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Music

Guide to Polyrhythm in Music: 4 Examples of Polyrhythm

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jun 16, 2020 • 2 min read

Polyrhythms create complexity within otherwise simple rhythmic or melodic patterns. The ability to understand and play polyrhythms is a valuable asset, regardless of your skill level as a musician.

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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:

  1. 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. 2:3 polyrhythm: This is the same concept as hemiola, just reversed: a two-note rhythm over a three-note rhythm.
  3. 3:4 polyrhythm: A three-note rhythm held over a four-note rhythm.
  4. 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.

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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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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