Music Theory

Polyrhythmic Epiphany


My brother-in-law introduced me to a funky, jazz/fusion band called Snarky Puppy recently. I’ll post the Tiny Desk concert link below. I was completely overwhelmed by how tight they are, but even more-so by how much fun they were having. In the middle of the concert, they flip the cameras around and have the audience clap a polyrhythm. It was the first time that polyrhythms made sense to me. But even after the revelation of how it works, I was really frustrated that I could not tap it out. I could keep the three easily, but the four made no sense to my (terrible) natural (lack of) rhythm.

So, what is a polyrhythm?

If you don’t know what a polyrhythm is, don’t sweat it. Though that probably means you didn’t watch the video above. It is pretty simple in concept. Basically, it is just two rhythms stacked on top of each other. For instance, a 3/4 beat played on top of a 4/4 such that the starting “one” always aligns. Even though this makes sense to me conceptually, I could not figure out how to tap it (let alone play to it) until I found this guy’s video.

In his video he represents the two beats as a single merged sound, which is how your ear and heart will hear and feel respectively. After you are familiar with the sound and feel of that funky beat, he breaks down the method of counting it out. Suddenly, all my music lessons of yore came surging back to me in a sea of connections to this lesson. Breaking a 3/4 into sixteenths (one – e – and – a – two – e – and – a – three – e – and – a…) lets you find the beats that align with the 4/4 signature. It helped me to actually write it down like a math problem. Once I could see and “feel” the thing while I listened to it, I was able to tap it.

What do you think? Is this kind of thing interesting to you? Are these videos helpful to you in discovering how to play a polyrhythm? What are other areas of music theory I should look into? Comment below.