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Polyrhythm Lesson

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by Wildside, Oct 10, 2004.

  1. Wildside


    Jan 12, 2004
    theater of pain
    Through the music of guitar wizard george bellas, and drum virtuoso virgil donati, I began getting really into different rhythms and stuff lately. I remember how confusing polyrhythms were when I first started out on bass. So, since I've learned so much from people here I decided to give back to the community and post a lesson of sorts. I am by no means an expert on polyrhythms, so if anyone has anything to add then feel free to do so.

    Polyrhythm itself sounds like an intimidating word. It just sounds complex, with all those letters and syllables and stuff. However, the reality is that it isn't very complex at all. Polyrhythm simply means, more than one rhythm. That's the most basic definition. However, it usually implies a rhythm being played against another rhythm, creating unusual cross-pulses.

    Chances are you've already played polyrhythms even if you don't know it. Anyone that has done any kind of study on the style of iron maiden's steve harris is no doubt familiar with the triplet. The triplet is a very basic polyrhythm. It's a 3:1 rhythm, with three notes being played evenly in the space of one note.

    Here's a cool and logical way to think of polyrhythms. Let's take a 3:2 polyrhythm. The bottom number (2) is the pulse that is naturally felt when the groove is played. The top number (3) is the rhythm being superimposed on the groove. That may be all good and well you say, but how can I play a 3:2 polyrhythm?

    Well, the first step is to find the smallest number that both 3 and 2 can go into...with some simple math we find that 6 is the smallest number that is divisible by both 3 and 2. So, let's break the bar of music into six sections.

    The top number, 3, is the rhythm on top that needs to be superimposed. We can divide our 6 sections into three equal beats by playing every other section.

    The bottom number, 2, is the natural pulse. We can divide our 6 sections into two equal beats by playing once every third section.

    Let's say we're playing the 3:2 polyrhythm with the 3 being an F and the 2 being a low E.

    Here are the six sections with a display of what should be played during each section. Each section has an equally long duration time wise.

    1 2 3 4 5 6
    [ F ] [ ] [ F ] [ ] [ F ] [ ]
    [ E ] [ ] [ ] [ E ] [ ] [ ]

    If you were playing the F notes with your right hand and the E notes with your left hand, the 3:2 polyrhythm could be described by this pattern,

    both, right, left, right

    Hopefully this has been a helpful introduction into the world of polyrhtyhms for some people. Please feel free to add or ask questions if something wasn't clear.

    edit- the visual blocks with the sections and the notes aren't really lining up right. So don't get confused by that, I just haven't figured out how to space it on this posting screen so it comes out right on the final screen yet.
  2. Wrong Robot

    Wrong Robot Guest

    Apr 8, 2002

    Use the
  3. Aaron Saunders

    Aaron Saunders

    Apr 27, 2002
    I think we can all expect Mr. Strange to jump in!
  4. JimK


    Dec 12, 1999
    I have never seen a triplet as being polyrhythmic...a beat is being subdivided into 3 equal parts; that's a polyrhythm?

    Consider this rhythm-

    Here 4 "beats" are spread evenly over 3/4 time.
    The Right Hand can tap out "1", "a of 1", "& of 2", "e of 3". Note: 4 "beats"
    The Left Hand taps out "1", "2" "3". Note: 3 Beats.

    There's other such tapping exercises for '5 over 4', '6 over 4', '7 over 4'...I have posted them a few times, too.
  5. Wildside


    Jan 12, 2004
    theater of pain
    First off, thanks for the exercise and reply. It's great to have an interesting community to learn from and interact with here. Most of the people at the guitar stores I go to aren't usually into conversing about anything other than their own playing.

    I see what you're saying. Perhaps I can clairfy what I mean here. I consier the triplet a polyrhythm since three notes are being inserted into the space of one note. Just like the 3:2 rhythm features three notes inserted into the space of two notes. I would consider the triplet to be a 3:1 polyrhythm. Similarly, a sextuplet would be a 6:1 polyrhythm. These aren't really "natural" divisons of 4/4 time.

    Numbers such as 2:1 (eigth notes), 4:1 (sixteenth notes) 8:1 (thirty-second notes) and 16:1 (sixty-fourth notes) would not be considered polyrhtyhms since they're just natural divisions of the standard 4/4 time.

    This isn't really related to my reply here, but one thing I I forgot to mention in my original post is that a time signature would not be considered a polyrhythm if one of the numbers divides evently into the other. For example, 2:4 is not a polyrhythm.
  6. This is a rhythm I've been getting into lately:

    Divide a quarter note into 5 notes -- a pentuplet. So using one hand tap the pentuplets. With the other hand tap the quarter notes. So:

    [b]1[/b] 2 3 4 5 [b]1[/b] 2 3 4 5 [b]1[/b] 2 3 4 5
    Now accent every third quintuplet: (accents marked with underline)

    [b][u]1[/u][/b] 2 3 [u]4[/u] 5 [b]1[/b] [u]2[/u] 3 4 [u]5[/u] [b]1[/b] 2 [u]3[/u] 4 5
    Fun, isn't this?

    Now tap eighth notes instead of quarter notes.

    Took me a few days to figure it out. :)

    To hear rhythms like this being applied, listen to the Yellowjackets. Russ does a lot of stuff just like this.
  7. JimK


    Dec 12, 1999
    Yeah, but...a common polyrhthm is 6/8 over 4/4; happens a lot in Afro-Cuban music.
    William Kennedy of the Yellowjackets is a prime example of someone using this feel in a Contemporary Jazz genre.

    To me, a polyrhythm is more than one/multiple rhythms going on. A triplet or a tripletted feel in & of itself...I don't hear it.
    Something simple like The Beatles' "We Can Work It Out" or "Not Gulity"-
    ...there are bars in both those tunes that are either:
    a)A couple bars of 6/8 thrown in
    b)Quarter Note Triplets within a couple bars of 4/4
    Neither are polyrhymic.

    To hear '6 over 4', try this
    Together, it sounds like l1-2&-3-4-5&-6-l

    RH taps l1-2-3-4-5-6-l
    LH taps l1--&--4--&--l

    Two distinct rhythms goin' on-
    RH is in 6
    LH is in 4

    If you play a bass figure using the LH rhythm vs. what the band is doing as the RH rhythm(in 6)...would be very cool, IMO.
  8. JimK


    Dec 12, 1999
    Something this reminds me of Mingus' "Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting".
    One line is played in 6/4 at 1/4 note = 270bpm
    One line is played in 4/4 at 1/4 note = 180bpm

    BOTH lines are being played in the same timeline(that is, both "1"s are played together).

    If you note the 'bpm" of each-
    One = 270bpm
    One = 180bpm

    Again, it's mathematical-
    IIRC, if you want to play '6 over 4' in this manner...the part in "6" must be 1.50 times 'faster' than the part in "4". In this example, 180 x 1.50 = 270.

    '5 against 4' would be a factor of 1.25
    5 would be at 1/4 note = 125bpm
    4 would be at 1/4 note = 100bpm

    '7 against 4' would be a factor of 1.75
    7 would be 175bpm
    4 would be 100bpm
  9. Marc Piane

    Marc Piane

    Jun 14, 2004
    A polyrhythm is any two or more rhythms happening at the same time. When you use only duple meters (6/8, 4/4, 12/8, 2/4) the results fit together because the rhythms share some commonality in where the natural accents fall. The same is true when you use only triple meters (3/4, 9/8). What gets really interesting (as people have said) is when you have a duple/triple combination or even a duple/compound or triple compound. A compound meter is a meter that combines a duple and triple into a single measure (5/4, 7/4, 11/8, etc.) Obviously this isn't restricted to putting together two meters but I find that this larger scale understanding helps break it into smaller pieces, 5:1, 21:16 (tee hee).
  10. fingers,

    what you are describing is polyMETRIC playing and that has been used in minimalism and eastern music for years. i love that "cycling" sound and find it a blast to play on...think King Crimson's "Frame by Frame".

    now polyRHYTHMIC playing is the juxtaposition of different meters and tempos to produce a very different number of accents over a set beat.
    think Frank Zappa's "The Black Page" which places 5's, 11's, 13's, 5's within the 11's, etc all over a slow 4/4.

    both are great and one of my favorite ways to play!
  11. Marc Piane

    Marc Piane

    Jun 14, 2004
    I think of polymetric and polyrhythmic as the same thing. Just different sized subdivisions.
  12. Marc Piane

    Marc Piane

    Jun 14, 2004
    The other thing about meters is 5/4 and 4/4 with the same quarter note pulse create cycling. A measure of 5/4 and 4/4 occuring in the same space of time is different a creates a sort of polyrhythmic feel.