From nonlinear models and direct numerical simulations we report on several findings of relevance to the single-mode Rayleigh-Taylor (RT) instability driven by time-varying acceleration histories. The incompressible, direct numerical simulations (DNSs) were performed in two (2D) and three dimensions (3D), and at a range of density ratios of the fluid combinations (characterized by the Atwood number). We investigated several acceleration histories, including acceleration profiles of the general form g(t)∼tn, with n≥0 and acceleration histories reminiscent of the linear electric motor experiments. For the 2D flow, results from numerical simulations compare well with a 2D potential flow model and solutions to a drag-buoyancy model reported as part of this work. When the simulations are extended to three dimensions, bubble and spike growth rates are in agreement with the so-called level 2 and level 3 models of Mikaelian [K. O. Mikaelian, Phys. Rev. E 79, 065303(R) (2009)], and with corresponding 3D drag-buoyancy model solutions derived in this article. Our generalization of the RT problem to study variable g(t) affords us the opportunity to investigate the appropriate scaling for bubble and spike amplitudes under these conditions. We consider two candidates, the displacement Z and width s2, but find the appropriate scaling is dependent on the density ratios between the fluids—at low density ratios, bubble and spike amplitudes are explained by both s2 and Z, while at large density differences the displacement collapses the spike data. Finally, for all the acceleration profiles studied here, spikes enter a free-fall regime at lower Atwood numbers than predicted by all the models.