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Polyrhythms - A Quick Theory Lesson

This article is to inform people about what polyrhythms ACTUALLY are, and furthermore clear the air
about the musical devices they are often mistaken for polymeters, and rhythmic displacement.
As you probably all know (prog-metalheads and fans of Meshuggah, TesseracT, Periphery, Porcupine
Tree and the like), a lot of the time musicians and composers often get labeled with using polyrhythms. A
lot of the time, the term "polyrhythm" is used to describe - in Porcupine Tree's case - a PolyMETER; in
Meshuggah's case, Rhythmic Displacement. Allow me to explain the theoretical difference between the
three devices in question.
Polyrhythms
A polyrhythm is two types of tuplets layered over each other and played simultaneously: a common
example being a triplets over quavers; a less common and considerably trickier example (often found in
Chopin and Liszt) would be something like a septuplet (7) over semiquavers. A good example of this
would be in Brahms's 4th Symphony, First Movement.
You'll find polyrhythms all over the place here, however the strongest I feel is at around about 3:12, quite
short but very clear between the lower and higher stringed instruments. It's a fairly straightforward
example, as it's only a three over 2. For more complex examples, they are dotted all over Chopin's
"Nocturnes" for piano.
Polymeters
A polymeter is a different story altogether, and generally speaking a lot easier to hear and pull off,
although it's obviously objective to the difficulty of the polymeter. This device is where two (or more)
time signatures are being phrased simultaneously, e.g. the drums, keyboards and bass playing in 4/4 and
the guitars playing in 5/8 (Porcupine Tree - Anesthetise). One vital point, however, is that the time
signatures HAVE TO RESOLVE (can be described as a "rhythmic
cadence"), meaning that if it is a 4/4 over 5/8 polymeter, then the 4/4 pattern will have to be played 5
times for the 5/8 to fit. If the 5/8 or 4/4 pattern is forced to resolve then it's something different entirely. A
great example, as aforementioned would be in Porcupine Tree's tune Anesthetise.
Rhythmic Displacement
This is possibly the most common device, and is used EVERYWHERE, heavily in technical metal. This
is where a continuous pulse (often a cymbal) is lilted slightly by instruments phrasing in another time
signature, pushed to resolve after a certain number of bars. Very different to a polymeter! An example
would be as follows:
5/8, 5/8, 5/8, 5/8, 5/4, 1/4
(all over a 4/4 pulse: it works out because the pattern adds up to 32 quavers, which is divisible by a 4/4
pulse)
Another:
11/8, 11/8, 5/4 (same principles)
Meshuggah use this technique a HELL of a lot, splattered all across Nothing in almost every single riff. It
is also used melodically in a lot of Jazz and Classical (Herbie Hancock favours this technique and often
phrases in fives).

Why this is just a THEORY

If you are a musician and you are reading this, then you may be asking "well, isn't a polymeter just a sped
up polyrhythm", or vice versa, and to that I can only say: isn't forte just a louder version of piano? You
would be right however, a polymeter IS a slowed down polyrhythm. Let me explain:
The way a polyrhythm is constructed is exactly like a polymeter. To create a polyrhythm, you first have to
decide which numbers you are using (let's say triplets (3) and semiquavers (4) for now), then you have to
divide the beat up by the product of those two numbers (in this case 12). The triplets would appear on
every fourth 12th note, and the semiquavers on every third 12th note. Here's a scrappy little diagram:

/
t
sq

/
sq

/
t

/
sq

/
t

sq

/ = 12th note
t = triplet
sq = semiquaver

Now this is all within one beat, and automatically becomes a polyrhtyhm, but if you slow each 12th not
down to quavers then this becomes a 3/8 over 2/4 polymeter. This can be applied to any tuplets or time
signatures you can think of. So essentially, the only difference between polymeters and polyrhythms is
speed and notation. However, as I said before, it is just like saying that quiet is the same as loud, only a
lot quieter.
Hope that helped!

theory - Polymeter vs Polyrhythm - Music: Practice & Theory Stack Exchange

3/7/16, 9:19 PM

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Polymeter vs Polyrhythm
What is the dierence between a polymeter and a polyrhythm? Do these words mean anything dierent for dierent
instruments?
PS: I'm a drummer.
theory

terminology

meter

polyrhythm

edited Apr 30 '13 at 13:25

asked Apr 29 '13 at 5:31

American Luke
4,854

24

Anish Ramaswamy
58

168

7 Answers

Hopefully these examples of 5/4:4/4 polymeter and 5:4 polyrhythm clears it up.

Polymeter
Here is a simple example of 5/4 over 4/4 polymeter notated in 4/4 time. Notice how voice A's
meter is five beats (the accents illustrates the starts), while voice B's meter is four beats, and
they are sort of modulating over each other. After 20 beats their accented beats will coincide
again. Important is that the beat tempo is the same for both voices!

Here is the same example but notated in 5/4 time:

You could also notate voices A and B each with a dierent time signatures (explicit polymeter
notation), but it might look confusing if you're not used to it when the bar lines don't line up

http://music.stackexchange.com/questions/10488/polymeter-vs-polyrhythm

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theory - Polymeter vs Polyrhythm - Music: Practice & Theory Stack Exchange

3/7/16, 9:19 PM

inbetween the staves.

Polyrhythm
Here is a simple example of 5:4 polyrhythm notated in 4/4 time. Notice how both voices
coincide and have emphasis on the first beat of each measure (or rather each complete beat
ratio). Important is that the beat tempo is dierent between the two rhythms of voice A and B!

Here is the same example but notated in 5/4 time:

answered Apr 30 '13 at 23:31

Ulf kerstedt
4,990

12

41

Thanks for the examples. I never understood it until now. Great answer! (+1) American Luke May 4 '13 at
1:38

Polymeter : dierent voices/instruments that play dierent meters that desynchronize


themselfs (a 9/8 piano part against a 4/4 drum part, or 7/8 on a 3/4
Polyrythms : dierent subdivisions that fit in the same bar. The classic Christmas tune "Carol
of the bells" is an example of 2 against 3. Traditional cuban rumba, and lots of west African
drum rhythms use 6 against 4.
Source : this
answered Apr 29 '13 at 6:28

Chipsgoumerde
1,050

14

Are you sure about Carol of the Bells? Sounds to me like it's just regular old 3 all the way through. ecline6
Apr 29 '13 at 13:30
Just listened to Carol of the Bells (who was she ?....)and it's in 6/8.So, compound duple. Tim Apr 29 '13
at 19:38
It's not a duple. You would hear dotted quarters all over the place if it were in 2. 6/8 can represent duples
and triples. Here it is most definitely a triple. ecline6 Apr 29 '13 at 21:57
I've heard the version Tim's talking about. It also has a weird modulation to major that I haven't figured out.
Can't remember the artist's name either. :( luser droog Apr 30 '13 at 5:08
Mykola Leontovich.Old trad.Ukranian (the song...)Some copies are written 3/4 some 3/8, but the said
version had a slow 2 feel amongst the quick 3s, so probably the choir sang with that feel on purpose musical licence ! Tim Apr 30 '13 at 5:29

http://music.stackexchange.com/questions/10488/polymeter-vs-polyrhythm

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theory - Polymeter vs Polyrhythm - Music: Practice & Theory Stack Exchange

3/7/16, 9:19 PM

Polyrhythms are multi-rhythms as in a bar of ,say, 8 quavers played against 12 quaver triplets
(in the same bar).They don't necessarily fit properly,but they are playable.So, the bar length
stays the same, but the divisions in it are varied simultaneously against another rhythm
pattern in the same bar. Polymeters are changing lengths of bars in the same piece,e.g. 4/4
followed by 7/4 followed by 3/4, all the crotchets being equal in time to each other.An
example would be 'Closest Thing to Crazy' by Katie Melua, or lots of stu by Stravinsky.
Polymeters are also instruments used to measure diering values, e.g. temperature and
voltage!!Not much use to drummers.
answered Apr 30 '13 at 11:36

Tim
36.4k

42

104

Polyrhythm and polymeter demonstrate the outer limits of written music. In truth if I play a
seven note repeating phrase over a four note phrase at the same speed they will synchronise
every 28 notes. I can notate this within one bar or I can fit one phrase in a bar and have the
other run over the bar lines. It should sound the same either way. Music notation has not yet
matured suciently to cover a full range of polyrhythms. Personally, as I am very interested in
polyrhythm (I have named nearly 40 million of them) I tend not to use bar lines, and avoid
using the word polymeter. I suppose if I was improvising in 7s over 4s (varying the 7 and 4
patterns) I might technically call it polymeter but I would expect to have to explain the word to
most folks, most people I meet have some understanding of the word polyrhythm.
answered Apr 30 '13 at 8:17

Chaparral Andrew
Hodges
1

Welcome to Stack Exchange, Andrew.Not the Andrew who has a place in Normandie? I didn't realise there
were 40,000,000 words available for nomenclature ! Tim Apr 30 '13 at 11:44
Hi Tim. Sorry, no Normandie connection (I'm on the Llyn Peninsula in North Wales). I use 8712 Names for
the rhythms up to 16 beats long and additional words for the nature of the interaction of the two rhythms
when they combine to make a polyrhythm - for example there are 5 ways that a 10 beat long rhythm will
combine with a 15 beat rhythm. This way the name of each polyrhythm tells you exactly how it sounds.
Chaparral Andrew Hodges Apr 30 '13 at 13:07
Can you give an example of a name for a polyrhythm? ecline6 May 1 '13 at 22:19
The simplest polyrhythm that does not include straight Beats is 'Geera Ak Hap Djeb'. 'Geera' is 1110 in
integer notation and 'Djeb' is 110. 'Hap Djeb' means that the Djeb is stretched twice as long (101000) 'Ak'
means that the two rhythms start together in normal form. 'Geera Ak Hap Djeb' runs B1B011B0B110 (Both
hands play B) 'Geera El Hap Djeb' runs 1B1211121B10 (Where the Geera and the Hap Djeb start out of
phase) Chaparral Andrew Hodges May 2 '13 at 22:51
I am currently editing rhythms that are 10 against 15. a good example is 'Cong Ob Grotam' which runs
121210210010121021201210100120 and contains no 'Both' beats. Chaparral Andrew Hodges May 2 '13
at 22:56

Note that they are only conceptually dierent. Any polymeter can be expressed as a
polyrhythm and vice versa. To take the written example already provided, the top line is the
polymeter and the bottom line is exactly the same thing written as a polyrhythm:

http://music.stackexchange.com/questions/10488/polymeter-vs-polyrhythm

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theory - Polymeter vs Polyrhythm - Music: Practice & Theory Stack Exchange

3/7/16, 9:19 PM

answered Dec 1 '15 at 23:27

Tom
1

The first answer by Ulf is how I would use the terms also. I'll just point out that there are of
course more complex ways of playing polymeters and polyrhythms than just using equally
long beats for each of the two (or more) lines. In fact, polymeter and polyrhythm are not two
dierent things, but two ends of a spectrum. For instance, if you take Ulf's example of a five
against four polymeter but just play the first note of every group of five and of every group of
four, you have a five against four polyrhythm.
If anyone's interested, here's an example of a polymetric piece in 12 against 47:
Scott Wallace

just jazzy

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cheers from rainy Vienna, Scott


answered Feb 21 at 14:07

Scott Wallace
414

Perhaps there is confusion between polyrhythm and polymeter because there is actually no
such word as polymeter: http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/spellcheck/english/?q=polymeter
I think it's best to stick to polyrhythm and then use other words to describe the type or
characteristics of the polyrhythm.
answered Mar 26 '15 at 23:38

David Smith
1

Polymeter exists: www2.siba.fi/muste1/index.php?id=101&la=en Dom Mar 26 '15 at 23:43

http://music.stackexchange.com/questions/10488/polymeter-vs-polyrhythm

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