Polyrhythms are a powerful musical tool that open up new worlds of rhythmic possibilities. This article will show you how to play polyrhythms on the piano.
Usually, the division of time is quite obvious when we listen to music. Most songs have a clear time signature, with the beats divided into groups of three or four. But now and again, you’ll hear a moment of perfectly ordered chaos and find yourself asking what happened there?
Did it sound like groups of two, three, and four at the same time? You haven’t lost your mind–it’s the haunting sound of polyrhythms. By the end of this article, you’ll have enough information to add them to your piano practice repertoire.
What’s a polyrhythm?
The funny thing about time is that you can divide it into infinitely smaller parts. Zen Buddhism would argue that the shortest, most fleeting moment carries the immensity of infinity. Polyrhythms are not quite that deep or philosophical, but they’re pretty mind-blowing!
A polyrhythm is when a musical phrase or beat carries two conflicting pulses or meters. The polyrhythm begins by taking two numbers that don’t seem to fit into one another–for example, three and four. If you can identify a common multiple of these two numbers–in this case, twelve–then you have all the ingredients you need to make polyrhythm magic.
For an entry level guide into time signatures, check out the the 4/4 time signature.
How to play a 4:3 polyrhythm.
Before you start to play polyrhythms, you must put on your mathematical hat and count the beats. To figure out 4:3, let’s begin by dividing a section of time into twelve. Then, write four evenly placed beats.
Put your metronome on 100bpm in a 4/4 time signature and clap along. To reinforce your understanding of the twelve subdivisions, try counting aloud with the metronome, like this:
Now it’s time to add the Poly ghost. Make another row of twelve, and divide it into three evenly spaced beats:
Essentially, what we have here is twelve sixteenth notes, which divide into four groups of three, and then into three groups of four. Put your metronome back on and count each rhythm separately, with the sixteenth note subdivisions.
The transition from counting these beats separately to playing them together is not easy. It requires a lot of focus and practice, but eventually, you’ll hear it like any other rhythm. To better understand how these rhythms work together, you have to learn to clap the composite rhythm. There are some easy linguistic hacks for remembering them. The hack for 4:3 is What atrocious weather. This is how it looks notated:
Now see if you can divide your hands according to this phrase, to play the four pulse with your right hand and the three pulse with your left:
Did that work? If you feel confident, try swapping your hands. Nailed it? Now go over to the piano. Try playing the three pulse in your left hand on the notes C, G, and C. In your right hand, play the four pulse on a C major arpeggio, with the notes C, E, G, C. All of this together is a polyrhythmic broken chord.
How to play a 2:3 polyrhythm.
If you got the hang of that one, this next polyrhythm should be an evenly slice piece of cake!
First, take the closest multiple of both three and two, six. Now let’s divide it into both pulses.
If that makes sense visually, throw your metronome onto 100bpm in 3/4 and try clapping and counting each pulse separately.
Want to know its hack? Okay, fine, we’ll spill. Hot cup of tea:
Put this hot cup of tea to the test by playing it on piano (careful not to spill). This time we’re going to play a progression of major and minor 7 broken chords using this polyrhythm.
Cmaj7 – Fmaj7 – Em7 – Gmaj7
In the left hand, play the three pulse on the 1, 5, and 1 of each chord. Play the two pulse on the 3 and 7 of each chord in the right hand. For example, the Cmaj7 chord will look like this:
Advanced polyrhythm: 5:4.
It’s all good and well to play with twos, threes, and fours. It’s a totally different game once you put more complex numbers into the mix. Let’s look at the 5:4 polyrhythm. We’ll start with their common multiple, 20, and its subdivision into five and four:
You can see that every beat of the four pulse falls on a different sixteenth note in the five pulse. This makes it an intricate and challenging rhythm to wrap your head around. We will no doubt need the guidance of our sixteenth note counting and the composite rhythm hack: I’m looking for a home to buy.
Famous songs with polyrhythms.
It’s crucial to bring all these ghostly polyrhythm numbers down to earth, by contextualizing them in songs. Here are some famous tunes that have polyrhythms written all over them. Can you hear it? Can you feel it? Check out this video for a detailed breakdown.
- Fake Empire – the National
- Xavi – Snarky Puppy
- Daydreaming – Radiohead
- Light My Fire – The Doors
- Is This Love? – Bob Marley
- Hajanga – Jacob Collier
Remember, there’s no rush to get to polyrhythm heaven. Practice them slowly, with patience and humility, in all different variations. The cool thing about polyrhythms is you don’t even need an instrument. Do it while walking, on the train, or in a boring lecture.