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Polyrhythms

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In some parts of Africa small children play polyrhythm drumming games with each other, maybe one playing four beats to a bar and the other playing three. In parts of Africa Polyrhythms have spiritual significance, and are thought to help develop intrepidity. See The Myth of Cross Rhythm

Professional drummers and other musicians however can often play or beat two or more independent rhythms at once, with just the one person playing both rhythms. Maybe with left and right hand. This is much harder - try and see! You can play the easier ones such as three with two by subdividing them into fractional beats and counting those, and probably most musicians have had a go at that at one time or another - it isn't that hard to do if you do it slowly, and then the challenge is to speed it up. But somehow that way of practicing isn't so kind of fluent and flowing, at least to start with, as one hand always dominates over the other one. You have to work at making it sound more natural.

For the most flexibility one can try and use the same fearless approach. Just play say seven beats to a bar in one hand and five with another, try each separately, then try both together. You'll never manage it first go but keep trying and it will maybe suddenly click, maybe after months of this.

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Some fun ways to practice

The easy way to practice a polyrhythm with the metronome is to clap along with one of the beats. Perhaps with the metronome to start with, then without. Or play the metronome and then mute the part you are clapping and see if you can keep going with your same steady beat as before while the metronome goes on with the other one(s). If it gets out of sync, then you need to speed up your beat, or slow it down a bit and after a while get a feel for which way you need to go.

There is no need to count fractions of a beat with this way of practicing - just count the number of beats to a bar you need to clap. The player who claps five beats to a bar (say) just needs to clap with a steady rhythm and speed up or slow down until exactly five fit into every bar. This is may be fairly easy to do when the metronome is playing your part, but may be harder once you silence that part and have to keep going by yourself.

To make the bar obvious, set the bar beat to a nice distinctive voice in the Parts (Ctrl 9) window. Maybe try a melodic percussive sounding voice like say Celesta, or maybe guitar, Orchestral harp, Pizzicato strings, or something.

Something else I like to do when practicing polyrhythms, maybe some others would enjoy too - when you go for a walk and once you have a steady pace, use that for one of the beats just like the metronome, and then try to clap at a steady rate at one of the other numbers of beats per second. Just keep walking steadily and clap at a steady beat as well. To start with you can just clap at any speed not in time with your feet, to get the idea of clapping at one steady rate while walking at another.

Then try, say, to clap three times every two paces. So your feet are doing 2/4 or 4/4 or whatever, and the hands clap another time like 3/4. Or try three beats every four paces, which some may find easier.

If you have practiced with the metronome first, this may be fairly easy. Then try two beats every three paces which is also fairly easy - every three paces is good because you can't so easily get into an irregular rhythm with your walking that follows a three pace pattern. Do a louder clap for the bar line. Then four beats every three paces, Then try, say, five times every three paces, which is maybe the next easiest- that is fun to do.

Concentrate on keeping the clapping at a steady rhythm rather than fit the claps into particular positions in the walking rhythm, and keep walking steadily without adjusting your pace to the clapping. Keep trying now and again, and perhaps it just won't click for ages, but you can get it eventually.

Then see if you can play two rhythms independently with your hands along with your feet - you can try this out walking too - beat against your side with one hand instead of clapping just as before - and then try and see if you can simultaneously beat with the other hand in time to your walking pace without disturbing the polyrhythm. Not easy! Then maybe you could try two different polyrhythms with your hands while walking at a third rhythm with your feet.

Another technique I find a bit helpful here, maybe it will help some, is to use the fingers as a way to count the beats - five fingers for a bar of five beats, then if say you play three of the fingers of the other hand. First try each hand at a time in synchronisation with a three plus five polyrhythm metronome, and you will maybe find it quite easy. Then, with the metronome still playing, try both together!

Again be sure that each hand keeps to a regular equally spaced rhythm when you play both together. It is so easy o cheat without realising what you are doing, and play an irregular rhythm with one hand in order to make it fit the other. The metronome may help with that.

Similarly rolling the four fingers of one hand over and then back (index finger twice) or some such pattern gives seven beats so you can try out five with seven in the same way.

This technique of just playing a steady beat with each hand, and adjusting its tempo to fit the correct number of beats into the bar is the most flexible way to learn them in the long run. If you do five with seven using subdivisions you would need to count them into thirty five subdivisions for the bar - not so hard to do very slowly perhaps, but tricky to do fast. Then what about seven and eight? That needs 56 subdivisions. But once you get the hang of it, playing five beats with seven or any other similar small number is is almost as easy as two and three, just play one number of beats all in one bar in one hand and another number in the other and that's it. You can use five fingers then back again, thumb twice, to count nine beats.

Once you master that then if you are a keyboard player, you can play scales or arpeggios using those patterns, one hand playing one pattern and one the other. Then gradually free up and start going up and down further in the arpeggio rather than keeping to the patterns, and then playing chords for each beat with one hand and so on, once you get the feeling for it.

However you will probably find work on polyrhythms counting subdivisions helpful too. This has some connections with Hemiola.

Hemiola and subdivisions

One rhythmic surprise you often get in Early music is that the composer writes a piece say in 3 / 4, but then maybe suddenly you have a bar or two, or more, using a succession of two beat notes that run over the bar lines, like this:

one two three | one two three | one two three
 ^        ^          ^          ^

and so on. This type of rhythm change without changing the time signature, e.g. by using notes tied across a bar line is known as Hemiola. Of course it is also used in more modern music.

This is related to a polyrhythm of 2 beats played together with 3 beats in the same bar. Here we have two bars and three bars played together in the same time period.

It's not really a polyrhythm, as the hemiola bars have a 2 / 4 feel to them, and its the bars of the hemiola that correspond to the beats of the polyrhythm. But you can use this way of counting to practice a polyrhythm.

To try it out set up a rhythm with 6, 3, and 2 beats to the bar simultaneously. For instance you could just enter:

6 3 2 1 ! two bars of 3/2 played in the same time as three of 2/4 - Hemiola style.

in the drop list in Fast numerical entry for Polyrhythms and Additive Rhythms (Ctrl 89).

Play with one hand beating the 2/4 bar beats, and the other beating the 3/4 bar beats. The hand that beats for the bar line tends to dominate so its a good idea to practice the other way too, counting for the hemiola "bars" rather than the bar line beats:

one two  | one two | one two | one two
 ^              ^               ^ 

Another situation in which you get three and two simultaneously in a natural way is in six eight time - often one hand plays the normal six eight rhythm with emphasis in the middle of the bar and the other plays successive crotchets (quarter notes for American readers) at three to a bar. That's not so hard to play but it is harder to do it so that the two hands sound fluid and independent in rhythm.

One can use similar methods for three beats with four as in:

one two three four | one two three four | one two three four | one
^              ^               ^               ^                ^

or

one two three | one two three | one two three | one two three | one

^                     ^                    ^                     ^  

Here it is as a hemiola rhythm for the metronome:

12 3 4 1 ! Hemiola - four bars of 3/4 and three bars of 4/4 played together Hemiola style.

To play more exotic polyrhythms like seven beats with five, you would count seven bars each of five beats, or five bars each of seven, and gradually speed them up.

35 7 5 1 ! Hemiola - five bars of 7/4 and seven bars of 5/4 played together Hemiola style.

15 3 5 1 ! Hemiola - five bars of 3/4 and three bars of 5/4 played together Hemiola style.

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Links

There's plenty of material on this on the web. Here are a few I've found:

This site is especially interesting as it also goes into the philosophy / spirituality behind the African polyrhythms Foundation Course in African Music | Rhythmic Principles. See also the wikipedia article Ewe drumming

For Hemiola, see the Wikipedia entry Hemiola. Incidentally see also their entry on Polyrhythm

Polyrhythms for the drumset by Peter Magadini

I was also interested to read here that one of the earliest uses of the hemiola in Early music was a piece by an Afro Cuban composer, a freed slave:

"Gines, Teodora (c. 1530-after 1598, Dominican)
    An African-Cuban composer, she was born into slavery, but she and her sister, Micaela, showed such exceptional musical talent that they were freed to enter the service of the Cathedral at Santiago de Cuba as musicians. The two Gines ladies were celebrated performers on the bandola, a plucked bass instrument known in Spain as early as the 14th century. They also sang with a recorder and violin to form the core of the cathedral orchestra. When Micaela left for Havana, Teodora stayed in Santiago de Cuba, claiming she was too old for such a trip. She was probably in her late 40s or early 50s. Her "Son" uses one of the earliest examples of the hemiola. The "Harvard Dictionary of Music" doesn't give a date for the inception of the "son," but does say that it started as an Afro-Cuban dance in the province where Teodora lived. She is credited with being the mother of modern Cuban folkloric music" (womensmusic.com - composers G to L).

For practicing Indian polyrhythms, Practicing and making music without your instrument

For modern composers, Steve Reich is particularly known for his pieces involving a number of performers each playing a rhythm, then they all come together to make a intricate rhythmic patterns. Gyrgy Ligeti is another contemporary composer who works with polyrhythms extensively. So a search for material on them and polyrhtyhms will lead to more information on the subject I'm sure.

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I'm Robert Walker, the inventor and programmer for Bounce Metronome Pro. These Many Ways to Use a Metronome pages arise out of the research I did for the program, and feedback from users of the software.

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