Understanding the world of complex polyrhythms can be daunting. After all, polyrhythms don't present themselves all that often in western music, and can be difficult for musicians just starting out to identify.
Luckily, these complex rhythmic patterns can be understood with a little guidance and practice. Below, we'll share how these rhythmic patterns work, where you can hear polyrhythmic music, and most importantly, how you can play polyrhythms on your own. We'll also share a couple of examples of polyrhythms in music so that you can start to gain a sonic understanding of how these rhythms work.
What Is A Polyrhythm?
In order to understand polyrhythms, it can be helpful to break down the word itself. If we separate the word poly from polyrhythm: poly means “multi,” or “more than one.” A polyrhythm is essentially a combination of at least two or more rhythms performed at the exact time and tempo.
Also known as composite rhythm, polyrhythm is any combination of two or more rhythms, each of which has its own independent succession of musical events. A single rhythm is played against a counter rhythm, usually with shared emphasis on the first beat. This rhythmic tension makes for an enticing beat, with a basic pulse at the beginning of each measure.
This musical expression can last a segment, or it can exist and change throughout an entire song. A polyrhythm can be simple, in a 4/4 groove such as the drums we hear in the jungle-like rhythm from the classic Bow Wow Wow hit, “I Want Candy.” Or it can be very complex using multiple voices and odd time signatures like the relationship between Sitar and Tabla in Indian classical music. Traditional music surprisingly utilizes complex polyrhythms fairly often across cultures.
Polyrhythms can be present throughout a whole piece, or just show up for a couple of bars within a composition. When a polyrhythm is the basis for a musical piece, it can also be classified as a cross rhythm. Cross rhythm serves as the basis for music genres like African and Caribbean music.
A Brief History of Polyrhythms
Polyrhythms can be traced back to their African roots, where polyrhythms are deeply baked into the musical culture. Many musicians are taught these complex rhythms from an early age, as a way of deeply embedded cultural communication.
Overtime, these rhythms began to spill into different genres-- Most notably jazz, but also rock, traditional music, and other genres such as Afro-Cuban music. While western music does not frequently play polyrhythms, they can still be seen in popular music including tracks by Van Halen, Disclosure, and the Gorillaz.
Types Of Polyrhythms
Some polyrhythms are more common than others. Below, we'll share some of the most common polyrhythms that appear in both traditional and western music. If you're having trouble learning polyrhythms, don't worry! It can take years of musical training to truly recognize these complex beats.
3:2 Polyrhythm: The Hemiola
One of the most common polyrhythms is the hemiola, or three against two. This can also be referred to as 2:3. All polyrhythms, including the hemiola can be referred to as X:Y value and Y:X value interchangeably. In this polyrhythm, 3 notes in a triplet are played against 2 notes in a duplet, with each pair of notes synchronizing on beat 1.
Here is a quick video detailing how to play this polyrhythm:
3:4 Polyrhythm: 4 Against 3 Polyrhythm
4 against 3 polyrhythms consists of eighth note triplets and sixteenth notes. Here is an example of how the 3:4 polyrhythm is played:
4:5 Polyrhythm: 4 Against 5 Polyrhythm
The 4:5 polyrhythm is less common than the hemiola and the 3:4 polyrhythm. The polyrhythm consists of four sixteenth notes contrasted against a quintuplet of sixteenths. It sounds like this:
Examples of Polyrhythm in Music
Polyrhythm is a word used to describe the harmoniously rhythmic combination of voices heard in a song often associated with Latin American music, jazz, African drumming, and Indian Classical music (to name a few). It would be a mistake to only associate polyrhythm to a specific genre or style of music. The truth is that we can identify polyrhythm in nearly all forms of music.
Most of the polyrhythms heard in popular music today are considered to be very danceable . It should come as no surprise then that these popular rhythms originated in Africa. But drums and rhythm served a higher purpose in African culture than just dance music: they were also used (and still are) for long-distance communication and ceremony with their rhythms designed by the natural language and speech patterns of the tribe(s). When you realize this rich history and the relationship between African and modern pop rhythms, the emotional role it has in music makes sense.
Why is it important?
Like tonal harmony in a chord or progression, polyrhythm in music adds to the depth and emotion in a song. Without it, music may feel incomplete. And popular music would sound extremely different.
As neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin writes in his book, “This Is Your Brain On Music,” we know that rhythmic patterns play a game with the pleasure system of the brain, feeding our neural pathways with dopamine as a reward. Without rhythm in music, the entire world would be a very different place!
Some genres and styles of music get by just fine without polyrhythm, such as Gregorian chanting . As much as I like to listen to the monks when I meditate, the rhythm will always be where the heart is.
Polyrhythm in African Music
You'll find that most common polyrhythms and highly complex polyrhythms can all be traced back to African origins. These complex polyrhythms became a staple of the culture, and continue to facilitate a sense of community to this day.
Here is a quick example of the Butour Ngale group demonstrating a variety polyrhythm sounds with hand drumming and voice:
Polyrhythm in Jazz
Jazz is known for being one of the most complex forms of music, so it makes sense that the genre would take on playing polyrhythms. In fact, jazz is considered one of the few examples of western music that embraces the art of of common polyrhythms and cross rhythm -- The genre allows for endless possibilities whether that's simple rhythms or simultaneous beats. Here's an example from the Avishai Cohen Trio:
Polyrhythm in Metal
Though you might not expect it, you may find examples of polyrhythmic drumming and playing when listening to metal western music. While plenty of progressive rock and metal songs utilize simple rhythms, many more experimental groups have begun to embrace complex and common polyrhythms to stand out against the scene.
You can hear Nine Inch Nails utilizing a polyrhythm in their song "La Mer". Nine Inch Nails creates this polyrhythm by having a bass line in 4/4 or common time, while the piano is in 3/4.
Polyrhythm in other music genres
While African music, jazz, and progressive rock are the most common places to come across polyrhythms, there are plenty of other musicians who play polyrhythms and incorporate them into their music.
Afro-cuban music for one, utilizes polyrhythms often. You can also find polyrhythms in Carnatic and Indian classical music.
Syncopation vs. Polyrhythm
Polyrhythm is sometimes confused with syncopation. However, it is different. Syncopation refers to the technique of accenting the off-beats and in-between beats of a rhythm. A single rhythm or a polyrhythm can have syncopation. Polyrhythms aren't necessarily syncopated or vice versa-- Polyrhythm refers to two different rhythms playing simultaneously while syncopation is simply accenting the less common beats expressed in western music.
Is Polyrhythm Instrument-specific?
Any instrument or voice can participate in polyrhythm. We usually do not hear polyrhythms from solo instrument performances such as by a lone trombone or a vocalist: these instruments are monophonic and represent one individual musical voice. It is when two or more of these voices come together rhythmically that polyrhythm occurs.
A piano or a guitar is a polyphonic instrument capable of playing multiple voices, rhythms, and syncopations at simultaneous or opposing intervals. Different instruments are all capable of producing polyrhythm without accompaniment.
Using Polyrhythms In Your Music
Understanding and creating polyrhythms can be a confusing concept. Here is a video that explains how to create a basic 4 against 3 polyrhythm using your DAW . The 4-beat polyrhythm uses quarter notes, and the 3-beat rhythm uses dotted quarter notes. When you combine the two rhythms at the same time, as demonstrated in the video, you have a polyrhythm.
Learning How To Practice Polyrhythms
Learning polyrhythms can be difficult, but it's nothing a little practice can't fix. In order to utilize polyrhythms in your music, you'll need to practice them on a regular basis. A lead drummer or someone with a rhythmic background may find it easier to find their rhythm amongst the cross beats and off beats, but don't get discouraged. Here are a couple of quick tips to keep in mind while performing polyrhythms.
Start With Smaller Chunks
Undoubtedly, the best way to incorporate polyrhythms into your music is to start by playing the first rhythm, and then slowly incorporating the secondary beat. It's a good idea to put on a metronome or beat click track to get you steady while you count out your beats.
Use Your Body
One of the best ways to master polyrhythms is to use your body. You can use your hands to slap the two beats out on a nearby table, or even your lap. Doing so can help you get into a faster groove than trying to count out loud alone.
Use a Vocal Cue
Many musicians find it helpful to assign a vocal phrase to a set of simple polyrhythms in order to make counting easier. For example, the phrase "what atrocious weather" is commonly used to count out a 4 against 3 polyrhythm. There are plenty of helpful phrase examples online to help with any polyrhythm as seen in this video:
Use Your DAW
Utilizing a digital audio workstation or a sequencer can be extremely helpful when trying to visualize polyrhythms. Create polyrhythms in your DAW, and take note of how they appear and sound. You'll want to turn on your metronome so that you can easily keep track of the beat.
Are you still having trouble understanding polyrhythms? Here is a quick set if related frequently asked questions and answers to expand your understanding.
What is polyrhythm used for?
Polyrhythm surprises the ear by playing two different rhythms simultaneously, which can add a lot of character to a song. This is commonly found in African music, jazz, along with progressive rock. Essentially, polyrhythms can be used in any track to add an extra layer of character.
What is the most common polyrhythm?
The most common polyrhythm is the juxtaposition of triplets against quarter or eight notes. This polyrhythm is also known as 3 against 2 or 3:2. The 3 against 2 music motif is known as the hemiola. Hemiola is commonly found in African music along with baroque, rock, and jazz.
How do you identify a polyrhythm?
Polyrhythms can be difficult to pin down since they easily play tricks on the ear. That being said, it may be helpful to pick out one rhythm of the polyrhythm first, and then proceed to decode the second. Some find it helpful to assign words to each beat before moving to actual counts.
What's the difference between polyrhythm and polymeter?
Polymeter is when there are varying bar or measure lengths within the same piece. Polyrhythm is when two different rhythms play simultaneously contained within the same measure. These are both different terms that can be used within the same composition.
Why is polyrhythm important in African drumming?
Rhythm is rooted deeply in African culture. Therefore, it only makes sense that the culture has taken on producing more complex rhythms like polyrhythm. African culture has led to the popularization of polyrhythms in genres like jazz, rock, and alternative music.
What music genres use polyrhythms?
There are plenty of musical genres that utilize polyrhythms. Some examples include Afro-inspired music, jazz, progressive rock, and even some contemporary music. Bands like the Gorillaz have all utilized polyrhythms in their music. Other examples include Van Halen and the Police.
What is a polyrhythmic style of singing?
As with any instrument, music can be sung with polyrhythms. Therefore, polyrhythmic singing would consist of two vocalists singing different rhythms at the same time. While it’s impossible for a single vocalist to articulate a full polyrhythm, this can be achieved with two or more skilled vocalists.
What is the opposite of polyrhythm?
The opposite of a polyrhythm would be a single rhythm played on its own, or monorhythmic. This is the way most music is played and performed. Note that a song can be in polymeter and still not be polyrhythmic. Polyrhythmic sensibilities can be difficult to master since they’re less common and difficult to conceptualize.
How do you calculate polyrhythm?
In order to calculate polyrhythm, it’s wise to figure out the time signature of the piece first. Once you have that piece determined, listen to see if there’s a collective emphasis of the two rhythmic types on the “1”. If so, proceed to determine the two individual rhythms.
There's no denying that polyrhythms consist of complex patterns that can be difficult to master. Hopefully, this article made it easier to play these unique rhythms with confidence! Enjoy experimenting with complex and simple polyrhythms in your music.