Complex rhythms are advanced techniques that can take your music to the next level.

The Hard Baroquer is a home musician that has pursued music as a hobby for nearly 20 years. An intermediate guitarist, beginner bassist and even sometimes dabbling on the harmonica, he is always learning something. In his free time, he runs The Hard Baroquer blog.

By The Hard Baroquer

Musicians that want to showcase skill and ambition use a variety of methods to do so. Unconventional scales, irregular time signatures and also complex rhythms are all advanced techniques that musicians can turn to help add flavour to their composition.

Few of these are as advanced as complex rhythms – a family made up of polyrhythms and polymeters, two different sides of the same coin and often used interchangeably for the sake of avoiding confusion. While ‘polyrhythm’ tends to be the more often used term, we’ll try to provide the distinction between these for you in this piece.

There are other forms of complex rhythms, and we’ll update this piece over time with more explanations, but the idea is to go through two that may cause a degree of confusion.

What is a polyrhythm?

Polyrhythm is different measures in separate voices in a bar that line up only in the beginning and the end. Polyrhythm is mostly employed in drums and piano, where the player in control of two (or more) voices. Think how pianists hands play the melody of the rhythm separately. Polyrhythm allows the player to play one rhythm in one hand, and a separate rhythm in another hand. The result is only the first and last note of the bar will end together.

Polyrhythms are talked about in ratios, common ratios include:

2:3 polyrhythm, where a bar of three (triplet) beats is played over a bar of two, in a piece that is 2/4. Both bars will be notated with crotchets, with the 2-rhythm only having 2 crotchets, as is normal, and the 3-rhythm voice having three, tied into triplets. The 3-rhythm voice is playing three dotted quavers over the 2-rhythm’s two crotchets. Only the first and third note line up with each of the two beats in the 2-rhythm. The polyrhythm can also be reversed and it will be notated as 3:2 polyrythm

3:4 polyrhythm pits a 4/4 beat against another 4/4 but with three crotches tied as triplets. The 3-rhythm voice will be playing dotted crotchets over the four crotchets. The reverse can also be applied, with four beats tied together over a bar of 3/4 and it will be notated as 4:3.

5:4 polyrhythm (and conversely 4:5 polyrhythm) is where it gets complex polyrhythms notates that a rhythm of five beats is to be played concurrently over a bar of four beats, either as a standard 4/4 or as a 5/4 where the 4-beat voice is playing beats that are a little shorter than a crotchet beat.

7:8 and 8:7 polyrhythm is where it gets complex, but essentially, seven equally spaced beats must be played over a bar of eight beats and it can be in a time signature of either 8/8 or 7/8, depending on what the composer is aiming for.

The list goes on, depending on your preference, but these are the most common encountered in music.

What is a polymeter or a cross rhythm?

So where does polymeter fit in? Polymeter does not deal with two voices of the same bar, but rather two different time signatures playing over one another. It can also be called a cross rhythm.

Polymeter rhythms s allow a composer to indicate which beats to accent for each meter when there is a polyrhythm. However, just because a piece has polymeter, does not mean there is polyrhythmic. If a melody instrument is playing in 4/4, but a rhythmic instrument is playing 3/4, it may feel like a polyrhythm, but each instrument is only handling one voice.

Where can you find complex rhythms?

Polyrhythms are traditionally found in African drum music, but has also been showcased in jazz and most recently in progressive metal. Here are a few examples of polyrhythms and polymeters in various genres.

Cross Rhythms In Heavy Metal

Dream Theater’s The Mirror has an introduction thar features a easily discernible polymeter. The John Petrucci on guitar and John Myung on bass are playing single notes, while Mike Portnoy’s drums change up the time signature. The instruments are forced to change the pulse of what they are playing to account for the new beat they are given. It’s quite confusing to keep track of what’s going on.

A more famous example is Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir, which is drummed in 4/4, however due to the differences in pulse between John Bonham’s drums and Jimmy Page’s guitar riff, the song has a tension to it that only resolves every few bars. This is a great example of how complex rhythms can be effective in popular music – even helping to be what maked the song popular in the first place.

Polyrhythms In Jazz

Jazz is as technical as metal, but lacks the bombast and the bravado. Artists that have used complex rhythm to great effect include John Coltrane and Elvin Jones in 1963’s Afro Blue which features 2:3 ratio polymeter between the melody and the drums.

Complex rhythms can add tension to music that our ears want to hear a resolution to. Resolutions are what makes music so fulfilling, and polyrhythms deny us this. Polymeters on the other side, also help to create rhythm when there is chaos. Each has its place in music and is certainly worth exploring more fully.