In Western music, you’ll most often see music written in simple or common time (4/4 time). This is especially prevalent in genres such as blues, rock, pop, folk, and country.
All these styles are typically built on common rhythms that are made up of quarter notes, 8th notes, 16th notes, and so on.
Things get more interesting as you look at the rhythms of music from other parts of the world, such as Africa and India. This music often has rhythms that are much more complex, incorporating polyrhythms and syncopation for more complex (and very danceable!) drum beats.
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What is a Polyrhythm?
Simply put, a polyrhythm consists of combinations of common rhythms. More than one rhythm is played at the same time, causing conflict; for example, a triplet being played at the same time as two eighth notes.
Below is an example of a simple polyrhythm:
However, if in the same rhythm the 8th notes are replaced with quarter notes, it ceases to be a polyrhythm. This is because there are no longer contrasting beats. Though it may feel like you are playing in two different times, you are not:
Polyrhythms give the impression of one beat being superimposed onto another, causing overlap. It can also be understood as a rhythmic ratio. In the above example, three notes of equal value (the triplets) are “superimposed” over two notes. The above rhythm can therefore be described as 3:2.
Typically, two rhythms will only be considered a polyrhythm if they have no common divisor other than 1. In the case of a 3:2 polyrhythm, there is no number (besides 1) that will divide into both 2 and 3. We can conclude that 3:2 is, in fact, a polyrhythm.
In contrast, 4:2 would not be considered a polyrhythm. Why? Because there is a common divisor of 2. If we wrote out the rhythm, we would see that the notes line up evenly, without there being a “cross-rhythm”.
When and Where Are Polyrhythms Used?
As mentioned previously, you’ll often find these intricate yet dance-able drum beats in music originating from Africa and India. These rhythms have much more “fill” and are often more complex than those found in traditional Western music.
African and Indian music builds entire songs around eighths, triplets, and even groups of five or seven. They often eschew 4/4 time completely, using time signatures such as 7/8, 5/4, and 12/8.
Polyrhythms Are Not As Confusing As They Seem!
Because polyrhythmic drumming has such intricate-sounding fills and is played so quickly, it’s easy to be blown away by the sheer complexity of the rhythms, and to be discouraged by the high skill level needed to even play them.
But as with any type of learning, all it takes is breaking a tricky concept down into its smaller parts; keep in mind that polyrhythms consist of simple rhythms played together in an overlapping manner. Though seasoned drummers will certainly have an easier time with polyrhythms than those with little background in rhythm, with practice, any musician can learn to incorporate them in their practice.
In fact, many musicians already use polyrhythms in their playing without realizing it!
How Do We Count A Polyrhythm?
The conventional counting method involves using “ah” and “and” to count out loud. For example, to count 8th notes in 4/4 time, we would use 1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and.
This is the method we use in our basic exercises for counting polyrhythms.
Another method that beginners may find easier and more comfortable is associating a polyrhythm with a phrase that is easy to remember and fits with the beat. For example, you can use the phrase “Hot Cup of Tea” to practice 3:2 polyrhythms:
How To Practice Polyrhythms
For drummers and musicians with a solid background in rhythm, the road to learning polyrhythms will be an easier one than for those just getting comfortable with playing beats.
However, do not get discouraged! As with anything, the key is to start small and start slow, then work your way up to practicing more complex rhythms and playing them faster.
For beginners, learning polyrhythms by ear with a metronome is an excellent idea. Again, be sure to start slow; set your metronome to 60 beats per minute, taking the time to make sure you are getting every individual note/beat and speeding up as you become more comfortable with the rhythm.
Polyrhythms are a staple of African and Indian music. This music tends to stray from common 4/4 time, adopting more unusual time signatures as the beats get more complex.
Though they may appear intimidatingly complicated at first, remember that polyrhythms are made up of simple rhythms that are already familiar to you.The key is to start practicing simpler polyrhythms with the help of a metronome, and working your way up from there.
Before you know it, you’ll be incorporating the polyrhythms you’ve learned into your musical practice, adding variation and interest to the beats of your own songs. Check out some exercises for learning basic polyrhythms in our Introduction to Polyrhythms!
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