About Polyrhythms

Not everything is in 4/4! Learn about polyrhythms, or rhythms where two (or more) rhythms occur simultaneously. Musical U’s Anastasia Voitinskaia gives a rundown of polyrhythms, where they’re found, and how to count them, and why you should make them a part of your musical repertoire. 

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Christopher: Have you heard of polyrhythms? I have to admit that until recently, they were something that I had heard of, and knew basically what the definition was, but I really didn’t know much more than that.
Today I’m joined on the show by Anastasia Voitinskaia from the Musical U team. Anastasia works with Andrew on the publishing side of things, and she helps put together the great articles and tutorials you see coming out on our website each week; as well as putting together the show notes for this podcast.

We recently tasked Anastasia with taking an old and simple article we had on the topic of polyrhythms, and turning it into something much more comprehensive and useful. So I thought I’d invite her onto the show to share with you what she learned. Anastasia, thanks for joining us on the podcast.

Anastasia: Thank you for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

Christopher: So before we dive into polyrhythms, maybe you can just give a quick bio and intro to yourself and your musical life so people have an idea of who you are.

Anastasia: Sure. I work at Musical U as an assistant content editor, which again, means I work on the editorial team researching, writing, creating content, such as this remaster of the polyrhythm article I’m about to talk about, formatting text, and images, and essentially wrangling raw content into the finished articles that you see on the Musical U blog.

As for my personal music life, I began playing the piano at the age of three at the request… Actually, well my mom basically made me start piano lessons. However, I’m very glad she did because that piano lesson… those piano lessons then turned into me picking up more and more instruments later in my life, starting guitar… at about 10 or 11 years of age, and then picking up the bass guitar more recently, the synthesizer.

In more recent years, I’ve taken the focus away from piano and more towards guitar, and bass, and synth as I began to play in bands. I currently play the bass guitar in a band, and have a solo kind of experimental electronic project that I’m working on.

Christopher: Very cool. As part of all of that music learning, did you know very much about polyrhythms?

Anastasia: Here’s the funny thing: I really didn’t, because… in classical piano training, you don’t really come across them very much. They are definitely there, but really polyrhythms prevail in genres such as jazz and traditional African music, and some metal, and some experimental music; for example, Nine Inch Nails makes a lot of use of them. However, in Bach and Beethoven, not so much. So actually, when it came time for me to research this article and put together a cohesive piece on polyrhythms, there was a lot of work to do.

Christopher: Cool, and what did you learn about where they do come up, if it’s not Bach and Beethoven? You mentioned a couple of genres there. Is there a particular source of polyrhythms? Why are they a big topic that you might come across if they’re not part of the kind of the classical history?

Anastasia: So they originated in African music, in traditional African music because you’ll notice that when they drum, it’s really … It’s not in four/four time. It’s like a complicated cross rhythm with a lot of overlap, and these kind of like rolling, almost like conflicting rhythms, which sound really cool but it’s just like not something that you’ll hear so much in Western music; at first glance.

However, you then realize that traditional African music has influenced so much of Western music, like rock and roll, like folk music, like jazz especially, blues for sure. You kind of will find these vestiges of polyrhythms in these genres. Something that I learned that really struck me, because I listen to so much dance music, but I’ve never considered polyrhythms in dance music before, is just how much things like house will contain polyrhythms. Because again, this dance music was partially influenced by African music.

Christopher: Interesting, and we’ve kind of I guess teased a little bit there in some of what you’ve described, but what is a polyrhythm? For anyone listening who’s only heard the word, or maybe not even that. What is a polyrhythm in music?

Anastasia: A polyrhythm is essentially two rhythms played simultaneously, one on top of the other, giving a feeling of conflict, kind of. They’re defined as one number over the other, and these two numbers represent the two rhythms that are being played simultaneously.

Christopher: And are there not always rhythms being played simultaneously in music? Why isn’t every bit of music a polyrhythm?

Anastasia: The thing that sets polyrhythms apart from regular rhythms is kind of like the crossover and then the conflict that occurs. It’s basically, for example, just to give a really simple example, there is something called the three over two polyrhythm where three beats are played against two. It’s almost kind of like playing in two different time signatures, however, it happens at the same time. So it’s a very different feel from something that’s like in four/four, where you have two beats against four beats, for example. It sounds completely different.

Christopher: Interesting. Okay, so it’s almost like having two time signatures going at the same time.

Anastasia: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Christopher: Why should anyone care about polyrhythms? They sound a bit weird.

Anastasia: They might sound a bit weird when you’re simply talking about them and saying, “oh, it’s two rhythms played at the same time.” Actually, they’re very natural sounding when you do hear them in music, because speech almost can mimic … Sorry, polyrhythms can almost mimic speech because it’s kind of just like a … non-robotic, more organic rolling kind of rhythm, which is cool because part of its origin is like in African drumming, of course; which people sang along to and spoke along to. So it wouldn’t have this four/four meter. We’d kind of mimic speech, which is polyrhythmic, probably, if you were to really listen to it and record it, maybe.

Christopher: That’s interesting. Yeah, it definitely jumped out at me reading the article and learning more about polyrhythms myself that they’re one of these topics in music; that if you approach it from one angle, seem super obscure and complex, and mathematical, and theoretical. But if you approach it from another angle, it’s kind of just natural and what happens if you do something fairly simple in music.

Anastasia: Totally.

Christopher: You mentioned the three over two there. Can you just describe in terms of notation, or in terms of what people might be thinking, looking at two … a three against two polyrhythm? What is going on there?

Anastasia: So we’ll have a link in the show notes to an article that kind of visualizes this for you, but a three over two polyrhythm would, for example, be three notes played and then two notes kind of superimposed on top of that. So one cycle of the polyrhythm would involve three notes being played, or three beats being played in one of the rhythms concurrently with two notes or two beats played in the other rhythm. However, the three notes would be played faster, so that they can take up the same amount of time as the two beats. Then, the cycle repeats, so beat one would be where both rhythms align.

Actually previously, when I mentioned that polyrhythms mimic speech a lot of the time, or that speech mimics polyrhythms, you can kind of assign a phrase to this three over two polyrhythm, and that phrase is “hot cup of tea”. Actually, it would sound a bit like this. I’m going to tap on my desk now. It would be like… with the phrase, it would be “Hot cup of tea, hot cup of tea.”

The three of the polyrhythm has the words “hot,” “cup,” and “tea.” The two of the polyrhythm has the words ‘hot’ and ‘of.’ So you can kind of speak along to it and count it out like that, just by clapping, or tapping, or whatever.

Christopher: Gotcha, okay. I mean three notes in the space of two notes is triplets, right? We’re kind of talking about a triplet part against the straight eighth notes.

Anastasia: Duplets.

Christopher: Yeah.

Anastasia: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Christopher: I guess with triplets, they’re not normally that confusing, because you don’t have them at the same time as the equivalent two notes. Whereas with the polyrhythm, we’re talking about those two things actually happening out loud at the same time.

Anastasia: Precisely, which can make a bit tricky to understand if you are used to kind of like … for example, four against two to where perhaps one hand is playing duplets and the other is playing two eighth notes per duplet.

Christopher: I think any musician hearing about polyrhythms is going to instinctively want to try it out. I know that for me, anyway, when I read about them and I was like, “Okay, so five against seven, or three against two. I’ll just … I’ll tap five times with one hand and seven times with the other, and I’ll do it at the same time.” It’s incredibly difficult. This is something that drummers get pretty good at, and particularly if they’re into jazz, or world music, and they’re really getting into polyrhythms.

Anastasia: Yes.

Christopher: But for your average musician where we’re used to thinking about a simple beat and subdividing that beat into equal parts, and that kind of being our grid for rhythm, something we’ve talked about on the show before. It’s really hard to kind of get two timelines going in your head at the same time.

Anastasia: Totally.

Christopher: And so I really love what you just described with the hot cup of tea. It’s really elegant because you can try that immediately, just take what Anastasia said; so “hot” and “of” is one of your parts. You’re just tapping on the “hot” and “of.” Your other one is “hot,” “cup,” “tea.” And it’s very easy, if you’re listening to this podcast, just get your hands and first of all, just tap the ‘hot cup of tea, hot cup of tea.’

But then, try and allocate your hands like that, and you’ll find that it’s actually fairly easy to get your hands to do what they’re meant to. Then, the kind of mental gymnastics is to work back from that to thinking, “Okay, so this one is just doing the two beats, and this one is managing the three.” You can kind of … I don’t know, retrofit those two timelines onto what you’ve managed to make yourself do.

So is this something that works for any polyrhythm? Is there always a nice word-y way to figure it out?

Anastasia: “I wish” is the short answer. I wish because that would make it quite easy to tap out any polyrhythm and then translate it to your playing. However, that’s not always the case. There are definitely a few that work for simpler polyrhythms. For example, there’s a phrase for the four over three polyrhythm that is saying, “what atrocious weather,” over and over to the beat of the polyrhythm. You can hear a sound example of that in our article on polyrhythms, which we’ll have a link to in the show notes.

However, polyrhythms can get really, really complicated, as you’ll hear in music. There can be, as Christopher just mentioned, five over seven, or two over seven, or three over… 144, if you would want to play such a thing. I don’t know. It can get very bad.

So they’re – in the same way that we kind of learn according to a grid, some simpler patterns. For example, the most basic rock beat, which is kind of the kick snare, or kick, high hat, snare, high hat. We can put that in a grid and understand it visually.

In that same way, we can put pretty much any polyrhythm into a grid, even the more complex ones, and count it out like that. This definitely involves starting quite slow, as you figure out when exactly to place each hit. But again, with enough practice, you start to internalize the polyrhythm and really understand it.

If you’re already a drummer, this will, of course, be easier for you. If you’re not, it’ll be a bit of a steeper learning curve. It’s definitely possible, as I learned to internalize them with enough practice. Even if you’re practicing with just a metronome to get started, or if you’re having more difficulty, try a polyrhythm metronome, which kind of counts out each beat of each polyrhythm, which I actually found really helpful for understanding the more difficult ones.

Christopher: That’s great advice, and I have to say I loved the visual representations in that article you put together. They definitely make it easier to get your head around what is going on, and how the two rhythms co-exist. I have to admit, I’m very comfortable with traditional notation, but it can be quite tricky to look at that and figure out the relative timings of the different notes; whereas when you put it on-

Anastasia: For sure.

Christopher: … a grid where they have some kind of common time element to them, I found that a lot easier to fit in.

Anastasia: Totally.

Christopher: Terrific. So you gave some tips there for how people can go away and practice some polyrhythms. We talked about speaking them out, or looking at visualizations. You mentioned working with a metronome, or a polyrhythm metronome is a good way to do it. And we’ll have links in the show notes for more on those.

Why would someone bother? I’m hoping that people listening to this have found it interesting, but they might still be wondering what does this have to offer me if I’m not going to and join, say, an African drum circle?

Anastasia: Well, you should absolutely be going to join an African drum circle. They look like the most fun anyone could ever have, to be honest. However, other than that, it’s basically like polyrhythms are what I would describe to be like a pleasant surprise to the ear. I think making music is all about pleasantly surprising your listeners. And a big way to do that is obviously through rhythm. Even though writing a rock song in four/four time is going to be pleasant and familiar, imagine how you can mix things up by maybe occasionally throwing a polyrhythm there maybe during the bridge, or something like that.

In things like dance music, which is kind of repetitive, again, you can really add a lot of interest just by throwing a polyrhythm in there. Maybe make the song based on the polyrhythm, like for example, so many African songs are. Again, this will really, I think, make your music stand out from the traditional Western four/four time; because everyone does tend to write in that.

Basically, it’s really just a tool to set your music apart from the masses, in my opinion. For example, I definitely notice if a song has a polyrhythm in it. You can always tell when a song has interesting structure, because you’re kind of like, “Oh, what’s that? That’s interesting.” It really makes your ear perk up. It makes you listen.

Christopher: Definitely. We’re so used to everything slotting in together perfectly, and repetitively. I think when one part of the music goes off on its own tempo, as it were, like a different rhythm grid. That does really stand out to us. Cool, so song writers definitely, there’s a lot there that we can learn. I think music fans, just to open your ears a bit to what’s possible. And to be honest, for myself, it’s maybe a geeky angle on it, but I just find the mental challenge of trying to track what’s going on when you listen to one these polyrhythms is actually just really fun in itself.

So if any of those things appeal to you, I definitely encourage going to the link in the show notes for this episode at MusicalityPodcast.com, where you will find that the show notes for this episode that Anastasia has lovingly put together, which will link to the article that she is also behind.

Thank you very much for joining us on the show today, Anastasia, to talk a little bit about polyrhythms.

Anastasia: Thank you for having me. I think I learned even a bit more, actually, through doing this, so that’s great. Also, I’d like to bring up that I’ll make a little playlist of songs that contain polyrhythms. You can try counting along with them, and spotting which ones have which rhythms. Thank you for having me.

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