How To Play Polyrhythms: What You Need To Know [2022]

By JohnPascuzzi

Western music is typically composed in time signatures that are rather simple, such as 4/4, 3/4, 6/8, or 2/2. Particularly common in the blues, rock, pop, folk, and country genres.

These rhythms, which are often composed of quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteenth notes, and so on, provide the foundation for all of these styles.

As you consider musical styles like jazz and metal, particularly music from India and Africa, things start to get more intriguing. Polyrhythms and syncopation are frequently used in this music’s rhythms, resulting in more complicated (and occasionally quite danceable!) drum beats.

How then do we perform, compose, and internalize these beats?

In this introduction to polyrhythms, we’ll introduce you to the concept of polyrhythms, provide you with examples of this rhythmic complexity, and share some techniques for counting and understanding various polyrhythms, also how to play polyrhythms.

By the end of this article, you’ll understand what makes a polyrhythm, how to count them, and how you can practice them on your instrument. You’re also going to be able to clap out the two most common polyrhythms, and recognize them in music.

What is a polyrhythms?

What is a polyrhythms
What is a polyrhythms

A polyrhythm is made up of layers of simpler rhythms, to put it simply. There are many rhythms performed simultaneously, each of which contains a distinct beat subdivision. Polyrhythms can also be thought of as a foundation rhythm or pulse with an additional rhythm added on top

Polyrhythms are more expressive than a normal four-on-the-floor rhythm and are danceable due to the rhythmic tension and release they include.

Every other beat in a bar is regarded as a secondary beat in Western music, where beat one is typically given special prominence in the rhythm. The pattern of emphasis alters in various ways as rhythms are piled on top of one another, giving polyrhythms a distinctive feel. These rhythms have more “fill” and are frequently more complicated compared to those heard in conventional Western music. That “second” beat, which is layered over the polyrhythm’s fundamental pulse, cleverly plays off the first rhythm in a way that is uncommon in Western music.

When listening to different polyrhythms, you’ll notice that you can count the meter differently for different instruments since the numerous percussion components seamlessly overlap and interweave to create a complex, seamless rhythm compared to those heard in conventional Western music. That “second” beat, which is layered over the polyrhythm’s fundamental pulse, cleverly plays off the first rhythm in a way that is uncommon in Western music.

When listening to different polyrhythms, you’ll notice that you can count the meter differently for different instruments since the numerous percussion components seamlessly overlap and interweave to create a complex, seamless rhythm.

This song’s opening rhythm is a polyrhythm in and of itself. It probably sounds rather familiar because the Djembe beat that serves as the foundation of so much Afro-Cuban music is itself a polyrhythm. Consider this: When was the last time a simple 4/4 rhythm was played on drums from Africa? That doesn’t happen very frequently. African drumming is frequently polyrhythmic, intricate, intertwined, and rolling. It wouldn’t be unfair to suggest that polyrhythms are essential to African music.

Let’s examine several additional subgenres where similar complex rhythmic patterns are used.

*** Read more: What Does Quantizing Drums Mean: Should We Keep Doing It?

The Use Of Polyrhythms

These complex rhythms can currently be heard in Afro-Cuban, jazz, hip-hop, metal, Indian, and even some popular music. However, a starting point can be identified for these rhythms.

The Use Of Polyrhythms
The Use Of Polyrhythms

African descent

The majority of polyrhythms we hear today have their roots in African musical traditions, where groups of people play highly danceable rhythms on traditional percussion instruments. In African culture, the organic, complex rhythms had a significant social function. They are musical representations of the intricate interpersonal relationships that go into creating a community’s distinctive cultural expression.

A fantastic approach to use music to express stories on multiple levels is through polyrhythms, a rhythmic heritage that has persisted and developed in later genres of African and African-American music.Take note of the complicated rhythm; there is a polyrhythm between all the instruments being played as well as within the main djembe rhythm.

It is impossible to exaggerate the significance of this rhythmic awareness. In reality, the modern dance floor has been influenced by African polyrhythmic drumming! In an intriguing conversation with director Crudo Volta, Okay Africa describes how modern dance music has African drumming traditions to thank for its existence.

Jazz polyrhythms

Taking influences from African drumming and singing traditions and fusing it with Western musical sensibilities, jazz was really one of the first Western music genres to utilize polyrhythms.

Polyrhythm in Metal and Rock

There was a propensity to experiment with rhythm and time signatures as rock ‘n’ roll gave rise to genres like industrial, progressive rock, and experimental/art rock. As a result, many musicians have tried producing pieces of music with intricate fills, odd rhythms, and several simultaneous meters.

Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails is well renowned for his use of noise, distortion, discord, and — you guessed it — polyrhythms in his musical experiments.

*** Read more: The 10 Best Common Drum Beats And How To Practice Them


The hemiola is just three equal-valued beats separated by two equal-valued beats, or three notes overlaid on two. This polyrhythm can be heard in African music, where it frequently recurs over the entirety of the song and is known as a cross rhythm, or a regular beat that serves as the foundation of a song.

It’s interesting to note that it may be heard in Western music as well; hemiolas are frequently used in baroque music to surprise the audience and experiment with rhythm.

In essence, the hemiola surprises the ear by experimenting with various groupings of a bar of six beats, causing a piece of music to be simultaneously sensed in two rhythms. It is clear why this polyrhythm is one of the best and simplest ones available.

How To Count Polyrhythms

How To Count Polyrhythms
How To Count Polyrhythms

Using “ah” and “and” to count aloud is the traditional method of counting. In 4/4 time, for instance, we would use 1-and-2-and-3-and-4-and to count eighth notes. In 4/4 time, counting 16th notes expands to 1-e-and-a, 2-e-and-a, 3-e-and-a, and 4-e-and-a. The bad news is that counting polyrhythms isn’t always as easy as counting 1 2 3 4 since one or both portions’ beats might not fall on those obvious beats.

The good news is that we can modify this counting strategy to accommodate even the most intricate polyrhythms!

To count the basic polyrhythms, there is another method available. Why not start there when so many polyrhythms sound like speech?

A polyrhythmic rhythm

Numerous of the simpler polyrhythms imitate the structure of short, straightforward sentences. Associating a polyrhythm with a phrase that blends well with the rhythm is thus a technique that novices may find simpler and more comfortable. A musical work can be heard in two rhythms at once by experimenting with different groupings of a six-beat bar. You can understand why it is one of the most beautifully straightforward polyrhythms available.

*** Read more: How Do You Record Electronic Drums? (3 Best Ways)

Complex Counting

Finding a phrase to fit the rhythm becomes increasingly difficult as your polyrhythms become wonkier and more intricate.

Here, some elementary math can be useful. Please bear with us as we demonstrate a simple trick that will enable you to count and play even the most complex rhythms.

The Lowest Common Multiple

The lowest number that two (or more) numbers can fit evenly into is known as the lowest common multiple (LCM). By calculating the LCM of the two numbers X and Y, we may determine the precise method for counting a polyrhythm.

Consider the polyrhythm 3:4 as an illustration. The 3:4 polyrhythm is played over four beats with three evenly spaced beats played on top. The polyrhythm’s whole “cycle” is represented by 12 beats because the LCM is 12, and it takes 12 beats for the beat to “align” once more.

If you take this polyrhythm in terms of a grid, split into 12 beats, seeing where the beats in 3:4 land, you can see that the “4” rhythm and the “3” rhythm have equal spacing between the beats, and the only time the beats come together at once is on beat one. Counting “1 2 3 4,” which divides the twelve beats into three parts and counts the bar number as the “1,” in the second and third sections, may make it simpler for you to keep track of the beats. It can be challenging to count to 12 while while paying attention to the rhythms.

How To Play Polyrhythms

How To Play Polyrhythms
How To Play Polyrhythms

One of the most complex things a drummer can master is polyrhythms. They require planning and practice to execute properly; you cannot just make them up on the moment or improvise them. Most drummers find polyrhythms to be highly confusing. Many drummers believe that something is polyrhythmic if it sounds unusual, out of time, or technical. That is not the situation. A normal beat and a polyrhythm can be distinguished from one another. This article’s goal is to clarify the distinction and provide you with a few samples of this type of beat.

The term “polyrhythm” is divided into two subwords. Rhythm is the repetition of a beat, and poly indicates having more than one or multi. The term so literally translates to “many beats.” According to Webster, it is the usage of or an instance of concurrently opposing rhythms. The crucial word, my friends, is “contrasting.” This distinguishes a polyrhythmic beat from a conventional beat. You see, a beat that is performed using two distinct rhythmic lines may not even be polyrhythmic. For instance, consider this:

This example contains two distinct rhythms, but it is NOT a polyrhythm. In a typical 4/4 time signature, this is only quarter notes played over top of eighth notes. Look at the beat down below. Here, eight-note triplets are played over quarter-notes. Although it appears that you are playing at two distinct times, you are not.

So what distinguishes a polyrhythmic beat? having a beat with two distinct rhythms that contradict one another. The majority of polyrhythms are composed of two time signatures played one on top of the other. Making ensuring that both signatures have a common denominator is crucial; doing so will make the process much simpler. Try layering a 3/4 time beat over a 4/4 time rhythm, for instance. Due to its ease of learning, this polyrhythm is quite popular. This would seem as follows:

In this illustration, playing the 3/4 beat takes the same amount of time as playing the 4/4 beat. With this one, go slowly at first. Try playing the 3/4 beat at a specific tempo on its own. After that, continue at the same tempo with the 4/4 rhythm. Try adding them together once you have mastered both at the same rate. It could be challenging for you to initially comprehend this. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll realize how these patterns operate. Now, add some spice to the proceedings by combining various beats and times. Consider experimenting with time signatures such as 7/4 over 4/4 or even 5/4 over 7/4. 

*** Read more: Timpani Ranges: Everything You Need to Know

Reminder To Start Practicing Polyrhythms

The path to mastering polyrhythms will be simpler for drummers and musicians with a strong foundation in rhythm than for those who are still becoming used to playing beats.

Remember to briefly remind yourself before getting started…

Despite Appearing Confusing, Polyrhythms Are Not!

Because polyrhythmic drumming is played so swiftly and with such intricate-sounding fills, it’s simple to be overwhelmed by the rhythms’ sheer intricacy and discouraged by the high degree of talent required to even perform them.

Remember that polyrhythms are made up of straightforward rhythms played together in an overlapping fashion; like with any type of learning, all it takes is breaking a difficult topic down into its simpler elements. While skilled drummers will undoubtedly have an easier time with polyrhythms than those with little background in rhythm, with practice, any musician can learn to incorporate them in their practice.

As with anything, the secret is to start small and go slowly, then work your way up to mastering and playing more difficult rhythms more quickly. It’s quite helpful to watch a few videos of polyrhythms being performed; tap or play along with the video to get started, then attempt without it. There is no better way to assimilate polyrhythms than to fully immerse yourself in them.

Try using solely body percussion to acquire a better sense of things if performing polyrhythms on your instrument proves to be too challenging. If you make a mistake, make an effort to kêp it up and resume your rhythm.

Using a metronome to learn

Using a metronome to learn
Using a metronome to learn

It’s a great idea for novices to learn polyrhythms by ear while using a metronome. Once more, start slowly; set your metronome to 60 beats per minute and take your time to make sure you are getting each particular note and beat. As you grow more accustomed to the rhythm, you can speed up.

Try using a polyrhythm metronome if you’re having trouble playing a polyrhythm right away with a basic metronome! You can follow along while it plays each beat in both meters, allowing you to fully internalize the sensation of each polyrhythm. The app’s Practice Log function is especially fantastic because it allows you to keep track of the rhythms you played at what tempos and for how long, and you can access charts and reports to monitor your development.

*** Read more: Superior Drummer 3 vs EZDrummer 2: Which is Better?

Utilize a sequencer

Did you find the grid method particularly appealing for visualizing and counting polyrhythms? If so, an online sequencer tool might be the perfect fit for your learning style. This application offers a wide range of instrument settings and a grid that is very editable so that it can accommodate almost any time signature and polyrhythm you can imagine. The playback button is the best feature because it allows you to hear precisely how your polyrhythm sounds and applaud or play along.

Online polyrhythm sequencer

The hit boxes may be moved around, shortened, or prolonged with just one click, making the sequencer a perfect tool for people who want to experiment with more intricate polyrhythms or even write their own original polyrhythms.

Rhythmic variety and melody

Rhythmic variety and melody
Rhythmic variety and melody

Are you a guitarist or pianist wondering how to play polyrhythms? Whether it’s one note or a straightforward melodic motif, try playing a beat while humming, tapping, or clapping in a different rhythm. Start with a simpler ratio, like 3:2.

Once you master this, you may use a metronome or drum machine to create a 4/4 beat and experiment with playing scales over the beat in other rhythms, such as a 5:4 pattern.

*** Read more: How do Electronic Drums Work: Easy To Learn And Play


A drummer may occasionally only want to play a backbeat and some large, straightforward fills. But many of us also relish occasionally diving into more complex playing.

One subdivision of a polyrhythm lies atop another, which has the effect of layering our grooves quite well. Prog-rock, jazz, fusion, metal, and basically any other genre that catches your ear are all excellent places to spend an entire day exploring these effects. When used in solo play, they’re also very effective. They produce fascinating collisions and rhythmic tension that sizzle and crackle with vitality. In addition to being extremely entertaining to consider, learning how to play polyrhythms frequently present us with intriguing brain teasers that require a little more focus to fully comprehend. Good luck to your journey!

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