Tool #47: Writing Tuplets Idiomatically (“Correctly”)

Modern music seems to have engineered an explosion in rhythmic notation, in particular the use of tuplets.  Performers are increasingly used to things such as 11 notes in the space of 8, dotted rhythms in tuplets, and nested tuplets (tuplets-within-tuplets), for a few examples.  Yet, is there a way to notate tuplets accurately and idiomatically, so that players can “eat them up” on the fly?

I would argue: yes, there is.

I was raised on the tuplet system whereby you choose to notate tuplets according to the rhythm they are most closely sounded to.  For example, in the space of 1 quarter note, a quintuplet is beamed as 16th notes, whereas a septuplet is beamed as 32nd notes:

However, what happens when we put these two tuplets next to each other?  The instinct of a performer differentiating between 16th and 32nd notes is to play the 32nd notes much faster.  This creates the illusion–and confusion–that the 32nd notes are much faster, where they actually are not that much faster (certainly not doubly faster than their 16th note counterparts):


Here is the solution I adhere to, taught by my current professor at The Hartt School:


Not only is it cleaner looking, but it reads more accurately to a performer.  We all know how valuable rehearsal time is, and how it can be wasted on poor notation.

What is the rule behind this notation?

Write note values of the slower/longer standard (non-tuplet) note value, until the point where you would use a faster/shorter note value.

Here is a simple, sample hierarchy based on this rule, at the quarter note (which can go on ad infinitum):

Tuplets full.jpg

This also applies to strange tuplets (eg. x in the space of y) and nested tuplets.  Any subdivisions within this (eg. dotted notes inside tuplets) are affected by this, too.  The main principle when using this is to be consistent, to avoid confusion.

Have fun using these to your advantage!

Questions, comments, rotten vegetables?  Let me know!

Thanks for reading,




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