What is a Polyrhythm? Learn with Musical Examples


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Both polyrhythms and polymeters, as the name suggests, are techniques of combining two different rhythms, which are played simultaneously in one musical moment. When two contrasting rhythms are played at the same time, the result can add rhythmic complexity to the music, resulting in more elaborate and interesting rhythmic complexity. (if you want to learn how to use polymeter in writing, you can check it out here – Polymeter in the Music of the Matrix),

In this post, we’ll take a closer look at what polyrhythms are and how you can incorporate them into your music, accompanied by real-life musical examples.


Polyrhythm involves combining two rhythms played at the same tempo within a song. Each rhythm follows its own individual subdivision pattern. For example, in the figure below, the Rhodes piano plays three quarter note triplets while the Bass plays two quarter notes within the same time span. This creates a 3 over 2 polyrhythm, where three triplets are played against the duration of two quarter notes. The Rhodes piano’s subdivision is based on quarter note triplets, while the Bass follows a subdivision of regular quarter notes.

3:2 (3 against 2) Polyrhythm

3:2 Polyrhythm

Ex.1-A & Ex.1-B are Piano reductions of the two most famous examples of 3:2 polyrhythm. Both demonstrate a triplet figure played in the treble clef while regular 8th note figures are played in the bass clef of the Piano. 

Ex. 1-A) Claude Debussy, “Duex Arabesque L. 66 – No.1 Andante con moto” (1888-1891) (Piano Reduction)

Ex. 1-B) John Williams, “Over the Moon,” from E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial  (1982) (Piano Reduction)

Polyrhythm in Ex. 2-A is similar to example Ex.1-A & B, except Ex. 2-A has a quarter note triplet figure played over the space of two quarter notes. The first four measures of the song sounds in ¾, but between measure 5 and 8, Contrabass notes in 2/4 time can be heard. While the rest of the instruments provide a triplet-based waltz rhythm, sudden quarter notes in the bass give an unexpected offbeat moment, making the piece even more interesting. Mockup with a louder bass mix can be heard in Ex. 2-B

Ex. 2-A John Williams, “Harry’s Wondrous World,” from Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone (2001)

Ex. 2-B (Louder bass mix of Ex. 2-A)

4:3 Polyrhythm

Examples 3-A & 3-B are demonstrations of polyrhythm figures used in a modern musical styles. However, because one defining factor of polyrhythm is to have two recurring rhythms periodically coincide, we’ve defined both examples as “quasi-polyrhythm.” Both examples have utilized two rhythmic subdivisions to be played simultaneously within a song, creating an intriguing rhythmic effect.

Ex. 3-A Cosmic girl – Jamiroquai (4:3)

Ex. 3-A is a short rearrangement of Jamiroquai’s mega-hit song “Cosmic Girl,” demonstrating 4:3 “quasi” polyrhythm. The keyboard here plays a riff based on dotted eighth note subdivisions while bass and drums play a 16th note based rhythm. The keyboard riff continues only until the third beat of the second measure as the riff plays the last 2 eighth notes to fit itself within the two bar phrase. As seen in Fig. A, 4 dotted eighth notes were played simultaneously in the duration of 3 quarter notes.


Ex. 3-B 4:3 Quasi polyrhythm pattern exercise

Similar to Ex. 3-A, Ex. 3-B is a demonstration of dotted 8th note figures played over a straight 4/4 rhythm. In the example, the kick drum keeps its own pulse by laying down repetitive quarter note beats. These types of contrasting rhythmic figures can be easily heard in today’s Pop & EDM genre where vocal or lead instruments play a dotted 8th note melody or motifs against background instruments providing a steady 8th note based rhythm.

That’s pretty much it! We hope you found this article beneficial. There is a vast amount of material available on polyrhythms (and polymeters), so we encourage you to continue your research. Furthermore, we’ve included a helpful YouTube video below we found, which offers comprehensive insights into these concepts. Happy composing!

[Study Pack]

This post was brought to you in collaboration with our partner site Behind the Score. Discover the Harmony Secrets of Modern Film and Video Games.