Irregular Rhythms: Definition & Types

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  • 0:04 Regular & Irregular Rhythms
  • 0:36 Beats & Time Signatures
  • 1:13 Triplets
  • 2:10 Duplets
  • 3:36 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Composing and playing music requires an understanding of regular rhythms, but also those that are irregular. In this lesson, we'll talk about irregular rhythms and see what these look like.

Regular and Irregular Rhythms

Pick a song from your playlist and play it. As you're listening to this song, see if you can tap your foot along with the beat. Can you do it? If so, you are able to identify the basic rhythm of that song.

The basic rhythm which the song is written around is the regular rhythm. It's what you expect. However, sometimes it's fun to change this up and toss in something unexpected.

An irregular rhythm breaks from the normal pattern. It's different, and can often sound strange to people who are used to Western music. So, while we want our music to sound good, sometimes it can be fun to toss in something a little more irregular.

Beats and Time Signatures

So, how exactly do we know if a rhythm is irregular? Basic rhythms are created by dividing a song into units called measures, each of which has the exact same number of beats. Those beats are represented in the time signature.

So, if a song has a time signature of 4/4, that means it has four beats per measure and the quarter note equals one beat. If the time signature is 3/4, there are three beats per measure and the quarter note gets one beat.

If the time signature is 2/2, there are two beats per measure and the half note gets the beat. Anything that conforms to that rhythm is regular. Any which falls outside of the beats as noted by the time signature would be an irregular rhythm.


So, what exactly does this look like? Irregular rhythms will most commonly appear in one of two ways. The first is as a triplet. A triplet occurs when three notes are crammed into the space for a single beat.

Remember how 4/4 time indicates that there are four beats per measure, with each beat having the length of a quarter note? That means that in one beat, you can either have a quarter note, two eighth notes, or four sixteenth notes. Each of those patterns evenly break up the normal beat. However, a triplet would play three eighth notes in the space usually reserved for two.

The standard notation for a triplet

Think of it this way. A normal measure would contain the beats one, two, three, and four. If you want to divide that into eight notes, it would be one-and-two-and-three-and-four. Now, substitute ''three-and'' with the word triplet, pronouncing it with three syllables (trip-a-let).

Our measure would go: one and two and trip-a-let four. The triplet occurs in the same space as the two eighth notes, but crams three notes into a single beat. That creates an irregular rhythm, which stands out from the rest of the song.


The other common way to create an irregular rhythm is with duplets. A duplet is created when two notes are used in a space that normally holds three notes. So, it's the exact opposite of the triplet.

We most commonly see duplets when using 6/8 time, meaning that every measure contains six eighth notes. A normal 6/8 measure would be counted one-two-three-four-five-six, with each beat being the length of an eighth note.

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