Last time (November 2012), we continued our study of two-hand polyrhythmic coordination by playing a five-note base rhythm with one hand while adding one to eight evenly spaced notes over the top with the other hand. This month we’re using a six-note base rhythm in the left hand. Practice these polyrhythms the same way as before, playing each bar at least four times before moving on. When you’ve reached the eight-note right hand rhythm, go backward until you return to one note per bar. You can also jump randomly from one right-hand rhythm to another. If you haven’t mastered the first three parts of this article series, you might want to check them out first for clearer instruction on how to practice the ideas.
When you get to the five-over-six measure, notice that the spaces between the second and fifth notes of the five are the same distance from the second and sixth notes of the base rhythm. The third and fourth notes of the five are also the same distance from the fourth note of the base rhythm. Understanding these relationships is very helpful in playing these modulations at faster tempos, when it becomes too fast to hear the subdivisions.
You’ll see similar spacing relationships when you get to the seven, between the second and seventh notes of the seven and the second and sixth notes of the base rhythm, as well as between the fourth and fifth notes of the seven and the fourth note of the base. Also note that the final measure, eight over six, is the same as the more common four-over-three polyrhythm.
Start by practicing the polyrhythms with your metronome at 60 beats per minute.
How to Figure Out Any Other Polyrhythm
In this series of articles we’ve used base rhythms of between one and six notes per measure, and then we’ve superimposed one to eight notes on top of each. To conclude, I want to explain how you can superimpose any rhythm evenly over any base number.
- Write out the base rhythm in quarter notes, with plenty of space between notes. Then write in the time signature. For example, a base rhythm of eleven would be written in 11/4.
- Between the quarter notes, add the number you want to superimpose over the base, written as 8th or 16th notes. For instance, if you want to try four over eleven, write four 16th notes within each of the eleven quarter notes.
- Circle the first note, count forward the same number as the base rhythm (including the one you circled), and then circle the next note. Continue until you reach the first beat of the next bar. The total number of circled notes should be equal to the rhythm you wanted to put over the base.
Here’s what four over eleven would look like:
As always, these exercises are meant to better you technically before they can better you musically. Don’t be in a rush to apply them during a gig. Understanding the vocabulary and being able to recognize the different polyrhythms when you hear them is more important than being able to play them on the drums. This knowledge will make you a better musician and will help you develop the ability to react to what you hear in a practical and musical way.
Ari Hoenig is a New York City–based drummer/composer/bandleader and a faculty member at New York University and the New School in Manhattan. He recently released a quartet album (Lines of Oppression), a method book (Systems), and an educational video (Melodic Drumming), all of which are available at arihoenig.com.