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What Are Polyrhythms?
A polyrhythm is the concurrent playing of two disparate rhythms. Known a cross-rhythm when it carries throughout an entire composition, polyrhythm appears in both Western and non-Western music, adding texture and complexity. Polyrhythm is not to be confused with syncopation (accenting the off-beats in a measure).
European composers like Frédéric Chopin and Ludwig van Beethoven added simple polyrhythms to their music—usually contrasting rhythmic patterns within the same meter. African musicians like Babatunde Olatunji and Afro-Cuban musicians like Mongo Santamaría—along with Latin and jazz composers—wrote music that contains complex polyrhythms using two or more different meters.
4 Examples of Polyrhythm
There are different types of polyrhythm in both Western and non-Western music, though they are more present in the latter. Common polyrhythms include:
- 3:2 polyrhythm: Known as hemiola, this triple-over-duple polyrhythm involves a three-note rhythm held over a two-note rhythmic pattern. Typically, this involves triplets over quarter notes or eighth notes.
- 2:3 polyrhythm: This is the same concept as hemiola, just reversed: a two-note rhythm over a three-note rhythm.
- 3:4 polyrhythm: A three-note rhythm held over a four-note rhythm.
- 4:3 polyrhythm: A four-note rhythm held over a three-note rhythm.
There are other polyrhythms that go beyond this scale, including 2:7, 5:4, 7:8, and more.
4 Tips for Mastering Polyrhythm in Music
Polyrhythmic patterns can be hard to master, especially if they're complex. Below are some best practices for mastering polyrhythms.
- Practice one hand at a time. Practice one hand at a time. Start by mastering the music of the left hand, then practice the right hand. When you feel comfortable, play both rhythms together.
- Use a metronome. Metronomes are devices that keep time for you at a tempo of your choosing. A metronome will keep you on tempo as you practice each rhythm separately then together.
- Allow for daily practice. Regular practice is the only way to master any instrument. Aim for at least one hour of practice every morning or evening.
- Be patient. Learning any instrument is hard work. Be patient with yourself. It's okay if it takes you a longer amount of time to learn to play polyrhythmic passages.
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