Music Foundations Tutorial: What are Polyrhythms? (Put Your Hands Together!)

In his latest exploration of electronic music theory, Dubspot contributor Michael Emenau a.k.a. MNO follows our previous 8 Rhythmic Devices You Should Know” article with a deeper look at polyrhythms and their use in modern music. 

What is a Polyrhythm?


Today, we’ll take a deeper look at polyrhythms, their influence on traditional and popular music, and and explore how to incorporate polyrhythms into your own productions. A polyrhythm is the use of two or more rhythms played simultaneously, with one of the rhythms subdivided into a number of beats different from the “normal” number of subdivisions one would have in a measure of music. Ex. 1: three-over-two polyrhythm In this example, the upper pattern plays three beats in the same amount of time that the lower pattern plays two beats. This creates a rhythmic tension, that can also be expressed mathimatically: if you divide three by two, you get a fraction instead of a whole number. Ex. 2 :  four-over-three polyrhythm Here, the upper pattern plays four beats in the same amount of time that the lower pattern plays three beats. Again, the patterns don’t divide into whole numbers. Ex. 3 : four over two–not a polyrhythm Here the beats come together on the grid, and produce a whole number when divided, so this is not considered a polyrhythm.

Polyrhythms Explained

SO WHAT? It doesn’t matter what you call it, what matters is how it sounds and how it affects the listener. The reason it’s necessary to define “polyrhythm” is that polyrhythmic elements can create fun and danceable music. Understanding the definition gives us direction in how to achieve the grooves that are used in most Sub-Saharan traditional music, arguably some of the most rhythmically interesting and danceable music in the world. If we listen and understand the building blocks of music from different cultures, we enlarge our arsenal of tools when we make our own music.

Who’s using polyrhythms and how do they sound? Lets listen to something to get a feel for this, start listening at 0:50

I chose this piece because it very clearly shows two hands playing independent rhythms. The left hand is playing a straight four pattern, while the right hand is playing a shuffle rhythm in 12 (four groups of three). This pattern keeps reappearing throughout the piece and provides a building block for the song. Polyrhythms in popular music: Polyrhythms are used all the time in popular music, particularly EDM. Many synth chord grooves use some form of polyrhythm; the use of offset delay effects often create polyrhythms as well.

3 steps on a delay setting usually means a polyrhythm

3 steps on a delay setting usually means a polyrhythm delay pattern

In the Britney Spears song, “Till The World Ends,” the hook is based on a four-over-three polyrhythm. Start listening at 1:27:

The pulse is set by the bass drum (four on the floor) while the vocals sing a polyrhythm over top. Each “Oh” from the hook “Oh-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh” lasts for three  16th notes (a dotted eighth note), which means every three bass drum hits, you get four “Ohs.” It makes for a very syncopated and memorable hook without feeling busy. This overlaying of rhythms is used all the time in techno and trance music. Listen to the first minute of this DJ mix:

Right from the start, the dry lead synth is playing a four-over-three pattern against the drums. When composing in a DAW, it is quite easy to program polyrhythms using the grid in the MIDI editor or timeline. Just choose the grid pattern you want, or set a delay to dotted 1/8 notes. However, to more fully appreciate the relationship between the two patterns, it’s important to be able to play and internalize polyrhythms.

Everybody, Put Your Hands Together

Here are three exercises to help you understand the mechanics behind polyrhythms. Learn how to clap or tap these rhythms until the relationship between each rhythm becomes internalized. This means starting slowly and counting. Once you have feeling for these polyrhythms, start trying to play them over whatever music you are listening to. I guarantee that if you clap these rhythms over tracks you are currently making, it will inspire you to write with more rhythmic depth. Rhythms don’t need to be fast to be intense; it is the relationships between the rhythms that get our feet moving. Take your time–if you have never done this type of exercise it may take a few tries.

Two over three

Three over two

Four over three

Tapping polyrhythms over a track

So I hope this has been enlightening.  As I have said many times now, the greater understanding you have of the building blocks of music, the deeper the you can dig and develop your own sound.  Take this information, internalize it, then don’t think about it anymore Once it is inside of you, it becomes part of you and the creations you make.

Michael Emenau a.k.a. MNO has worked professionally as a musician (vibraphone, percussion, laptop), producer, remixer and arranger for 25 years, playing such diverse genres as, jazz, rock, drum’n’bass, salsa, techno, country, Hindustani, gospel, baroque and orchestral music. He has recorded on over 150 CDs, composed music for eight films, toured internationally, and lived on three continents. Michael was the house studio mallet percussionist for Sony Records (Japan) in the 90s, was a founding member of the award winning “Jazz Mafia” as well as working as a producer/remixer for Six Degrees Records in San Francisco, arranged and produced contemporary multimedia productions of the 16th-century composer Henry Purcell in Paris and is now writing a musical based on the life of Dionysus and dividing his time between Montreal and New York.

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