I’ll never forget the musical journey I pursued after checking out Gavin Harrison’s method book Rhythmic Perspectives. In one section, Harrison presents an in-depth study on multilayered polyrhythms and discusses hearing the groupings from each rhythm’s individual perspective. This particular chapter inspired me to explore four-layer polyrhythms—such as groupings of three, four, five, and seven played simultaneously—while trying to hear the pulse from each of the separate groupings’ perspectives.
For instance, in the previous example, we can hear the layered polyrhythm in 8th-note triplets, where every fourth, fifth, and seventh note orbits around the three-note triplet groupings. Then while playing the exact same rhythm, we can concentrate on the layer of four by hearing that grouping as 16th notes. In this perspective, every third, fifth, and seventh note revolves around the four-note pulse. Likewise, we can continue with the five-note grouping by concentrating on quintuplets, and then the seven-note grouping by concentrating on septuplets. I can only imagine what it was like for my poor mom when I was first exploring this material, as she had to listen to me shed the same multi-polyrhythmic patterns over and over again.
But these complicated ideas don’t need to stay confined to the practice room. We can apply these principles in musical settings to create phrases that work well in multiple rhythmic perspectives. A perfect example of a real-world application of this concept can be found in the Tool song “Ænima.” It should come as no surprise that Danny Carey and Tool, who have pushed rhythmic and musical boundaries throughout their career, would write something that employs this concept.
Depending on how you perceive Carey’s pattern, it can be felt in either 4/4 with a triplet feel (four pulses per bar) or in 3/4 with a 16th-note feel (three pulses per bar). Each perspective is twelve notes long; however, the difference between the two lies in how we feel the pulse. As a result, the rhythms and melodies syncopate differently depending on how we hear it.
Let’s take a look at the drums’ entrance at the 0:14 mark. First we’ll feel it as 16th notes in 3/4. If you’re listening to vocalist Maynard James Keenan’s breathing during the top of the song, this perspective will feel the most natural.
Now let’s try the same beat with an 8th-note-triplet perspective in 4/4. It would be wise to count out loud and to keep in mind that this pattern isn’t identical to Exercise 1. Your brain might fight to feel this as 16th notes after playing the previous example.
You might notice that Exercise 2 feels natural yet very different from the first example. In Exercise 1, the snare plays on the “a” of beat 1 and “e” of beat 3, whereas in Exercise 2 the snare plays beats 2 and 4.
The next two examples demonstrate Carey’s addition of the hi-hat foot at 0:38. In 3/4, the hi-hat supports the straight-16th feel by playing each 8th note. However, in 4/4 it outlines a three-over-two polyrhythm. You can perceive either side of this polyrhythm throughout the song.
At 1:17, the track’s rhythmic focus shifts from favoring a 3/4 perspective to a 4/4 feel with the snare on beats 2 and 4. It’s a subtle difference, but keep in mind that the part works equally well in either perspective, even if the band collectively leans toward a triplet phrasing.
When the open hi-hat enters, it adds an interesting element that oddly feels more at home in 4/4 as triplets with a polyrhythmic phrasing. From a 3/4 perspective, the hi-hat opens on the “a” of each beat.
Near the end of the track, at the 4:09 mark, there’s another feel change that can still be felt in the previous perspectives. Let’s first look at it in 3/4 with a 16th-note-triplet subdivision.
Carey hints at the 4/4 feel with a slightly swung triplet phrasing. To me this section doesn’t feel like it has three pulses per bar; rather it feels like there are two. It might be better to notate and feel this rhythm in 6/8.
Out of curiosity, let’s see what happens when we try to feel this particular phrase in 4/4. Remember that this example
fits in the same timeframe as the previous examples, so it should work.
Representing and trying to feel this rhythm in 4/4 is awkward, and the groupings are certainly difficult to read. But it’s interesting to see how we can still represent the previous pattern in 4/4.
Go back and listen to “Ænima” while alternating between different perspectives of the pulse. The song takes on a different character when you shift to feels that are separate from how you naturally hear the music.
Now let’s explore a new polyrhythm to create our own multi-perspective groove. Starting from an isolated polyrhythm is a great way to design each side of a groove. For the next few examples we’ll utilize a five-over-three or three-over-five grouping.
Exercise 12 demonstrates the three-over-five grouping (three equally spaced notes played over a measure of 5/4), and Exercise 13 demonstrates five-over-three (five equally spaced notes played over a bar of 3/4). We’ll play the five-note layer on the ride or cymbal stack and the three-note layer on the bass drum.
To make these groupings work in musical settings, we’ll subtly play and embellish each side of the rhythm so that no one side of the pattern represents a favored perspective. The bass drum will play every first and fourth partial of a five-note grouping. Although we’re mostly playing quarter notes on the ride in 5/4, or every third quintuplet partial on the ride in 3/4, we’ll add a slight embellishment toward the end of the cymbal’s phrase. And on the snare we’ll play two beats; the first aligns with the bass drum, while the second lines up with the ride.
Now try writing your own multi-perspective patterns. Add some hidden feels within the rhythms of your next song, and keep it weird!
Aaron Edgar plays with the Canadian prog-metal band Third Ion and is a session drummer, clinician, and author. His latest book, Progressive Drumming Essentials, is available through Modern Drummer Publications. For more information, visit the product page here.