What are Polyrhythms?
To understand polyrhythms, it can be helpful to dissect the word itself. If we separate the word poly from polyrhythm: poly means “multi” or “more than one”. A polyrhythm is essentially a combination of two or more rhythms played at the same time and tempo.
Polyrhythm is a simultaneous combination of two or more rhythmic patterns that do not match the number of time beats in a measure. When the instrument plays several different rhythmic figures in parallel, it creates a polyrhythm that makes the music much more interesting and gives it extra expressiveness.
Most of the polyrhythms in use today are based on the complex rhythms of African music. Such music is usually performed by a group of drummers on traditional percussion instruments: one musician plays one rhythm, the second complement its rhythm with his own, and the third complements both rhythms.
Popular music usually relies on simple time signatures – 2/2, 4/4, 3/4, and 6/8. These time signatures are built around common rhythms of fourths, eighths, and sixteenth notes, which are fairly easy to play. Similar simple rhythms are found in blues, rock, country, folk, electronic and popular music (even though some time signatures are considered dead to these styles).
The most popular polyrhythmic motif in modern music is considered to be the hemiola, which also takes its roots in African music. The hemiola is a superposition of a simple two-beat rhythm on a triplet rhythm. The compositions of these genres use more complex and complex rhythms within the usual musical meters, built on polyrhythms, polymeters, and cross-rhythms.
Over time, the perception of African music has changed – researchers began to consider it as polyrhythmic, in which all parts are performed in the same time signature, but with emphasis on different beats. In this way, playing with accents creates a sense of the composition’s multidimensionality: it seems to the listener that all the instruments are playing in different sizes, although in fact, no one leaves the original meter.
As a result, cross-rhythm began to be considered as a special case of polyrhythm. In popular music literature and forum discussions, cross-rhythm and polyrhythm become synonymous.
Like the tonal harmony in a chord or progression, polyrhythms in music add depth and emotion to a song. Without them, the music might feel incomplete. And popular music would sound very different.
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