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This post is all about polyrhythms. Learning polyrhythms will make your drum life both easier and certainly more exciting. If you decide to invest your time in them, they will open up new doors in your playing. Doors you probably never knew existed.

So, before getting into the details, let’s talk about what polyrhythms really are. The word “poly” basically means “more than one”. Polyrhythms therefore means that more than one rhythm are simultaneously played. There is more to it than a one sentence description, but some things are best described when shown.

Before we get into the actual polyrhythms, it’s essential that you are well aware of the rhythm scale over one beat. Simply because once you know it, you are able to derive any polyrhythm from it. Sounds exciting? It is. That leads us to the inevitable question: What is the rhythm scale over one beat?

The Rhythm Scale over One Beat

The Rhythm Scale is sometimes also known as the Table of Time or the Rhythmic Pyramid. The rhythm scale over one beat is the most important one to learn first, since it’s the foundation of rhythm. 

Let’s use the wonderful world of mathematics to explain how the rhythm scale is constructed, because that’s exactly what these rhythms are: math.

Put your metronome at for example 40 BPM. Every ”click” you will hear is going to be the quarter notes. The quarter notes are often referred to as the pulse in many songs. To understand the rhythm scale over one beat, our task is now to fit evenly spaced strokes between the quarter notes. One quarter note equals one beat here. In other words, we could also call this scale the rhythm scale over one quarter note, just to explain it clearer for the moment.

Back to our task, try to play at the exact same time as the quarter notes. Now you are playing one evenly spaced stroke for each quarter note. In other words; you are playing quarter notes. The next step is to play two evenly spaced strokes at the time of each quarter note. You are now playing eighth notes. Three evenly spaced strokes? That would be eighth note triplets. Four evenly spaced strokes? Sixteenth notes. Five? Quintuplets. Six? Sixteenth note triplets. Seven? Septuplets. Eight? Thirty-second notes. 

You can, of course, take it as far as you would like to. Theoretically, you can play 1000 evenly spaced strokes for each quarter note.

Now that you are familiar with how to play the rhythm scale over one beat, you will probably be surprised at how simple it is to figure out polyrhythms. By simple, I mean the thinking and understanding of polyrhythms, to practice them to the degree that they are a part of your vocabulary is another thing and of course takes a lot of work.

 Sometimes a triplet just isn't enough. - Vinnie Colaiuta-2

The Rhythm Scale over Two Beats

Now we have come to the exciting part; creating polyrhythms. We are gonna play the rhythm scale over one beat using single strokes (right, left, right, left etc.), just as before, but we are gonna take away the left hand part. That leaves us playing every other stroke of every note value. That will make our rhythms twice as long before resolving, compared to the rhythm scale over one beat. Hence ”the rhythm scale over two beats”.

Let’s take the eighth note triplets as an example. In other words; playing three evenly spaced strokes between each quarter note.

Counting is, by far, the most important part of learning and understanding any rhythm. The way we are gonna count the eighth note triplets is: 1 & a 2 & a. Time signature: 2/4.

By taking away the left hand, leaving us with playing only every other note, we are left with only the bold ones: 1 & a 2 & a. That rhythm, together with the rhythm that the metronome is playing, will form the polyrhythm of 3 over 2. In the notation below, the snare drum plays the “3”, and the bass drum plays the “2”.

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Bar 1: Eighth note triplets on the snare, quarter notes on the bass drum. Bar 2: Take away every other snare drum stroke to create the polyrhythm 3 over 2.

 

Let’s make this clearer, by taking another example as well. We’ll make things a little trickier this time and select the note value of quintuplets. Quintuplets = five evenly spaced strokes for each quarter note. A common way to count these are using the five-syllable word ”university”. The way I like to count it is using ”un-i-ver-si-ty”, but replacing the first syllable with numbers. So, instead of ”university-university” etc., I like to count ”1iversity-2iversity” etc. This way, it’s very clear where every quarter note lands. It also makes it easy to count quintuplets in different time signatures.

We’ll maintain the single stroke sticking and once again take away the left hand. We are now left with the bold ones: 1 i ver si ty 2 i ver si ty

Together with the metronome, that will form the beautiful polyrhythm 5 over 2. Quite easy to understand, right?

 To recap: Chose a note value, play a single stroke roll sticking with your hands, take away one hand and you will have that note values number as the polyrhythm over 2.

To make your understanding of polyrhythms even clearer, we’ll now take a look at the rhythm scale over three beats.

 

The Rhythm Scale over Three Beats

Can you figure out how to create any polyrhythm with the bottom number of 3? Let’s dive into it together. For this example, we’ll chose the polyrhythm 5 over 3.

Play the quintuplets with a three note sticking, for example: right, left, left.
 The next step is to simply remove the left hand strokes. We are then left with 1 i ver si ty 2 i ver si ty 3 i ver si ty, plus the metronome playing the quarter notes. That will form the polyrhythm of (all together now) 5 over 3.

By now, you should have a clear understanding of the bigger picture when it comes to polyrhythms. But, don’t stop there. Now that you understand the basics, I want to give you a formula (or method) you can use to figure out, and master, any polyrhythm of your choise.

 

The Polyrhythm Formula

This lesson is not meant to explain drum set applications and possibilities with polyrhythms. But still, I want to make it very clear that it’s important to practice to be able to ”feel” the polyrhythm that you are working on in different ways. Here’s what I mean.

In its natural form, each polyrhythm can be played in two time signatures: The time signature corresponding to the top number of the polyrhythm or the bottom number. For example, the polyrhythm 5 over 4 can be played in a time signature of 5/4 or in 4/4. To be able to effortlessly jump between these pulses and play around with them, is what will open up a new world for you, when it comes to the endless possibilities with polyrhythms. You’ll see what I mean in the explanation of the polyrhythm formula found below.

 

Example with the polyrhythm 5 against/over 4.

1)  Using one of the two numbers of the polyrhythm, decide what time signature you should play the polyrhythm in.

Two options: Choose either 5/4 or 4/4.

Let’s choose 5/4 for this example.

Polyrhythm demo 1

 

2) Subdivide the quarter note by the other number, the number we didn’t choose as the time signature.

In this case: 4. 4 equally spaced notes for each quarter note = sixteenth notes.

Polyrhythm demo 2

3) Use the number you picked as the time signature and space the accents with the corresponding number. Remove the unaccented notes.

5 was the number we used as our time signature. Therefore we will accent every fifth stroke of the sixteenth notes. Then we simply remove the unaccented notes.

Polyrhythm 3

Take away the unaccented snare notes, and we have our polyrhythm:

Polyrhythm demo 4

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As mentioned earlier, it’s important that you can count the polyrhythm in both time signatures. So, to make the experience complete, let’s stick with the same polyrhythm (5 against 4), use the same steps as previous but flip it all over.

1) Using one of the two numbers of the polyrhythm, decide what time signature you should play the polyrhythm in.

Two options: Choose either 5/4 or 4/4.

This time we will choose 4/4 as our time signature.

2) Subdivide the quarter note by the other number, the number we didn’t choose as the time signature.

In this case: 5. 5 equally spaced notes for each quarter note = quintuplets.

3) Use the number you picked as the time signature and space the accents with the corresponding number. Remove the unaccented notes.

4 is now the number we use as our time signature. Therefore we will accent every fourth stroke of the quintuplets. Then we simply remove the unaccented notes.

 

Conclusion

Puhhhh… There you have it. A formula/method you can use to work out any polyrhythm of your choice. My goal was to shed some light to the “dark magic” kind of rumors that polyrhythms have. You can learn anything as long as you have a method on how to do it.

Let me know your thoughts on this info. I hope you loved it.

 

To download a free, 1-page PDF with the polyrhythm formula – fill out the form below and you’ll get it sent to your email.

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