What is a Polyrhythm on Drums?

What is a polyrhythm on drums. Man playing drums.

What is a polyrhythm on drums?

That is a great question and one that I will go into great detail answering throughout this post.

If you’ve ever wanted to learn what polyrhythms are, have heard about them but aren’t quite sure what they are, or just want to go through a quick refresher, then this post will be exactly what you’re looking for.

Just to be upfront, polyrhythms are generally considered to be an advanced topic, so if you are a beginning drummer feel free to check everything out, but don’t let it discourage you if it seems overly complicated or is intimidating in any way.

Here’s the basic definition of what a polyrhythm is. If it sounds confusing, keep reading and I’ll break it down further.

A polyrhythm is a rhythm that makes use of two or more different rhythms simultaneously. In other words, multiple rhythms are played at the same time, each one occupying the same space in time.

Now, with that being said, polyrhythms can still be tricky even for those of us who have been playing for years. There are many different reasons why this could be the case but let me tell you what I think the main culprit is.

I feel that at some point in our musical journies (most likely early on), we as drummers came across the term polyrhythm, and decided that it was too complicated for us to understand, let alone perform. Ever since then, we have subconsciously been avoiding learning about them. That’s it. I think that’s the reason.

We as drummers are all guilty at some point of becoming comfortable with our playing, neglecting to continue pushing ourselves into new territory. If we only play the same things every day, our growth will slow to a crawl.

What is a polyrhythm on drums? Hand drum.

Alright enough of my ranting, polyrhythms are written in a fashion that looks something like the following: 3:4, 4:5, 7:5, 5:4, 11:7, 8:3, etc.

When speaking about polyrhythms like the ones shown above, they are pronounced as # over #, or # against #.

As in 3 against 4, or 4 over 5, or 7 against 5, etc.

The second number is the primary pulse or feel. The first number is played over the second number.

Let me show you an example of a 3:4 polyrhythm.

Imagine this scenario.

Our right hand is going to take care of the second number of that polyrhythm (which is 4 in this case) and we’re going to play a particular drum four times. This will be the driving pulse or feel of the polyrhythm. Let’s use the floor tom for that.

Now, let’s take care of that first number (in this case a 3) and use our left hand to play the snare three times.

The rule is that we have to play the snare drum three times, spread out evenly, in the same amount of time it takes us to play the floor tom four times. After the third and fourth drum hit respectively, it will resolve and the pattern can then be repeated.

Obviously, in a real setting, you wouldn’t be stuck playing the same drums, this was just an example to get the idea across.

I feel that the term polyrhythm has an undeserved reputation for being a scary advanced concept that most people won’t be able to understand. But in reality, if you take a little time to do a deeper dive, you’ll see that, yes they can be a bit intimidating, but they’re not nearly as bad as they’re made out to be.

Now, the perceptive among you might be saying, “Hey, wait a second! wouldn’t eighth notes over quarter notes be a polyrhythm as well? Would it be 8:4?”

The answer to that is not really. Here’s the reason.

2:4, 4:8, 8:4, 12:24, or 54:27 simply means you’re playing twice as fast with one of your limbs. These shouldn’t be viewed as polyrhythms because of how easily they divide into each other.

Typically, polyrhythms don’t match up for several beats, but then they eventually resolve by simultaneously striking a single beat before drifting off their separate ways again.

Check out the following videos. They are both about polyrhythms and I think they do a great job of relating what polyrhythms are and how they feel.

Now for a little music theory!

Well not really, because what I’m about to show you is a super unmusical way of counting polyrhythms. I know the goal is to count them out musically (we’ll get to that I promise!), but sometimes you have to start somewhere. Baby steps right?

Let’s take the 3:4 polyrhythm, and take a look at how we might count it out.

When new students are introduced to the concept of polyrhythms, they are often taught funny but useful mnemonic phrases to help them play the polyrhythm. This helps the students familiarize themselves with how the polyrhythm feels.

So one funny mnemonic phrase students use to help them play the 3:4 polyrhythm is “Pass the F***ing Butter

No joke. But since I want to keep this family-friendly, we’ll go with something a little cleaner. How about “Pass the Stinking Butter“, or “Give me Chicken Nuggets“.

Experiment a bit and see if you can come up with a funny phrase yourself. Maybe something like “Eat your Jumbo Big Mac!”

What are polyrhythms on the drums? Drumset.

Let’s walk through how this works. We’ll use the phrase “Pass the Stinking Butter“. Start by tapping both hands at the same time on a hard surface. This is the Pass of the phrase. Next, tap your dominant hand by itself. This is the the of the phrase.

No chuckling for this next part, because your nondominant hand will now tap the counter as you say Stink. Next, your dominant hand will tap while you simultaneously say ing from the word stinking. Finally, repeat the same thing for the word Butter.

If you’re right hand dominant, and you did everything correctly, you will have completed a total of four taps with your right hand and three with your left. Repeat this multiple times and try focusing on each hand individually, making sure they are tapping rhythmically and not spastically.

You’ll probably find that you can count to three with your nondominant hand, but you might lose it when you try to count to four along with your dominant hand. This is because your dominant hand is counting along to the nonstressed syllables in the mnemonic phrase.

Weird huh?

Alright cool, not that we’ve got that down we should be done right?

Not quite. As I mentioned earlier, this is not a very musically correct way of counting these rhythms out. Unfortunately, many musicians simply stop here and call it good, but we can do better.

Let’s convert the 3:4 polyrhythm from a mnemonic phrase into something more musical.

To begin with, we’ll multiply both numbers together to find out what they both divide into. In this case 3 x 4 = 12.

In this case, we can say we have 12 notes. Four groups of three, and three groups of four.

To keep things simple, we’ll use sixteenth notes and arrange them into three groups of four notes (one measure of 3/4) as you can see below.

What are polyrhythms on drums? One bar of 3/4.

Next, we’ll label them how we count out sixteenth notes. This is an important part of understanding how we can count this out musically.

What are polyrhythms on drums? One bar of 3/4 counted out.

If you remember earlier, I mentioned we are working with 12 notes. Three groups of four notes, and four groups of three notes. So let’s count both of those groups out and see what we get.

For the three groups of four, we get:

What are polyrhythms on drums? One bar of 3/4 counted out every fourth.

For the four groups of three, we get:

What are polyrhythms on drums? One bar of 3/4 counted out every third notel.

Now, let’s combine both of these groups of notes and the result will be the musically correct way of counting out this polyrhythm. Notice that both the three groups of four notes and the four groups of three notes begin simultaneously on the count of one.

What are polyrhythms on drums? One bar of 3/4 counted together.

So putting everything together, musically we would count the 3:4 polyrhythm like this:

1-e-+-a, 2-e-+-a, 3e-+-a, etc.

And there it is ladies and gentlemen. That is how polyrhythms work and that is how you can convert a polyrhythm from a mnemonic phrase into its musical counterpart.

I hope you enjoyed this rather lengthy post, but polyrhythms can be tricky to grasp, let alone implement on your drums. Now that you’re armed with all this knowledge, go start integrating some cool polyrhythms into your playing and see what kind of awesome grooves you can come up with!

What to do next?

If you are brand new to music, music production, or are interested in learning to play the drums, you can check out my article: What is a DAW? – What Does DAW stand for?

You might also want to check out this article: Acoustic Vs. Electronic Drums – Which One is Right for You?

If you are looking at buying your first drum set or any other musical instrument for that matter, take a look at Zzounds. They have a variety of acoustic drum sets and electronic drum sets for purchase.

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Andrew has been a life long lover of music. Although starting his musical journey on the guitar, (we won't talk about his skills on that particular instrument) he found his true passion was for drumming and making music to share with others. He also enjoys writing blog posts about off the wall subjects that are very much real—such as Bigfoot, UFOs, and what's up with European mayonnaise. Why is it sweet???
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