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Rhythms of Prog



Polyrhythms #1

   When talking about Polyrhythms, two different concepts are generally discussed as both being definitions of the term "Polyrhythm." The first concept is the notion of playing in odd time signatures, like 5/4, 11/8, 17/16. This is not the correct definition of Polyrhythm, but is actually simply playing in Odd Time.

   The second definition is the correct one: two or more different rhythmic structures played against each other concurrently. This is the definition we will follow here.

The Concept

    Most of us use Polyrhythms without knowing it. If we are in a situation where we are playing drums with a percussionist, each of us will be playing a different rhythm, and the resulting combination will be polyrhythmic. In fact, most advanced drumset rhythms have the potential of being Polyrhythmic, as long as each rhythm is clearly defined and repeats itself after a regular duration.

   This lesson will help you understand Polyrhythms and give you the tools you need to develop your own Polyrhythmic abilities on the drum kit.


   The first exercise comes from the King Crimson album Thrak. It is the title cut. This will serve as our defining example. It is played by two drummers on the album.

    Polyrhythms #1

   There are a few things going on here that bear explaining before we move on. First, this example is limited to two separate rhythms; if one person is playing it alone the left hand is the top line of notes and the right hand is the bottom.

   Before we go any further, I want you to get your sticks out and play this as written; play on two different drums. Start slow until you're comfortable, then speed up a bit.

   What you should find is that this exercise, while appearing to be daunting, is really not that hard if you just play the notes.

   OK? Now let's talk about what you just did. There are two sets of numbers above and below the staff. The numbers above represent a seven-note grouping, the numbers below represent a five-note grouping. Notice the bold numbers: on the top, 1 2 3 4 5 6 7. We're only playing the first, fourth and sixth notes of this rhythm, then repeating. See? It doesn't change.

   On the bottom we have this: 1 2 3 4 5. We're only playing the first and fourth notes, then repeating.

   This is the Polyrhythm: a three-note pattern in a "measure" of seven against a two-note pattern in a "measure" of five, played concurrently.

   Now, memorize these two rhythms based on the counting of the numbers only, then sit so you can't see the screen, and play this Polyrhythm solely by counting the two rhythmic patterns against each other, in your head.

   I bet that was hard, almost impossible!

   Two things should come out of this: 1. what Polyrhythms are, and 2. it's easier to play them if you just read the notes and don't get caught up in the "counting." (However, that being said, it would be a tremendous skill to be able to play these solely by the counting as well as read!)

   Let's simplify things so we can move on to the creation of our own Polyrhythms.

   This next exercise is a four-note "measure" against a three-note "measure."

    Polyrhythms #2

   Can you see where the accents fall? Again, this is much easier playing as written than by counting.

   What can you say about this next one?

    Polyrhythms #3

   It's exactly the same as #2, right? But, it's in 3/4, not 4/4. Is this because we have a four-note pattern against a three-note pattern?

   In this next exercise we go back to a five-note pattern (what we previously called a "measure," though it was not, in fact a real measure), against a four-note pattern. Our five-note pattern has two played notes in it, the four-note pattern has only one.

    Polyrhythms #4

   This is a five against four in 5/4 and it resolves itself after four measures. How many measures would it take to resolve itself if written in 4/4?

   OK, so now you're asking, "How does this apply to the drumset?" Like this:

    Polythythms #5

   We've moved the left-hand rhythm (the top one) to the right hand on the ride cymbal, the right hand rhythm to the left hand on the snare, and we've added a third rhythm, the bass drum. Get a piece of paper and write out each rhythm numerically, like I did above and below the staffs on the previous exercises, circling the "played" beat in each rhythm.

    Polythythms #6

   Do the same with this one.

   When you're done writing it out, pick up your sticks and play it, looking only at the music. Then play it without looking at the music, just by counting it out. Then, sit down at the kit and add a third bass drum rhythm under the two "top" rhythms - make up your own.

   This is one of my favorite "warm-ups." I like to switch hands on this one and play it as fast as I can. It's a good double-stroke exercise.

    By The Numbers

   Let's abandon the sheet music for a few minutes and try putting some polyrhythms together just using numbers. Let's start with three measures of four:

    1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4
    1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4

   Let's add the notes (these are bolded - you can circle them on your paper):

    1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4
    1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4

   Recognize this? It's one of our exercises above!

   Here's a confusing one: a five against three polyrhythm, with two notes - the two and the five - played in the top rhythm, and one note - the three - played in the bottom rhythm. Even though we have five against three, we're playing it in 4/4!

    1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4
    1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4

   We have five measures here. Note that the pattern did not resolve itself (start as from the beginning) after three measures, even though the three rhythm (the bottom one) did resolve itself after three measures! Now, the top rhythm will resolve itself after five measures, right? But, will both rhythms resolves themselves and start over (as in measure 1) after five measures? Think about it before you read on!

   Here's the next five measures:

    1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4
    1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4

   No resolution yet, right? So, five more measures:

    1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4
    1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4   1 2 3 4

   Now we have a resolution! So, a polyrhythm of five against three played in 4/4 will resolve itself in fifteen measures! At least, this one does!


   We went from notated staves to numbers so you can see the basic principals of Polyrhythms, and so you can have some tools with which to create your own polyrhythmic patterns. You're only limited by your imagination. Get some blank paper and write out your own numbered polyrhythmic systems; do more than two! Write out five or six and have your friends play along! How tricky can you get with these?

   As always, let me know how you've done!

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