Exploring Polyrhythms: A Practice Guide

Q: What is a “polyrhythm”, and how can I use them?

A: Technically speaking, a polyrhythm is exactly what it says… more than one rhythm happening at the same time.

This could be a Cascara rhythm combined with a Clave, or even just a swing pattern on the ride along with the hi-hat on 2 and 4.

Download Polyrhythmic Examples PDFI find African, Latin and Afro-Cuban music to have some of the most “happening” polyrhythmic trickery out there, which leads to my favorite use of polyrhythms in a jazz setting: that of 3 against 4.

It’s fairly easy to feel three beats happening in the space of four, and vice-versa, once you’re exposed to it.

Polyrhythms, however, don’t have to be symmetrical or contain a steady pulse. Check out some of the examples (PDF download). You will find some fairly easy-to-hear uses of dotted quarters and dotted 8th notes, followed by three beats – all happening in one bar of 4/4.

Then there is a more interesting pattern of an 8th note alternating with a dotted 8th (you can feel it as alternating sets of two 16th notes and three 16th notes).

These are just a few examples of the infinite ways in which we can imply other feels or switch up the rhythm of a bar of music. I made each example long enough to turn back around on itself.

Some polyrhythms can happen within the space of one bar and some can go over the barline and take quite a few to turn back around.

Experiment with trying to evenly fit various numbers of beats against a different number of beats. Get your metronome going and try things like the following:

  1. Fit three beats into a bar of 4/4
  2. Fit five beats into a bar of 4/4
  3. Play one note every three 16ths
  4. Alternate different groupings of rhythms (for example 3 16th notes and 4 16th notes)

Remember to keep the rhythms even, and don’t “fudge” it here and there to make it line up where your brain wants it.

I find it helpful to enter notation like this into Sibelius or Finale (or Notion on your iPad) and listen to the play-back (hence my quarter note reference on each bar) so I can double check my accuracy.

Note: This notation was done using “Notion” on my iPad as I fly back from Europe, so it is not quite as “tidy” as my usual Sibelius examples here.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

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