that in music. “Without Time - is a waste of time”