Sample from the start of chapter 4: Problems with Triplets, Part Two: What exactly is a triplet, anyway?
The triplet is a musical grouping which creates an important rhythm when used repeatedly. This rhythm is a strong one, and we saw in the last chapter how, in the age with which this book is concerned, it had the tendency to subsume any material which, in the form presented on the page, ought strictly to have been played in a different rhythm giving rise to the phenomenon of synchronisation. When the triplet acted as such a rhythmic reference point, it appeared written as three equal notes whose meaning was clear and consistent. It is this form of the triplet with which we are most familiar today.
Chapter 3 revealed that in order for synchronisation with a triplet rhythm to be possible, the performed lengths of notes contained within pairs might differ from their written lengths. This was due, at heart, to the underlying flexibility attaching to the length to which any individual note might be played. It will not be surprising, therefore, to discover that when a number of notes was grouped together into a coherent motif, the same kind of flexibility could attach to the lengths of individual notes within such a group. This allowed certain note-groups to be played in a different way from that which their appearance would suggest in effect, in a different rhythm.
The commonest group of this type was one containing just three notes. This chapter will reveal that the triplet was once much more varied than it later became: there were different methods of writing it, and varied modes of performing it. At one extreme, isolated groups of three notes written in unequal values could sometimes be played as triplets. At the other, a whole movement intended for performance in an identifiable style could be notated in duple-time, but played in a triple-time rhythm. And conversely, even when notated in the modern manner, the three apparently equal notes within a triplet could contain a more subtle and varied message than we would immediately recognise.