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Playlist: Triplets, Breaking up the grid.

To say the triplet is having its moment in the sun currently is definitely an understatement. This little rhythmic quirk, squeezing out of the rigid 4×4 walls of the grid, has been one of the centerpiece tricks in production circles for years, especially in hip-hop and electronic music. But what is a triplet, really? How do they work, and why are they used?

Stuck in the grid.

So let’s say you’re producing a piece of music and you’re just not satisfied with the rhythms you’re coming-up with. You’ve tried all of them, sixteenth notes, eighth notes, rests, gaps, syncopation etc., but nothing feels free enough. This could be because you’re stuck within the world of the notorious rhythmic “grid.” You‘ve probably heard of the “grid” before too. This is the system by which all note values are determined. Strictly speaking, each note value (the length of time a note is held) is fixed to number two. Whole notes divided by two make half-notes, which divided by two make quarter-notes. If you keep following this process you’ll end up with sixteenth-notes, thirty-second notes, and even one-hundred-twenty-eighth notes! In fact it can go on forever…

Because of the system we use, which uses multiples of two for note lengths, you’re stuck to expressing your ideas within a given tempo using these blocks. Most of the time in pop music, this does just fine but sometimes we’re looking for other ways of switching-up the groove.

Three for two.

Triplets are kind of simple, in that they are 3 notes evenly spaced where 2 would occur. So if you have two 1/8th notes on one beat, a triplet would include three 1/8th notes. Take a listen to this example of an 1/8th note hi-hat pattern followed by its triplet equivalent:

In this example, we can hear two measures of a straight 1/8th note hi-hat pattern, followed by two measures of the hi-hat placed into triplet time:

Listen to an example

The number three here is especially important because it is not divisible by two! This fundamentally changes the sound of triplet rhythms in comparison “grid” structured rhythms. Sometimes triplets can increase the sense of “swing” or “pocket” in a piece of music. It can also increase the complexity of your grooves! Remember all of the different subdivisions of grid-based notes? Each of them can be expressed as triplets too.

All-in-all, triplets are a pretty natural feel. A triplet isn’t the only kind of rhythm which can fall out of the grid. Anytime you do so, it’s using what we call a “tuplet.” Triplets are one example, but so are “quintuplets!” Those are five beats in the space of four. If you play a triplet against it’s grid-structured counterpart, you get a polyrhythm! But more on that another time.

For now, try to listen to the example beats above; you can hear how triplets sound. They’re a natural part of our musical world and have existed in folk-music for millennia. It’s how we use them, and express them, which makes triplets unique. Take a look at our playlist on triplets to get an even more solid feel for them. Are they easy to spot? If they don’t line-up with the grid, you’ll have your answer!

You may notice that a lot of our playlist consists of recent hip-hop tracks that heavily utilise this pattern in the vocals. For another perspective, check out this Vox article ‘How the triplet flow took over rap’ for an awesome visual breakdown on triplets and how they’re used in Versace by Migos.

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