The Ultimate Quarter Note Triplet Exercise

How many times have you been in a rehearsal and heard the conductor say that some quarter note triplets aren't even? If you're like most classical musicians, you've heard that a lot over the years.

Do you try playing this?

Do you try playing this?

But wind up playing this instead?

But wind up playing this instead?

Why is that? Quarter note triplets aren't fast and they are fairly common, so why do we have so much difficulty with them?

First, some music theory...

The answer lies with our system of notation. In simple meters (4/4, 2/2, 3/4, etc.), it breaks beats into divisions of two. Triplets, naturally, work against that.

But most musicians can play 8th note triplets just fine, you say. And you're right. Eighth note triplets are easy. They take one beat and break it into three parts.

So, there's something more at work here. Look at how many beats the quarter note triplet takes up in the first image in this article. Now, ask yourself where exactly beat two of that measure would be.

That's hard to answer, isn't it? Where exactly does beat two end up? It's somewhere after the second note, kind of. That's not a satisfying answer, is it?

What if the first two beats of that measure were broken up into 8th note triplets? How might that look?

Notice how the quarter note triplets and 8th note triplets align.

Notice how the quarter note triplets and 8th note triplets align.

Aha! Now, where does beat two fall? That was much easier to answer, wasn't it? Thinking about the beats where quarter note triplets occur as 8th note triplets makes it possible for us to understand precisely how they fit in the meter. Which leads us to...

The Exercise

With your metronome set to a moderate tempo (76-88 BPM), start by singing or playing this rhythm until you have it even:

Pay attention to the accents.

Pay attention to the accents.

That didn't take long, did it? Now, let's shift those accents around a little bit. Again with your metronome, play or sing this rhythm until you have it even:

Now that you have that, put them together into a continuous loop and practice until you have it even:

Are you feeling comfortable with that? Great! Now, do this until you have it even:

That's it! You've made it.

Something to remember

Did that last rhythm sound familiar? It's the chorus from "America" in West Side Story:

You can hum this to yourself if you find your quarter note triplets getting uneven again.