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Metronome and Polyrhythms

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For most purposes it is now easier to use Bounce Metronome Pro.



See the [index.htm Overview ]page for general introductory material, for instance about the tool tip help, this help, trouble shooting and so forth.

I hope the metronome player itself is pretty much self explanatory (with its tool tip help) so most of this is by way of background material, with a few tips for use of the player. If you have questions about how to use it, be sure to ask:

Just one thing to explain about how the beat numbers work. They are the number of beats to the bar. So if you have say 5 3 1 it means you have five beats to a bar played on one instrument, three beats to a bar played on another instrument, and then one beat to a bar on the third so that it marks out every bar. You can change the instruments to play in the Parts window.

Also be sure to set it to the standard settings first if you have changed to this view from another one - or you will hear a fractal tune when you click the play button.


Polyrhythms are a special characteristic of some African music, though of course they occur the world over - also frequently used in Indian music and to some extent in Western music (well three beats to a bar simultaneously with two beats is common), for instance Chopin's music often has some number of beats in a single run in one hand with the number having no relation to the current rhythm for the bar, and it gets used in more modern music of course.

In African music (and sometimes in modern Western music), often you have several instrumentalists each playing their own rhythms and then they only come together on the bar line. So you can just go on with your rhythm at its proper pace and they all come together on the bar line and in between make this intricate pattern which none of the instrumentalists perhaps could do by themselves.

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.

In some parts of Africa I gather, small children play polyrhythm drumming games with each other, maybe one playing four beats to a bar and the other playing three. I'm also told that professional organists may be required to be able to play four rhythms independently, in the left and right hands, and with both feet!

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 in the Parts window 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 do any counting for this way of practicing except to count the number of beats to a bar. 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 line beat to a nice distinctive voice in the parts window - it is the one playing the 1s, so for instance in the 5 3 1 rhythm, it is the third part. Maybe try a melodic percussive sounding voice like say Celesta, or maybe guitar, Orchestral harp, Pizzicato strings, or something.

Also try going 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 of say, well first, try three beats every two paces. If you have been practicing with the metronome a bit, 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 on trying to fit the claps into particular positions in the walking rhythm, and try to keep walking steadily too without adjusting your pace to the clapping. Just 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 by yourself - 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!

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!. Make sure that each one keeps to a regular equally spaced rhythm when you play both together - it is easy to cheat without realising what you are doing, and play an irregular rhythm with one hand in order to make it fit the other, but maybe the metronome will 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 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.

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.

So you can practice like that, with one hand beating those notes, and the other beating the first beat of each bar. The hand that beats for the bar line tends to dominate so its a good idea to practice the other way too:

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

Another situation in which you get three and two simultaneously 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 quavers (quarter notes for American readers) at three to a bar - not hard to play but it is hard 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
^              ^               ^               ^                ^


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

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

Conventional Rhythms and heirarchical bar patterns

This metronome can also play conventional rhythms like 9 / 8 and so on - just use numbers of beats that are multiples of each other.

For 9 / 8 use 9, 3 and 1 as the numbers (where the last 1 is the beat for the bar line) - so you have nine beats for each bar, and three subdividing stresses.

For 6 / 8 use 6 2 1 - six beats to the bar and one stronger beat in the middle.

Often bars go up in a doubling pattern so you can also do beats corresponding to the groupings of the bars, e.g. 16 4 2 1 would be a suitable pattern to try for practicing 4 / 4. So you have a four bar pattern, of sixteen beats with extra emphasis at the start of each bar, and then within that sixteen beat pattern you have four strong beats for the emphasis at the start of every bar, and a stronger emphasis still at the start of each two bar group. To go up further, say to eight bar groupings you would use 64 16 8 4 2 1 which works like this:

64       16        8               4            2             1 
Beats    every bar every other bar Every 4 bars every 8 bars  Every 16 bars

Similarly for 3/4 in eight bar groupings you would use 48 16 8 4 2 1 - the first 48 is 3*16 for the three beats to each bar. Or for a four bar pattern of 3/4 (or two bars of 6 / 8), use 12 4 2 1, and so on.

Or try out similarly heirarchical five beat patterns like 125 25 5 1. Or even a heirarchical pattern of threes: 81 27 9 3 1 - we are used to bars getting grouped heirarchically in pairs, so grouping them in threes is quite an unusual sounding effect.

Varying the rhythm and instruments

Then finally you can also try varying the volume and the timing through the bar. Musicians normally vary the volume slightly for each beat of a bar, and normally also vary the timing too for each beat. You can use the Vary beat and Vary volume options to experiment with this.

You can vary the beats or the volumes just for the first set of beats (e.g. the 7 in 7 5 1), or for all of them - of course they still need to interlock as before, but generally the more layers you set this to, the more variable the rhythm gets within the bar. When you get beyond the number of beats you have running simultaneously, then the lengths of the bars change as well. You can also vary each beat individually using Bs | Seed Options | Seeds for Layers and setting a time for each note in the seed.

To choose what instrument you use to play each part, use the Parts window - the ones in play are the first few as far as the number of beats you have. You can use non melodic percussion, or any of the melodic instruments as well. With the melodic instruments you can vary the pitch - try using the column to move it up / down by octaves, or indeed set an interval to move it by (see the drop list at the top for the options).

If you make a rhythm you particularly like, how about trying it out for a fractal tune too? If you are interested in this, see the [index.htm Overview] page for an introduction to them. To make one, change to the composer view from the Tasks menu, then set the seed to something else other than the preset boring one for the polyrhythms of 0 0 0 0... and try setting some of the parts to melodic voices. The polyrhythms may have Bs | Seed Options | Seeds for layers switched on in order to make the beat and volume variation by layer - if you leave this switched on then it means you can haveseparate seeds there for each layer - highlight each in turn and set it to something other than 0 0 0 and then experiment and see what happens. Well - see the [index.htm Overview] page for an introduction to the fractal tunes if you haven't read it yet.


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

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

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" ( - 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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