Polyrhythms are perhaps one of the most misunderstood rhythmic patterns in music theory.
If you’re just getting started with music you might have written polyrhythms off as being too complicated and hard to understand.
Yes—you will need some basic understanding of rhythm and meter.
But, with a few basic concepts, polyrhythms aren’t actually that difficult to understand.
The truth is, polyrhythms are really cool and they can add another dimension to the rhythms you write and play within your own music.
Let’s explore the definition of polyrhythms and learn some easy ways to feel their unique rhythmic characteristics in your own playing.
What is a polyrhythm?
At its most basic, a polyrhythm is two or more rhythms, layered on top of each other. They’re played at the same tempo, but have different rhythmic subdivisions. That is, polyrhythm fits unequal numbers of beats spaced out equally within the same amount of time—or within the same measure.
So for example, a three over two polyrhythm will fit three beats of one instrument and two beats of another into the same amount of time. Polyrhythm is also called cross-rhythm or composite rhythm.
Theory guides, production tips, new free plugins, gear guides and more—delivered weekly
Keep up with the LANDR Blog.
Polymeter vs. polyrhythm
Polymeter and polyrhythm definitions often get confused. They utilize some similar ideas but they’re very different.
In music, a polymeter occurs when two or more rhythmic meters are played against one another creating a phase-in, phase-out effect.
To put it in simpler terms, have you ever found yourself sitting in a busy turning lane—watching the signal light of each car in line blinking on and off in and out of phase with each other?
What you’re watching is a polymeter! Albeit a very complicated one.
Each car has its own pulse that goes in and out of phase with the other cars in line.
Polymeter occurs when two or more rhythmic meters are played against one another creating a phase-in, phase-out effect.
Every now and then the pulse of the turn signals lines up with each other as the timing of each car eventually intersects.
That’s basically how polymeters work in music too! Except that you will be counting two opposing time signatures against each other very precisely, like 5/4 versus 4/4.
Odd time vs. polyrhythms
Polyrhythms are also often confused with odd time. Odd time signatures jump between duple meter (two beats to the bar) and triple meter (three beats to the bar).
Odd time is always a combination of twos and threes, but you can write polyrhythms in 4/4 time—the most common time signature of all!
In fact the most basic polyrhythm patterns are most commonly expressed in 4/4 or 3/4 time.
Yes—it is possible to write polyrhythms in odd time signatures like 5/8 or 7/8, but for simplicity’s sake it’s better to start off with learning polyrhythms in common time.
A brief history of polyrhythm
Polyrhythms likely originated in African music, then made their way to the Western world. Latin American and Caribbean music often features multiple drummers playing different rhythms.
In America, polyrhythms are a defining feature of jazz music and today can be heard in genres from pop to heavy metal.
Once you’ve studied and learned them you’ll hear examples of polyrhythms everywhere in music, from the top 40 charts down to the most complex avant-garde compositions.
Why use a polyrhythm?
Polyrhythms can make your music more complex and sophisticated. The build up of tension followed by release makes it more exciting and engaging to the listener, and they can also make your melody and harmony really pop.
The truth is that the answer to the question “What is a polyrhythm?” is that it is simply a really cool rhythmic pattern that can add another dimension to the songs you write and play.
Examples of polyrhythm
To help explain what a polyrhythm is, let’s look at some examples of various rhythmic patterns and some tips for how to start playing them yourself.
Two over three
Let’s start with the most simple polyrhythm of all—two over three.
Two over three can be expressed in either 3/4 time (triple meter) or 2/4 time (duple meter)—it doesn’t matter which one you choose, but the one you choose will affect how you visualize the polyrhythm and how your polyrhythm fits within the context of the music you’re writing
It’s also a bit easier to visualize any polyrhythm by using a different instrument for each—say a woodblock played in twos and a snare played in threes.
So, in 3/4 you’ll have a quarter note snare beat on each of the three beats in the measure.
And you’ll have a dotted quarter note played on the woodblock equally space two beats within the three-quarter note measure.
By the way, we’ve written about how to read sheet music before if you need help understanding this way of reading rhythm.
Here’s how it looks and sounds on sheet music and in a MIDI editor.
If you wanted to write a two over three polyrhythm in 2/4 you’ll essentially superimpose a quarter note triplet played on the woodblock over two quarter notes on the snare.
Hot tip: Polyrhythms are easy to remember and feel by memorizing specific phrases that emphasize their rhythm. In the case of two over four “DING-fries-ARE-done” is a pretty classic phrase.
Three over four
The three over four polyrhythm provides a good time to start talking about steps within a bar.
Since four is a multiple of two, you might expect it to sound the same as two over three. But that is not the case.
Remembering that what polyrhythms do is fit unequal numbers of beats spaced out equally within the same amount of time is key for understanding this and more advanced polyrhythms.
So if we look at a 3/4 four measure, you’ll have three-quarter notes on each pulse of the measure superimposed over four dotted eighth notes that mathematically equal out to three quarter notes.
Here’s how three over four can be visualized on paper and in a MIDI editor.
Three over four polyrhythms are often used in pop music breakdowns. The pre-chorus of Pitbull’s “Give Me Everything” is one of the great examples of polyrhythm in pop music.
Three over four polyrhythms are often used in pop music breakdowns.
Just listen to how the synths come in and out of phase.
Hot tip: The best phrase to hear and memorize three over four feel is “PASS-the-GOSH-darn-BUT-ter”.
Four over five and beyond
Alright now, we’re getting to a more advanced type of polyrhythm.
Before we dive into Euclidian rhythms, the last polyrhythm to wrap your head around is four over five.
This is more advanced because thinking in multiples of five will definitely challenge your rhythmic sensibilities.
As I said, four over five doesn’t necessarily have to be expressed with an odd time signature.
You could write out this polyrhythm in 4/4 time by superimposing a quarter note quintuplet over a quarter note pulse.
Here’s what that looks like.
But, mostly it’s about applying the same principle of fitting different numbers of equally spaced notes into the same measure of time.
Except that in this case, we’re fitting pulses of four and five into the same space.
So what about polyrhythms with six pulses or more? Are there other ways to combine rhythms into polyrhythms?
I think the Euclidian rhythm system is maybe the best way to visualize and discover more complex examples of polyrhythm.
The Euclidian rhythm system is maybe the best way to visualize and discover more complex polyrhythms.
The Euclidian rhythms use a circular format, with each point of the circle representing a pulse, and the number of points representing a meter.
It’s best explored by playing with a Euclidian sequencer.
If you’re wondering why I used a circle with dots in each one of the visuals for the previous three polyrhythms, those are Euclidian representations of those polyrhythms!
Those are some pretty basic examples. It’s mind-boggling how many rhythmic patters you can easily come up with using a sequencer like this.
Polyrhythms are fascinating
In high school when I first got interested in music, one of the first things I wanted to learn about was polyrhythms.
I thought they were a super interesting way of thinking about rhythms.
Knowing how polyrhythms work is an awesome gateway for deepening your skills as a player or writer of music.
So I hope this deep dive into the question “What is polyrhythm in music?” sets you off on a lifetime of noticing them around you. Ready to use them in your songs? Join LANDR for free and get access to samples, tutorials and more to get you started.
Gear guides, tips, tutorials, inspiration and more—delivered weekly.
Keep up with the LANDR Blog.