How To Play Hemiola Rhythms

Q: I’ve been playing around with hemiola rhythms and, no matter how much I try to “feel” them. I can’t. Help?

A: I assume that you’re talking about rhythmic figures that repeat in a cycle and cross the barline (no obvious downbeats until the cycle has repeated enough times to bring it back to starting on the one).

Literally speaking, a hemiola actually refers to playing 2 against 3 (or 3 against 4, which seems to be the way most people refer to it), but I’ll address both here, just in case.

I made up a few PDF’s in Sibelius and create a video of the playback so you can all read and follow along with a few examples. I’ll speak on how to practice this stuff after I walk you through the PDFs quickly.

* Note, I had it repeat each exercise 2 times and then play a bar of rest in between examples, to help you reset your brain for a second

Follow along with the video:

The first bit is just a 2 against 3 example as well as a 3 against 4 example. Playing 2 against 3 is basically just playing 2 dotted quarters against 3 quarter notes. Download the transcription for part 1.

The math:

  • One dotted quarter = 3 eighth notes two dotted quarters = 6 eighth notes
  • One quarter note = 2 eighth notes 3 quarter notes = 6 eighth notes

In 4/4 time, playing 3 against 4 is basically playing three 8th-note triplets against four quarter notes.

With three 8th note triplets per beat, you get 12 8th note triplets per bar:
3 x 4 = 12

Three groups of four 8th note triplets = 12

Likewise, if you were in 3/4 and wanted to figure out how to play a 4 feel against it, you could play 16th notes in groups of 3.

Three beats of 16th notes = twelve 16th notes per bar:
3 x 4 = 12

It all gets a little head wobbly, but it makes sense if you think about it and the good news is that it’s not actually required that you understand how to break everything down mathematically in order to feel it (but it helps!)

In my mind, what really matters is that you can feel the relevant subdivisions internally. You can then choose which ones to accent or phrase with.

For example: if you can feel 16th notes passing by, it becomes to easier to play different 16th note patterns and rhythmic groupings.

Whatever your lowest common denominator is, rhythmically speaking, that’s what you need to focus on. If it’s dotted quarter notes, you need to feel the passage of the 8th notes inherent to that rhythm in order to play them well and in time, just as half notes are easier to play if you can feel the quarter note pulse contained within.

My 2nd PDF is with regard to what I assumed that you were talking about, specifically rhythmic patterns that will cross the barline in a bar of 4/4. Download the transcription for part 2.

I would suggest taking these one by one until you are comfortable with them. Likely, you’ll want to start by playing just one note until you begin to feel the rhythm but I would, eventually, try and start applying harmonic patterns to the rhythms. It can be scales, arpeggios, or anything that keeps you engaged in the material. I used to walk blues progressions or standards using these rhythms once I felt more comfortable with the material.

EX 1: This should be pretty easy. It’s a rhythmic grouping of three quarter notes. It takes 3 bars before it comes back around.

EX. 2: This gets a little trickier. These are groups of dotted quarter notes. (duration of three 8th notes per plucked note or a quarter note-and-a-half). This also takes 3 bars to turn around on itself.

EX. 3: Again with the groups of 3. These are dotted 8th notes (three 16th notes duration per pluck). Notice how all of the groupings of 3 take 3 bars to turn around?

EX. 4: This is a grouping of 5 and might stump you for a bit but can be a lot of fun to play with once you get comfortable with it. Five 16th notes. 5 bar turnaround. I’m sensing a pattern.

I actually feel this as if my notes are just starting one 16th note subdivision later with each pluck (downbeat, 2nd 16th of beat 2, 3rd 16th of beat 3, 4th 16th of beat 4. It just takes 5 bars for your downbeat stroke to line up with the one)

EX. 5: Another grouping of 5. Five 8th note triplets per stroke. You might need to slow this one down until you can feel it.

So, as far as how to practice this stuff and internalize it. The key is making sure that you aren’t practicing mistakes. I would use a metronome that allows you to play the various subdivisions as well as the downbeats and a big 1 for each bar.

Be patient and work on them slowly. If you need to, program the rhythm into an app, drum machine, metronome, sequencer, notation app, or whatever you might have available to you, do it. Start slowly and build speed.

Then add harmonic stuff into the mix, which will test you even further. Before you know it, you’ll be locked into the grid in no time!

This got me thinking of one additional component to consider when you get good at this kind of stuff. When to use it….

I got a piece of advice years ago that I was recently reminded of on a recent tour when, after a gig, the drummer said, “hey man, if you hear me going into a polyrhythmic thing, you don’t necessarily have to follow along. I think it works best if it’s operating against what you were already doing”.

And that is fantastic advice.

It’s all too tempting to jump on the rhythmic band-wagon when a drummer (and possibly everyone else in the band after a few seconds) goes into a metronomic modulation, hemiola, or polyrhythmic adventure. The truth is often, however, that it sounds especially cool specifically because it’s operating against the standard time feel.

Once everybody jumps on board, it loses all of its contrast. Now we’re all just playing in a slower 3/4 instead of our original 4/4 (or whatever the case may be).

I’ve heard Marc Johnson speak about this before (I think he called it ‘parotting’ (i.e.: repeating what you hear like a parrot without understanding why you’re repeating it).
He urged everybody to always consider what might make the stronger statement. The parrot line or the complementary line. Contrast is often the name of the game when coming up with cool lines. I always try and think of what might compliment what’s happening, as opposed to just doing exactly what everybody else is doing (although it depends on the music, as always).

It’s actually a pet peeve of mine with drummers who immediately change the time-feel to match my hemiola or polyrhythmic idea. I am usually doing something like that specifically to contrast what is happening and it drives me batty when I feel like I can’t play around rhythmically without the drummer completely changing the feel of the tune around me

Sometimes it’s extremely cool to lock in a rhythmically modulate together, sometimes it’s better to let the contrast speak. It depends on the moment. As I always say, “eyes up and ears open”. Practice hard and think long in the shed. Relax, listen, feel and react on the gig.

I hope this helps you with your rhythmic explorations!

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