Is There Any Difference Between Triplets and Sextuplets? And What About the 12–Let?

Posted on February 6, 2022

 Triplets Sextuplets

Triplets vs. sextuplets? This is a pretty niche topic that will probably interest only the nerdiest of music nerds, but I wanted to share some thoughts I had on it since I’ve been considering this question for over a decade.

Back in high school, my marching band would warm up with a tune called “Maximum Strength Warmup” by Gary P Gilroy. It’s actually a fun piece of music, and the drumline part is pretty interesting — it features a neat collage of some famous drumline warm–ups, such as eight on a hand, double beat, and triplet diddle.

It’s also pretty challenging, especially for a high school drumline (and especially for my high school drumline, lolrip). The bass drums have some fairly intricate split rhythms during the finale, while the snare drums have a measure that features a 17–stroke roll written as 32nd notes. The song is played at 132 BPM, so those doubles are cooking. And the quads (my instrument) have some pretty fun movements around the drums, including some scrapes that I really didn’t even appreciate until I was older.

The reason why I bring this song up is because of the final four measures:

This was the first time I had ever seen a sextuplet rhythm “in the wild”, and by this point in my drumming journey, I was never really sure about how I was supposed to play something like this. I didn’t wanna ask anyone else on the drumline because then I would look like a n00b, so in my head, I just thought I would play the sextuplet as two sets of 16th notes triplets. But I started to wonder: if I was supposed to play the rhythm as 16th note triplets, why not just write the rhythm with 16th note triplets? There has to be a reason why the composer specifically used the sextuplet rhythm... right?

Eventually, I did some research, but to this day I haven’t really found an explanation that’s to my satisfaction. Most of the answers describe different subtleties regarding how you play a sextuplet rhythm versus playing triplet rhythms of the same subdivision. I guess because 16th note triplets feature two groups of three, there is an implied accent that the sextuplet doesn’t have:

You could compare it to the way we differentiate certain time signatures; that is, the difference between 4/4 and 2/4, or perhaps 7/4 and 7/8.

But there’s something about this sextuplet interpretation that just doesn’t gel with me — we’re not talking about overarching rhythmic structure, we’re talking about specific executions of the written music.

I guess the obvious answer is that the sextuplet is specifically for six–note phrases, but because triplets are so ubiquitous, I imagine that most could just split up a six–note phrase into two three–note phrases without issue. Going back to the time signature comparison, it would be like using 8/8 instead of 4/4 if you have a 3+3+2 rhythmic structure. Maybe 8/8 is the correct answer, but using 4/4 would still be fine.

Triplets in general seem to be more common across different subdivisions. I rarely see 8th note sextuplets, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a quarter note sextuplet. I highly doubt I’ve ever come across a half note sextuplet. As such, “sextuplet” is often used as a synonym for 16th note triplets specifically, which is... dumb (I guess I should also bring up how sextuplets are additionally referred to as sixtuplets).

This dilemma isn’t that uncommon. I’ve been playing music for about 20 years and I remain unsure about the differences between a ritardando, rallentando, and ritenuto. Going back to rhythms, Adam Neely shared a video a while ago exploring the differences (if any even exist) between these two rhythms: 

Adam had a discussion with some other musicians, and the point that stuck with me the most was the idea that the dotted 8ths encourage you to subdivide 16th notes within a strong 6/8 feel, while the duplet is more about just plowing through the 6/8 feel.

In terms of sound and performance, however, my conclusion is that, no, there really isn’t a difference in how you would play the two rhythms. To that end, they sound the same inside of a DAW or a notation program. A drummer in the video tried to express a difference in execution, but honestly, it was pretty nebulous.*

To further convolute things with the sextuplet, I found a short article describing four possible interpretations of the sextuplet:

In something like an orchestra, the interpretation of the sheet music by the performer and conductor is an important part of that discipline. But how do you know which interpretation is correct? Perhaps the phrasing of the notes could inform you, provided you even know that there are four ways to execute this rhythm. Yet in the case of drumline sheet music, it’s hard to imagine a performer adding in articulations that aren’t written in, and using the way the notes are grouped to justify it. Honestly, if you’re a composer and you want someone to play an accent, just write in the damn accent!

To me, beaming is more of a question about legibility, not performance. Have a look at this:

Would you play one differently than the other? Also consider the annoying convention I see in older scores where nothing is beamed together:

And then there’s beaming that’s just plain wrong:

So when it comes to performance, I personally think there really isn’t a difference. Sure enough, much like the duplet and dotted 8th example, the two tuplets in question sound exactly the same inside a notation software.

At the end of the day, I really don’t know why “Maximum Strength Warmup” uses the sextuplet. I do have one theory: the song was published in 2001, so it’s quite possible that the sheet music was engraved with a piece of software that couldn’t beam groups of 16th note triplets together. MuseScore had this problem when I started using it back in 2013, so if I wanted my score to look good, I had to use sextuplets.

It’s also worth considering that, back in the era of hand engraving, it was probably easier to write one group of six rather than two groups of three. Perhaps the sextuplet is just a holdover from a bygone time.

Let’s not beat up on this rhythm too much, because I can easily think of some situations where an arranger might regard a sextuplet as being easiest to read. For this example, I’m going to use the Jimi Hendrix tune “Bold as Love”. The song itself is pretty slow (70 BPM), and unsurprisingly Mitch Mitchell uses the tempo as an opportunity to show off some fast triplet singles. Here’s a fill heard at the 1:33 mark that I have notated two different ways:

For me, I would prefer to read the bottom example. It’s easier for me to keep track of where the beat is when I’m reading two groups of six versus four groups of three.

Here’s another demonstration:

This is an extreme and contrived example, but nonetheless, I still have an easier time reading the sextuplets.

I also think the difference is clear in an 8th note based time signature, like 3/8:

So if you see a sextuplet in the wild, here are a few possible reasons why:

  • The music was hand engraved by someone who found it easier to write one 6 instead of two 3s.
  • The music was engraved by someone who spent a lot of time looking at old sheet music and now thinks sextuplets are always the right answer.
  • The music was engraved with a scorewriting software that has lackluster beaming capabilities.
  • The music was engraved by someone who thought the sextuplet would be easiest to read.
  • The music was engraved by someone who wanted to communicate some esoteric subtleties with the sextuplet instead of actually writing them in.

While we’re at it, we might as well talk about the somewhat rare 12–note duodecuplet (at least... I think that’s what you call it; some prefer to just use “12–let“). I haven’t encountered the 12–let much as a percussionist, and it’s most common in technique books. Indeed, the first time I ever saw one was in Stick Control, where a 12–let used to rather clumsily notate a 13–stroke roll:

You’re basically supposed to play the above example like this:

Why a 12–let? Maybe it’s to help emphasize that the 13–stroke roll is supposed to be one unified phrase, but ultimately I think notating it this way is unnecessary (this harkens back to some of the reservations I shared earlier about telling beginners to go through Stick Control).

Here’s an example that is a bit more interesting: it comes from a transcription of the famous “Tom Sawyer” drum solo, courtesy of Rob Litten from drumstheworld.com — note the use of a 12–let for the big double kick fill:

I was a bit confused the first time I saw this, but then I soon realized what Rob is going for. In this situation, the 12–let is supposed to work a lot like the nonuplet (9–let). Usually, nonuplets are felt/counted by dividing each note of a triplet into three equal notes. Instead of using triplets nested within triplets, the nonuplet is easier to write and (ostensibly) easier to read:

If you listen to the “Tom Sawyer” drum solo, you can hear that the double kick fill clearly follows an overarching 8th note triplet pulse. So in this situation, we are dividing each note of a triplet into four equal notes:

This time around we would never have to worry about nested tuplets, so it’s really a matter of what is going to be easiest for the average reader. Again, because triplets are so ubiquitous, it’s really anyone’s guess. But this could be a neat tool for you to use as a composer/arranger/engraver.

And of course, you can use 12–lets as in the following example (warning — you might consider this excerpt to be a crime against humanity):

Let’s be realistic here: we’re talking about 64th notes, a rare subdivision for the typical drummer, and I have a hard time imagining that your typical drummer could play the above example at anything faster than 35 BPM, which means we’re also talking about rare tempo markings.

To further add to the confusion, you can also just take a triplet and just subdivide the crap out of it. Here’s that fill from “Bold as Love” notated a third way:

I started with an 8th note triplet and then divided each 8th note of the triplet into four notes. While it looks very ugly, this is nonetheless a totally valid rhythm. Does it get its own special set of rules? Who can say... again, subdividing triplets might make reading easier in the context of the music around it:

Despite some potential legibility improvements the sextuplet offers, it can also make sheet music uglier. I see this happen all the time in the drum corps world — aside from the distracting switch back and forth between sextuplets and triplets, note the sextuplets that stretch over beats:

How about... no?

But wait, there’s more:

Have. Mercy. We’re in 7/8 time — why would you use tuplet groups that follow a quarter note pulse while in 7/8 time???

* I have something fun to add to this discussion: I’ve actually seen sheet music that combines duplets and dotted 8th rhythms together!

I’m really curious about how GL Stone originally wrote these rhythms. The version of Stick Control that everyone has is an updated version from the 90s. I haven’t been able to find an old copy to see what the original rhythms looked like. They could be the same — I wouldn’t be surprised if they are.

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