Polyrhythms

Polyrhythms are a great thing to get into, they can open up a whole other dimension to your music, but how do you start?

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Polyrhythms are basically described as note divisions of one time signature being played over another. They are very common place in traditional west african and indian music, Babatunde Olatunji being one of the most well known percussionists to first use complex polyrhythmic ideas in the west in his 1959 album Drums of Passion(a collection of traditional Nigerian drum/chant music). More recent bands well known to use polyrhythms in their music are Meshuggah, Dream Theatre, Tool, and Frank Zappa's late work. Thats enough history, lets get to how to use them. Since rhythmic notation cant really be used in this text form, quarter notes are separated by two "-"s, eighths separated by one, and sixteenths arent separated at all. All Examples Given Are In 4/4 The most common polyrhythm used is three notes used in the place of one quarter note, the example used are straight 8th note triplets, which are the equivalent of 12/8 time signature played over a 4/4 time signature:
1 2 3 4 E--0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-0-----| B------------------------------| G------------------------------| D------------------------------| A------------------------------| E------------------------------|
The numbers above the tab represent the beat in the bar. Triplets shouldnt be confused with:
1 2 3 4 E--000-000-000-000-------------| B------------------------------| G------------------------------| D------------------------------| A------------------------------| E------------------------------|
Which are two sixteenth notes followed by one eighth note(they sound cool, i know, but they arent triplets) As always start out slow with a metronome and make sure the triplet is even within the beat, the easiest way to make sure your playing it evenly is to say a three syllable word along with playing, like banana:
1 2 3 4 ba na na ba na na ba na na ba na na
This method should be pretty entertaining for you and anyone listening to you practice :). The next polyrhythm we'l look at are divisions of five:
1 2 3 5 E-00000 00000 00000 00000------| B------------------------------| G------------------------------| D------------------------------| A------------------------------| E------------------------------|
thses are pretty difficult to get comfortable with at first, but using the method before can help a lot, the five syllable word I was given back when i first got into polyrhythms was hippopotamus:
1 2 3 3 hip po pot a mus hip po pot a mus hip po pot a mus hip po pot a mus
These may take longer than the triplets to get down, but once you practice them for a while theyl become familliar. the next one is divisions of 7:
1 2 3 4 E-0000000 0000000 0000000 0000000--| B----------------------------------| G----------------------------------| D----------------------------------| A----------------------------------| E----------------------------------|
Since seven syllable words arent really common to those of us that didnt pay attention in english class, we'l take one 3-syllable word and one 4-syllable word and say them one after the other to the metronome in order to familiarise with the "7 feel" (for this one it'l be: banana polyrhythm), after your comfortable with the rhythm, increase speed with the guitar:
1 2 3 ba na na po ly rhy thm ba na na po ly rhy thm ba na na po ly rhy thm 4 ba na na po ly rhy thm
After that, it can keep going on to divisions of 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, and so on. So this is my introduction to basic polyrhythms for anyone that isnt familiar with them. Ill have another article along soon that'l dig into more complex polyrhythms, basic division required :)

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82 comments sorted by best / new / date

    Jondy
    ok so polyrhythm is 2 or more rhythms at the same time, irrational rhythm is like, say, triplets, just an odd number of notes for that particular rhythm. so what is it called when you constantly change rhythm like, say, schism?
    hippyguitardude
    this might be completely wrong but would a polyrythm be like the 4/4 drum beat of kashmir behind the 3/4 guitar part?
    notoriousnumber
    Awful article. Incoherent, poorly presented and explained, and utterly useless. Next time, get it right.
    jem_legacy
    Thanks for the help on understanding polyrhythms. Now I understand what math metal is all about!
    LucasGtrGod
    um sorry for the third post but i did not realise with my above examples thati t would not line up...just count the dashes: and try counting those sixteenth note divisions in your head and get your left hand to accent the main rhythm (the one with the least numbero of beats), while your right hand accents the other one. There you go, you just played a polyrhythm...it is difficult at first.
    LucasGtrGod
    Srry html ****ed up, that grid was: 16th grid-|xxxx|xxxx|xxxx| 3/4-----|x---|x---|x---| 4/4-----|x- -x|--x-|-x--| 16th grid-|xxxxx|xxxxx|xxxxx|xxxxx| 4/4-----|x----|x----|x----|x ----| 5/4-----|x---x|---x-|--x--|-x---| to get them to align with this style of grid you have to work out the total amount of sixteenth (or type of note is needed) and then work out how you need to divide your notes in order to get it to align with the base time signature(the one with the least beats) 16th grid-|xxxxx|xxxxx|xxxxx|xxxxx|x 4/4-----|x-----|x-----|x--- --|x-----|x 7/4-----|x---x--|-x---x-|--x---x|---x---|x h ere the larger time signature is 7, to count the notes accurately in 4/4, you must think of the beats as being divided by 7 and then accent every 4th division of that seven to createb the polyrhythm. And polyrhythms don't always have to line up on the next bar, and you can have more than one polyrhythm at a time, such as with african tribal music, and some south american music. THat's why you find that if you hear african tribal music it's rhtyhm tends to pulsate, that's the beats pulling apart, and then lining back up with each other at different times.
    LucasGtrGod
    Um those aren't polyrhythms that you described in your lesson, they are irregular note groupings. A poly rhythm is basically where there two rhythms with different meters are played together,ie 3/4 + 4/4. This grid will explain. 16th grid- xxxx|xxxx|xxxx| 3/4 - x |x |x | 4/4 - x x| x | x | And at the start of the next bar for either signature they meet up. That is the most simple polyrhythm because it is all subdivisible by 4 and you don't really get on completely "off the beat" notes.
    Super Llama
    iron_maiden93 wrote: music-nerds
    lets see... "ultimate-guitar" last i checked a guitar was a musical instrument...
    stathagranak
    I thought poly rythms were having two different time sigs at once for example 3/4 goes for 3 bars while 9/8 goes for two and they meet at the same beat.
    Fambi
    This was not about polyrhythms, rather about irregular rhythm patterns. Misleading as hell article 0/5
    the_bi99man
    a7xsoad wrote: Me2NiK wrote: This isn't polyrhythm, polyrhythm literally means multiple rhythms. It would be like having 3 into 3 and 2 into 3 (easily the most common polyrhythm) at the same time. While these are the fundamentals of polyrhythm, without two different rhythms at the same time it's simply not POLYrhythm. And this is correct. You've got it all sussed, but It's not polyrhythm! It needs renaming. It just so happens that polyrhythm does occur in Dream Theater and one heck of a lot in Meshuggah (though not much in Tool I don't hear personally), although this isn't polyrhythm you've described!
    Tool doesn't really integrate the polyrhythms as consistently as these other bands, but they definitely have a good few polyrhythmic breakdowns. The one in Rosetta Stoned is freaking sweet.
    SL!!!
    SlashYourFug wrote: broken circle wrote: Caressing Death : Oh and it's spelt Dream Theater. If you're British it's not. Language doesn't change proper nouns, such as the name of a band. Even in German it'd be Dream Theater.
    Well...if we followed that rule then really even in Deutschland it would be Dream Theater. haha. But yeah.
    jdhinds1234
    buy a Metronome. it will set you straight on meters like this. it will help subdivisions from quarter notes, eighth notes, triplets, sixteenths. your plum out of luck on fivelets and sextuplets and so on. school band and basic music theory help alot to.
    funkbass369
    this isn't about learning to read tabs dyers. you obviously have no clue what any of this means.
    Death22x
    ha nice but for triplets my band director say to use "1 ti tah 2 ti tah" works for me heh
    metalimaster
    yer, i have a video of steve vai playing this scale in what he claims to be 9/8 timing.... it is the sweetnes plus i liek to think "hippopotamus" wen playing 5/4.... saying it allowed wen playing 4 ppl doesnt score u any points tho =p
    codyshredfoo
    great article man, i didnt know that was what polyrythms were, but it makes sense, for the homeboy that commented before me, you just play 3, 5, or 7, or any other number of notes that isnt 1 2 4 8 16 32 64 ect. in one beat
    CaRveItiNbass
    this is cool. i wish people would post more theory related stuff. i take a class for it in high school, and its just gotten past triads, and getting a bit difficult.
    evan.kotara
    Okay, so i'll go ahead and explain this. As a drummer first, guitarist second, i have to say - Polyrhythms are groupings of notes at different speeds played over one another. It doesn't matter if it's between instruments or hands, but its alot more impressive when one person does it. Tool, or more just Danny Carey does it more than most drummers, a classic example being the vocal/drum break towards the end of Eulogy (#2 on nima). He repeats a three 16th note pattern on the high hat over a 4/4 drum beat, which is not only confusing to listen to, but a challenge for any drummer I've met. Seriously, it takes practice. Dream Theater has a few passages, but none as profound as some of Liquid Tension Experiment (too many to name). Portnoy's inst. video - Liquid Drum Theater has plenty of great examples if you're looking to expand your drumming, or if you're just wondering how they did it. For guitar, Polyrhythms don't offer as much musically, but skillfully used in the orchestration, they at the least give the listener that blank look of 'wait. what just happened?' when playing polyrhythms, imagine how the notes will line up (hearing it helps) one of the most common, or easiest, is quarter triplets over eighth notes. which looks something like this:
    RH|x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-|x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-|x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-|x-x- x-x-x-x-x-x-|x-x-x-x-x-x-x-x-| LH|x--x--x--x--x--x|--x--x-- x--x--x-|-x--x--x--x--x--|x--x--x--x--x--x|--x--x--x--x--x-| \- 3 -/ \- 3 -/ \- 3 -/ \- 3 -/ \- 3 -/ \- 3 -/ \- 3 -/ \- 3 -/ \- 3 -/
    It may look like alot, but I'll explain it, just forget the tabs for a second. Start by just tapping eighth notes with your right hand. Next, tap your left hand on every third note, but make sure the right hand doesnt change. If you write it as a single rhythm, you can count it as:
    1 +a2 + 3e+ |-x-xxx-x-xxx-
    Get the feel for this first, then you can put time to it. If you want to look at it different, it's just
    1 + 2 RH|x-x-x- LH|x--x-- \- 3 - tri pu
    but only played over the bar. Waay over the bar. As in, it takes 5 measures of 4/4 to loop back over to the downbeat. As for rocket_manj's guide, tips for subdivisions can be useful, but for most guitarists, triplets will serve just fine. as for words, here's what ive heard: triplets: tri - pu - let one - la - le, two - la - le, etc five: op - por - tu - ni - ty or in a phrase like
    /-- 5 --\ -x-x-x-x-x-x
    op - por - tu - ni - ty - knocks or, depending on who you're with... ho - mo - se - xu - al for playing these, all i can say is practice. get the feel for how many notes go in what space, then just knock it out. if nothing else, use software like Guitar Pro hear what it'll sound like.. any questions or anything, pm me, i'm always open
    ShredderOmega
    Ok a7xsoad is the furst person to explain this in a way I understand;
    No, the drummer for example plays 4/4, and other instruments play other time signatures, But it's often done cleverly - Often the pattern contains a number of bars which is the lowest common multiple (Or another common multiple) of the two time signatures used, so that they both 'come round' as such and meet back at square one. For example, with a polyrhythm of 4/4 and 6/4, It is likely that 24 bars will be used with 4/4, because the 6/4 pattern will then fit in as a whole number (18), and they will both finish together, so the pattern can start again if needs be!
    Which isn't all that difficult... my band dose this naturaly :S
    joshjhasarrived
    Caressing Death wrote: I haven't yet looked at this but I'm glad there's something being done on polyrhythms. Oh and it's spelt Dream Theater.
    ahahaha They get pissed off when people spell it "Theatre".
    korn_dawg
    SL!!! wrote: SlashYourFug wrote: Language doesn't change proper nouns, such as the name of a band. Even in German it'd be Dream Theater. Well...if we followed that rule then really even in Deutschland it would be Dream Theater. haha. But yeah.
    Yes, that is how the rules of language function. It's just that most peoples like to put their culture's "spin" on proper nouns. Unless you disregard the rules of language, it should be "Dream Theater" all around the Earth
    Gundam pilota09
    iron_maiden93 wrote: Super Llama wrote: iron_maiden93 wrote: music-nerds lets see... "ultimate-guitar" last i checked a guitar was a musical instrument... last time i checked you're a douche...and yup you still are
    last i checked you named yourself for an overrated band ignorantly and would therefor presumably be ignorant in other fields such as music and social situations you need to learn something about music at the level of a first grade elementary school course then you'll be allowed back on this site. if you wish to chalenge my decision you must play the C#lydian mode and write it out on the musical staff with key signature. =)
    sam i am
    Villevalo462 wrote: aetherspear wrote: to bad crocodile is 3 syllables and 'hippotamus' is 4, but hippopotamus is 5. Did you graduate elementary school?? croc-o-di-le that sounds like 4 syllables to me... What a tool..
    Croc-o-dile? you don't exactly say "croc-o-die-yul"...
    Villevalo462
    aetherspear wrote: to bad crocodile is 3 syllables and 'hippotamus' is 4, but hippopotamus is 5.
    Did you graduate elementary school?? croc-o-di-le that sounds like 4 syllables to me... What a tool..
    Rodders
    That was a terrible article. They're not even really talking about polyrhythms.
    iron_maiden93
    Super Llama wrote: iron_maiden93 wrote: music-nerds lets see... "ultimate-guitar" last i checked a guitar was a musical instrument...
    last time i checked you're a douche...and yup you still are
    face_the_fear
    yea, I already knew a little bit about Polyrhythms so I thought this might help a bit more. You described it perfectly to start with then just went on about irregular beats after that. To be honest I got more information out of the comments.
    Dyers
    lolz0rz this must be a joke since its about learning how to read tabs....just learn to read music its not hard at all
    SlashYourFug
    broken circle wrote: Caressing Death : Oh and it's spelt Dream Theater. If you're British it's not.
    Language doesn't change proper nouns, such as the name of a band. Even in German it'd be Dream Theater.
    SL!!!
    Mmmmm....polyrhythm is when you have one rhythm, say a beat on one and two, and then another that has a different pattern, like a beat on 2 and 4 and they are played at the same time. So if i understand right he means that you would be playing these triplets, quintuplets, and septuplets over a different rhythm, like a guitar playing just eight notes..because otherwise he's just describing irregular note duration, ie 3 eighth notes in the length of one quarter note, five sixteenths in the length of one quarter note, or 7 sixteenths in the length of one a quarter, or sometimes in the length of 8 sixteenths, which is why the higher tuplets are often written as a ratio, like 5:4 So..this article is ambiguous and doesn't explain things all that well, but gets the gist of it across, i'll give it a 3 out of 5.
    cashewchaching
    In order to fully explain duplets, you need to be able to read music. There is no way to difinitavely write out duplets with Tab.
    thor338
    I liked the article. Maybe I am not smart enough to find it confusing.
    slipmaggot93
    iron_maiden93 wrote: music-nerds
    go die. this is simple stuff, you learn it pretty much in any good music class.
    SL!!!
    OH, also, tuplets played over simple meter are known as irrational rhythm, which is what this article seems to be about.