Polyrhythm vs Syncopation vs Hemiola – The Differences Explained

Polyrhythm is the simultaneous use of two or more different rhythms at the same time. Hemiola is where a 2 beat rhythm is played over a 3 beat bar. It is a specific type of polyrhythm. Syncopation is an intended disturbance of the regular flow of the rhythm, usually by playing an off-beat note.

It’s not as daunting or frightening as it appears; any of these ideas may be tough to grasp at first, but they aren’t that difficult. That’s the theory at the high level, now let’s get into more examples and explanations.

Polyrhythms

Polyrhythm is the simultaneous use of two or more different rhythms at the same time. These types of rhythms have been used for thousands of years, as it’s a simple and effective way to create interesting sounds.

Polyrhythms can come in different ways. If they are used in just a part of the piece, then they are called polyrhythms, but when they are as the foundation of the whole piece, then they are called a cross-rhythm.

Polyrhythms are most often represented by the ratio in which two basic rhythms are played. The most common and best known of these is a 3:2 ratio, also known as hemiola (we’ll go into details of that later on).

Apart from hemiola, there are dozens of different ratios and the easiest way to learn polyrhythms is to just tap one rhythm with one hand and the other rhythm with the other hand, and voila!

Polyrhythms are used heavily in modern music as well as in classical and jazz and similar sorts of things. These days, Tool is a perfect example of how to incorporate polyrhythms into a song.

In this video, you can find many different examples as well as a very nice and clean explanation of what polyrhythms are and where you can find them.

Polymeter

For most individuals, the idea of a polymeter is difficult to comprehend. To make it easier for you, a polymeter is a set of the same note values played in succession rather than one after another, as with a polyrhythm.

The bar sizes vary with polymetre, but the rhythm remains constant. The rhythms eventually become identical since they are all based on the same pattern.

It’s kind of like having two simultaneous rhythms playing at the same time, which is why it’s such an intriguing concept. The listener will often be drawn to distinguish one rather than the other rhythm while listening.

Hemiola

As we’ve mentioned before, hemiola is just a single type of polyrhythm. But because it’s the simplest and most used one, it got to have its own name in music theory. Hemiola is an ancient Greek word that marked ratio 3:2, which is the ratio that hemiola represents in rhythm patterns.

Also, it can mark an interval of a perfect fifth in pitch theory.

Hemiola is often a misused term. They are very often used in classical music, but also in modern music as well. As for traditional music, hemiolas are natively found in sub-Saharan, African native music.

It’s also very often used in funky music, giving it that lively, offbeat sound to make your body move.

You should note that, when it comes to rhythms, there are several different ways in which you can write down a single beat. As you probably already know, the time signature of the song is usually divided into bars and inside of those bars you can put one, two, three, etc. notes.

Depending on the number of notes you put into a bar, you’ll get a rhythm. Of course, as a musician, you don’t need to learn all the different rhythms and ways in which to use them, but as a composer, it’s nice to know how the notes work and what are the different ways in which music can be explored.

Syncopation

Syncopation is not a type of polyrhythm but is a disturbance of the regular flow of the rhythm. To put it simply, if you’re playing a 4/4 beat, a drummer may put an accent on the second and fourth beat (using a snare drum for example).

Syncopation would be made if you put an accent off the beat. Of course, it can get much more complicated than that, but it’s the simplest way to present it.

Syncopation is something people usually do when playing a song, as it’s hard and boring to play everything straight to the beat.

When you play music like that, you get it all perfect in theory, but in real life, it’s just boring. So, musicians tend to get now and again off the beat, playing the note somewhat differently and getting it to sound a bit better.

Syncopation has been used for centuries, as well as it is used today, especially in modern pop music. Bob Dylan has said in one interview that he was told by one of the jazz greats how to not get bored by playing the same songs for 30, 40 years – syncopation.

And if you go and listen to his live performance now, you’ll see that he, while still playing the same melody, changes rhythms as he please, to keep himself and the band entertained and present new things to his audience, even though they are the same songs.

Summary

A polyrhythm is when you have two rhythms that are not consequent to each other. They can be in the same time signature, but they need to be the same rhythm in the end.

A polymeter is when you have different notes in different bar sizes, which makes for a very confusing sound if it’s played at the same time, but also a very interesting one.

Hemiola is a special type of polyrhythm, as it’s an ancient Greek term representing a ratio of 3:2 which means that you have three notes going up every two going down, creating a sort of “visual” confusion.

Syncopation is not a type of polyrhythm as it’s not a ratio between different rhythms. It’s when you move the accent offbeat, as musicians tend to get bored of playing straight beats all the time and syncopation is one way to make them sound better and more interesting.

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Mike O'Connor

Drumming has been my passion for over 18 years. I play quite a few different genres and I really enjoy experimenting with hybrid kits that blend acoustic and electronic drums. I love all things drumming!

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