What’s the term for a group of three?


On reading the title of this post, readers would have immediately been able to provide the answer and may have wondered why I was even asking it.

But as I was writing my impressions of Lucia di Lammermoor and the sextet that is sung there, it struck me that while I knew the names for groups of singers of almost all sizes from two to ten (duet (two), quartet (four), quintet (five), sextet (six), septet (seven), octet (eight), nonet (nine), and dectet (ten)), I did not know the term for three singers. So I looked it up and (duh!) it is ‘trio’, a common word that I was very familiar with. After all, the Kingston Trio was a very popular group in my youth.

So why could I not recall this very obvious word? The answer may lie in the fact that the human brain retrieves information by following links from whatever starting point triggered the memory process. Since my curiosity had been piqued by the word ‘sextet’ and branched out from there, it probably began searching for a word that ended with ‘et’ in order to fit the pattern and it appears that there is none.

It is interesting how the brain makes associations, so that a piece of information that one cannot recall because it is being searched for in one context is easily recalled in another. If I had been thinking of other forms of music, such as folk or jazz, then the word ‘trio’ would have come to mind immediately since they are so commonly used in those genres.

I don’t know why no word ending with ‘et’ was coined for groups of three but then English is full of exceptions to patterns. Maybe there had been a word at some time (‘triet’?) that slowly disappeared from common use.

Comments

  1. mnb0 says

    It’s not a quirk of English language, but of Italian. In most, if not all European languages (even Russian for instance) this terminology is exactly the same.
    Sometimes “terzet” is used.
    To make things even a bit more complicated, the general structure of symphonies (but there are many exceptions) is of four movements. The third movement is a waltz, another dance or a playful piece of music called scherzo. The middle section of this movement is also called trio.

  2. says

    English is inconsistent so many times and places, even when borrowing from other languages. We say triangle and maybe quadrangle or pentangle, but never for higher numbers. We almost only use -lateral for quadrilateral and -gon for anything larger. Rarely do you see tetragon, and I have only seen trigon (or trianglon) used for math puzzles, even though it’s just as valid.

    Triplet gets used.

  3. billseymour says

    Well, I normally use base-two digits
    When instructing my add-’em-up widgets;
        But I am, don’t you see,
        Happier in base three:
    I’ve a feeling for ternary digits.

    (I’ll come in again.)

  4. flex says

    Maybe there had been a word at some time (‘triet’?) that slowly disappeared from common use.

    Maybe because “trinket” was already in use, and no self-respecting trio would call themselves a trinket…

    Completely tongue-in-cheek, of course.

  5. consciousness razor says

    But as I was writing my impressions of Lucia di Lammermoor and the sextet that is sung there, it struck me that while I knew the names for groups of singers of almost all sizes from two to ten (duet (two), quartet (four), quintet (five), sextet (six), septet (seven), octet (eight), nonet (nine), and dectet (ten))

    There are “solos” for one performer and “duos” for two. For zero performers, I guess it’s the empty set?
    It can depend on the language of the composer or arranger, as well as the time period. (For example, “quatuor” for four performers.) There are also pieces called for example “[Title or Type of piece] for N [instrument name(s)]” where N is a whole number. It’s often written with an Indian/Arabic numeral, but about as often the number is written as a word in a natural language.

    Since my curiosity had been piqued by the word ‘sextet’ and branched out from there, it probably began searching for a word that ended with ‘et’ in order to fit the pattern and it appears that there is none.

    Of course, “triplet” is also a word, but in music, that’s applied to a specific type of rhythm, not a group of performers. The generic term for such things is a tuplet. (But that wiki article starts off on the wrong foot and never really clarifies the issue. They’re not “irrational” or “irregular” in any literal sense. Extra-metric or contrametric is an accurate way to describe them.)

  6. springa73 says

    Well, like Intransitive said above, there is “triplet”, but that’s pretty much only used in the very specific context of three babies born from the same mother at the same time. At least that’s the only way I’ve ever heard it used, maybe I’m missing something ….

  7. Jazzlet says

    There is definitely something to Mano’s conjecture about starting recall in the wrong place, if you’ve ever tried to remember the lyrics of a song or lines of a nursery rhyme starting anywhere but the first line makes it a a ot harrder. Especially if you think you are starting with the first line.

  8. cartomancer says

    Inflected languages like Italian very often follow a pattern where the cardinal numbers for one, two, three and sometimes four decline by case, but numbers four and higher are indeclinable (Italian follows this pattern, which it inherited from Latin). So you’ve got variant case endings you can use for groups of two or three (duo, trio), but you need to put a different sort of group marker on four or more (often derived from the ordinal, rather than the cardinal, form of the number).

  9. consciousness razor says

    Paul Durrant:
    That may be your prescription for how the terms should be used, but that’s not how it works in actual practice. It’s too late — people like Mozart and Haydn have been dead a long time, so you really can’t tell them what to do now.

    IMSLP is only scratching the surface of the whole literature, but here’s the category for 2 players. There are 14,506 total entries. You can type “duo” in the search category bar just above the list and to the right. (Could use the google search at the very top too, but this way is easier.)

    When I searched for “duo” in the title, I got 927 results. When I did the same for “duet,” I got 888 results. Honestly, I was expecting a bit more for duet rather than a bit less, but that’s what I got.

  10. publicola says

    If I could remember the question …oh, yeah, it’s trio! You could use triad or triumvirate, but not in this particular instance. Uh, what was the question…?

  11. Bruce H says

    English is not so much a discreet language as much as a pastiche of half a dozen languages. (“Pastiche”, of course, being French for “mutt”.) So it is no surprise that the rules consist mostly of exceptions to the rules.

  12. Lassi Hippeläinen says

    Since our esteemed host is a theoretical physicist, we should allow him the terms ‘singlet’, ‘doublet’, and ‘triplet’. That still leaves open the case of zero performers, because ‘nonet’ is reserved for number 9.

  13. says

    @consciousness razor
    I can only repeat that in general English usage, a duet is the composition or the performance of the composition and a duo are the performers. Calling (say) Simon and Garfunkel a duet is simply wrong.

    https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-difference-between-a-duo-and-a-duet

    I was surprised that your link showed that duo is sometimes used in naming a composition instead of duet. I suspect it might be a technical musical use to distinguish (say) two players at the same piano from two players at two pianos.

  14. machintelligence says

    In lenses triplet refers to a three lens design. After that it is n lenses in (some number usually less than n) groups. A group of lenses is made of multiple lenses cemented together without air gaps. Some triplet designs have three lenses in two groups.

  15. consciousness razor says

    I was surprised that your link showed that duo is sometimes used in naming a composition instead of duet. I suspect it might be a technical musical use to distinguish (say) two players at the same piano from two players at two pianos.

    Nope, it’s not. Both terms are used for any combination of two instruments. With either “duo” or “duet,” it could be two of the same type of instrument (e.g., two violins, two horns), or two different instruments (e.g., violin and viola, oboe and bassoon).

    The standard descriptions to distinguish the ones you mentioned are “piano 4 hands” or “2 pianos,” respectively. If you check the “keyboard” heading on IMSLP’s main Instrumentation page, you’ll see some other less common ensembles too, such as “2 organs,” “organ 4 hands,” “piano left hand,” “piano right hand,” “piano 3 hands,” and so forth.

  16. Rob Grigjanis says

    Physics terminology historical footnote: From a 1962 paper by Glashow and Rosenfeld on the Eightfold way;

    Words signifying sets of similar particles find their origins in musical terminology. Thus, a trio, quartet,…,octet, nonet, decimet,… is a composition for 3, 4, …, 8, 9, 10 voices or instruments; but a triplet, quadruplet,…, octuplet, nonuplet, decuplet,… refers to 3, 4,…, 8, 9, 10,… notes played in one beat. After triplet (of pions) and quadruplet (of Δ isobars), we use “decuplet” for the 10. Because of an unfortunate earlier misuse, “octet” has become commonplace for the 8, rather than the more appropriate “octuplet”.

  17. billseymour says

    I’ve read that the # sign is officially called an octothorp, a thorp being a villiage or hamlet. I count nine places, not eight. 😎

    Does anybody know where “octothorp” comes from? (Neither “octothorp” nor “thorp” itself appears in my 1971 Webster’s Third …)

  18. consciousness razor says

    Rob Grigjanis:

    but a triplet, quadruplet,…, octuplet, nonuplet, decuplet,… refers to 3, 4,…, 8, 9, 10,… notes played in one beat.

    They were sort of on the right track, but that’s incorrect. The group of notes can also occur over multiple beats or within a division/subdivision of a beat. What matters is that it’s not a standard grouping (generally 2) within the context of the notated meter, since the meter determines what the “beat” is.

    (For those who may be uncertain about the term, the beat is basically what you feel as a regular pulse in the music, even if the actual rhythms being sung/played don’t align with it. This is when you might clap or tap your foot, what conductors indicate with their gestures, etc.)

    Take a very typical example, the one you’re most likely to see in a random piece of music: a quarter note triplet. When the meter is 4/4 (“common time”) or 3/4 or similar, the three notes in the triplet have a total duration of two beats, since the beat has the duration of a quarter note. If the meter is 2/2 (“cut time”) or 3/2 or similar, it’s notated exactly the same way — with the exception of the time signature of course — but the beat is a half note instead of a quarter note. So in that case, the quarter note triplet does occur over one beat (no more, no less, nothing else, etc.).

    It’s same deal with divisions/subdivisions of a beat. A sixteenth note triplet is half a beat long in 4/4. It has three notes which together have a duration of two standard/non-triplet sixteenths, which is equal to a single eighth or half of a quarter note. You would normally be able to fit 4 sixteenths in a single quarter note beat (or 16 in a “whole note” or “semibreve”), but you can fit 6 sixteenth note triplets in the same written duration (possibly as two triplets or as a single sextuplet).

    Just to be extra clear, when I talked about “durations” above, this all assumes the same tempo or simply says nothing about tempo, so we don’t confuse matters by bringing different tempos into the mix…. So, it shouldn’t be understood as equivalent to the actual duration in time, as measured in seconds or milliseconds or whatever. The issue is that, when you interpret notation, you have to interpret a tempo as well, but we can leave that to the side in order to talk about how everything else is interpreted.

  19. flex says

    @billseymour #22,

    The octothorp term was invented by Bell Labs, and has nothing to do with small towns at all. Previous to that it was called a “number-sign” or “pound-sign”.

    Here is an article describing how the term came about. Although it is based on the memory of the people involved, not documents from the time (which may not exist). http://dougkerr.net/Pumpkin/articles/Octatherp-octotherp.pdf

  20. billseymour says

    Thanks for the link, flex. I very much enjoy reading about the history of technology, particularly if it involves electronics, including radio and TV broadcasting and computers. (I was a wires-and-pliers guy at educational FM stations before I became a computer programmer, although my current knowledge dates back to when large-scale integrated circuits were still a new and promising thing.)

    As for #, I usually call it a hash mark, or hashtag where that’s appropriate.

    A former coworker would call an asterisk a “splat”. I approved. 😎

  21. blf says

    There’s also troika, albeit that’s usually used in a political sense (cf. triumvirate).

  22. VolcanoMan says

    I’ll provide my opinion as a classical musician into the “duo” vs “duet” debate (having performed in many chamber groups, from 2 to 20+ people). The noun “duet” refers exclusively to the music itself and never the players -- a composer “writes a duet”, or people “perform a duet.” You won’t see a sentence like “the violin duet performed a piece” -- instead you’d see either “the violinists performed a duet” or “the violin duo performed a piece.” I’m not saying that this is the way the word “duet” originated (I am no etymologist), nor that there aren’t possible exceptions (though I am unaware of any). But modern usage is pretty clear. The noun “duet” is either a piece FOR two people or a performance BY two people.

    However, the noun “duo” CAN be used in both ways (the piece/performance and the performers themselves) -- the Collins dictionary, for example (dictionaries generally follow modern usage, though they sometimes list outdated ones) has the primary definition of “duo” as “a pair of performers” and the secondary definition as “another word for duet” and both meanings are extremely common, both now and over the past couple hundred years. So there is a third option in the above example sentence: “the violinists performed a duo.”

    You also sometimes (rarely) see the word “duet” (never “duo”) used as an intransitive verb…so a pair of people could “duet” (just like a pair of people can “dual”). I’m not a fan of this, but that hardly matters…people do use the word in this way, just like people are now using the word “medal” as a verb (e.g. “the athlete medalled in the 100 metre race”). So “the violinists duetted” is correct, awkward as that sounds.

    Finally, and most oddly (in my opinion), one person who takes part in the performance of a duet can be called a “duettist.” So while the sentence “the duet performed the piece” is not used, “the duettists performed the piece” could be. English is weird.

  23. lorn says

    Having not read most of the other comments, I scanned them quickly, sorry I’ve got all of three minutes free, I’ll offer up what I think is the word you are looking for: trine.

    “trine noun
    Definition of trine (Entry 2 of 2)
    1 : a group of three : triad
    2 : the trine astrological aspect of two celestial bodies”

    From: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/trine

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