How to Play Polyrhythms: A Comprehensive Guide

The world of music would have been bland without the existence of Polyrhythms. Polyrhythms create sophistication by combining uncomplicated rhythms. Therefore, Polyrhythms are assets that every musician must get a hold of, professional or not. If you are interested in understanding polyrhythms, we will guide you through this entire journey, so that you can add a tinge of elegance to your artistic creation. 

Polyrhythms: The Meaning

Polyrhythms are the simultaneous playing of distinct and simpler rhythms. A medium of texture and complication, Polyrhythms have made their way into both Western and non-Western music industries.

In Polyrhythms, each beat is further divided. You can also think of it as a pulse. Polyrhythms are interesting to listen to. The tension caused by the beat is perfect for dancing.

You can also check: What Does EP Stand for in Music?

History of Polyrhythms

How to Play Polyrhythms: A Comprehensive Guide
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Polyrhythms first originated in Africa. These rhythms have African cultural significance attached to them.  In short, polyrhythms are signs of socialization and cohesion of different communities in Africa.

Apart from this, the different beats in Polyrhythms can delineate a story that reflects the change in time and nature of music.

All about Polyrhythms

Different kinds of Polyrhythms exist. We are going to give you an idea about the common ones.

  • 3:2 Polyrhythm: This is also known as a Hemiola. It consists of a triple note over a double note pattern.
  • 2:3 Polyrhythm: A reversed version of Hemiola. In short, this consists of a double note rhythm over a triple note.
  •  3:4 Polyrhythm: A triple-note rhythm over a quadruple-note rhythm.
  • 4:3 Polyrhythm: A quadruple-note rhythm over a triple-note rhythm.

Remember that 3:2 and 2:3 will count as the same polyrhythms. You can either focus on the 2 beat part of the 3 bear part.

Generally, the first number is the counter rhythm and the second number is the basic pulse. You have to play the counter rhythm over the basic pulse. Therefore, in the case of 3:2, 3 is the counter rhythm and 2 is the basic pulse.

This also means that there will be 3 evenly spaced Polyrhythms and two beats. You have to play the polyrhythm over a double beat with triple beats that are over spaced. In this case, the three beats are played faster than the 2 beats so that both of these coincide.

Any two rhythms can also be named Polyrhythms if you cannot multiply one number with any whole number to obtain the other number. Therefore, they are two different subdivisions of the beat.

Take 2:5 as an example again. You cannot multiply anything to 2 to obtain 5. Since they have no common divisor, you can say that they have NOT been derived from each other. Playing a Polyrhythm can be complex. Hence, in the next section, we would discuss how to play polyrhythms successfully.

How to Play Polyrhythms?

How to Play Polyrhythms: A Comprehensive Guide
Photo by: Kohei Hara

Figure Out the Lowest Common Multiple

Yes, you have to use LCM to count Polyrhythms. So, take 3:4 as an example. In the previous section, we have discussed basic pulse and counter-rhythms. In this case, 3 is the counter rhythm and 4 is the basic pulse.

It means that you will play this polyrhythm with 3 equal spaced beat over 4 beats. Now, you have to take the LCM of 3 and 4 which would be 12. By finding the LCM, we figured how many beats it takes for the beat to align again. In this case, it takes 12 beats. So, 12 beats is a full cycle of Polyrhythm here.

Use a Grid

In the next step, you have to either imagine or draw a grid that would be separated into 12 beats. You can always opt for an online sequencer for this purpose. Once you have the grid in front of you, check where the beats lie.

In the case of 3:4 polyrhythms, you would observe that the beats occur at the same time initially on beat one. After that, you can keep the count to make your life easier. Further, divide 12 beats into three parts. Then count the bar number like 1 in the 2nd and 3rd portion. Your counting would look something like this:

1234, 2234, 3234. Now, you try one with 2:5.


Polyrhythms can be very difficult and uncomfortable to play in the beginning days. Therefore, you need to think of some simple techniques to learn. However, we are going to provide you with a few tactics in this article. Even a small adjustment of technique can create a massive difference.

1. Break it into chunks

Do not try to learn everything at once and get disappointed. Give yourself time to get adapted to the complicated methods. Spend reading articles about polyrhythms and take note.

Then shift to tutorials and check what you have missed. Do not try to fit all these in a single day because your brain would need some to absorb the information that you have consumed. So, let it sit for a while.

2. Do not try it with all the instruments at once

Try to avoid this mistake. When you are new to Polyrhythms, it is wise to include your body into it rather than any instruments such as guitar or drums. Many people make the mistake of practicing Polyrhythms in all the instruments at once only to get frustrated. Use your body to learn Polyrhythms instead.

Clap your hands on your thighs, table or whatever you can. Start mastering this with your left hand and then move to your right hand. Gradually, you would be able to play using both hands.

3. Metronome would be a life-saver

Metronomes are devices that would allow you to set beat/minute. Increase the beat/minute after you are comfortable.

4. Practice

There is no other shortcut to mastering Polyrhythms than practice. Invest at least one hour in practicing polyrhythms every day. Set the time according to your convenience.


Learning polyrhythms might seem a bit daunting at first. You have to be patient to master this as well. Just know that it’s okay if it takes you a longer amount of time to learn to play polyrhythmic passages. However, with enough practice, you would be able to grasp the concept in no time.

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