Music: Help me become good at cross-rhythms.
January 31, 2007 6:04 PM   Subscribe

Help me become good at cross-rhythm/polyrhythm (mostly 3:4 and 4:3, but also 6:9, 6:7)

I'm learning some of the most difficult vocal music I've encountered so far (John Adams, Nixon in China), and I need to learn to handle these difficult rhythmic motives well. Anyone have tips, tricks, computer/web tools, or anything else to help an experienced musician deal with cross rhythms?

(And yes, I understand the math involved, and I know things like "PASS the GODdamn BUTter" for 3:4, but I'm having significant trouble translating things like that from clapping to actually feeling the two rhythms simultaneously [and am a long way from being able to sing 4 beats when the orchestra is beating in 3 or vise versa])
posted by anonymoose to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
PASS the GODdamn BUTter? Ok, apparently I have missed out on that tip. I usually just think of 3:4 time as a waltz.
posted by miss lynnster at 6:22 PM on January 31, 2007

As a musician, I find that mnemonic devices (like PASS the GODdamn BUTter) are actually less helpful, because they obscure the rhythmic layering that is actually happening (you probably know what I mean). The best advice I can give you is to know when your beats line up. In other words, if you have a Dr. Beat playing a pattern in 4 (X x x x X x x x), and you are clapping in 3 (X x x X x x), know beat 1 of every other bar of Dr. Beat's ticking will align with your clapping.

This is terribly confusing, and less helpful than I thought it would be. I'll think about this and try to come back to it.
posted by rossination at 6:25 PM on January 31, 2007

(Miss Lynnster - by 3:4, I think anonymoose is referring to a "3 against 4" pattern, not 3/4 time).
posted by rossination at 6:26 PM on January 31, 2007

I do this sorty of thing while drumming a fair bit (and when playing the piano in a somewhat minimalist-inspired style, but it's basically the same as the drumming ).

The first thing I did was practice tapping out 3 beats over the top of a metronome playing in 4/4 - there's actually a nice rhythm to it once it clicks.

The other thing that helped was to write out 3 and 4 patterns simultaneously as 12/4, and practice drumming the following with my hands, while counting time in your head.

Kind of like this - count "1+a,2+a,3+a,4+a" over the top

LH_ * - - | * - - | * - - | * - - |
RH_ * - - | - * - | - - * | - - - |
posted by Jon Mitchell at 6:28 PM on January 31, 2007

When I was in music school the music theory class was built heavily around Paul Hindemith. Aside from pure theory, we were also drilled constantly to operate in multiple meters simultaneously. Play a tune on the piano with the left hand while tapping out a conflicting rhythm with the right, then reverse hands.

Man was that hard!

I'm not 100% sure, but I think this is the text book we used.
posted by michswiss at 6:31 PM on January 31, 2007

Seconding the idea of drumming/tapping with your hands or feet. You can tap 3s with one hand and 4s with the other -- then switch, and then learn to switch seamlessly without stopping.

If you're reasonably quiet, this is a great thing to do while sitting around bored in a lecture or waiting room. You want to get enough muscle/kinesthetic memory going so you don't have to consciously think about what you're doing, just do it.
posted by xil at 6:36 PM on January 31, 2007

Quadranome lets you hear how these polyrhythms sound. Listen to it while you're reading AskMeFi.
posted by bricoleur at 7:40 PM on January 31, 2007

The key is to learn to hear the patterns as a tune.

All the suggestions above are very good; alternating sides or hands; practicing in odd moments with your hands, fingers or feet; writing it out on graph paper.

Note that 6:9 is just 3:2; and 6:7 is very hard (eg, it's beyond me!) but if you don't get it quite right, not one of your listeners will really know.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:05 PM on January 31, 2007

Oof. Okay. I guess my brain is processing musical terms as a jazz singer (me) calls them out verbally onstage. Been singing & calling out to the band more than studying theory on piano lately. I'll be quiet now...
posted by miss lynnster at 8:53 PM on January 31, 2007

My strategy has always been to think of it in terms of the number of beats you get when you multiply the two numbers together. Then, divide them into several measures. For instance, 3:4 turns into twelve beats, and if you think of it as three measures of four beats, you get:


So, tap all ones with one hand (the first will be tapped by both, obviously) and the interlopers are the other hand. Say it out loud:

ONE two three FOUR ONE two THREE four ONE TWO three four

Get the feel down at an easy tempo, then speed it up. It's a slow process, but it really gets hammered in your head by the end. Eventually you'll remember it by heart.
posted by invitapriore at 12:01 AM on February 1, 2007

Is there a web version of the Quadranome?
posted by afu at 3:02 AM on February 1, 2007

It's certainly a lot harder when you don't have someone doing it along with you (which is usually the case when you're playing in a band or orchestra), but one of the best ways for me to understand things which are rhythmically complex is to get a recording of the piece, listen to it a pile of times.

Hum/sing along. If I get to know what a piece more or less "should" sound like, I have a much easier time playing it.

Also--good luck with Adams. It can be really lovely when done right, but simply confusing when done wrong.
posted by that girl at 6:20 AM on February 1, 2007

Using a metronome to tap against is a really good method. I used the Hindemith book (and michswiss that's the one!) and it's great. At times it's very tricky but so useful for developing a great sense of rhythmic independence (the undergrads that I teach will be getting a hefty dose of this this coming semester!). Another way to work out more complicated ratios is to literally do the math. I have a friend who's a percussionist who would sit with a calculator and two practice pads and work out (and then tap out) 13:11 and 21:20 etc. etc.

In the end though of course these things need to feel natural (especially if you're singing) so thinking of them melodically should be part of your initial approach.

Good luck, with a little time these things will become second nature.
posted by ob at 7:58 AM on February 1, 2007

Oh one last thing I just thought of, although I don't know if it'll help. Like rossination I don't find those mnemonics very useful at all. What they do is they teach you the pattern as if it was a rhythm but the point is that it's two rhythmic units superimposed. Think of it like a dissonance. You can really sing (or play) a harmonic dissonance when you understand the context in which it's in. This is the same thing, it's a rhythmic dissonance. The interplay between the two deliberately dissonant rhythmic units is what gives these things superimpositions their vibrancy.
posted by ob at 8:12 AM on February 1, 2007

That metronome program looks perfect for what you want. Here's another that you might be able to use in freeware mode. Or you could even use this web metronome in two windows, but you'll have to do the math to get it right. (If you know javascript, you can probably mod the source code to make one page play two [or more!!] rhythms at once.)

Anyhow, practice tapping out the beats with your hands along with the metronome until you can do both rhythms simultaneously. Then practice without the metronome. Practice *everywhere* -- morning commute, grocery shopping, etc.

Once you "get" 3 beats over 4, or 4 beats over 3, it really grooves. (I play bass in a 3 piece progressive metal band, and I love turning 4:4 into 3:4 out from under the drummer or vice versa, hehe...) If you can do 6/7, you're a rhythmic bad-ass. If you can do it as a vocalist, you're very rare indeed.

Good luck, and if you need some inspiration, listen to the newest Tool album -- lotsa good polyrhythmic work on there, mostly 3/4 & 4/3.
posted by LordSludge at 8:24 AM on February 1, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks all; much help throughout. Quadranome is perfect, except the OS X version crashes in 10 minutes for me (or at least, it stops playing or responding and then after 5 minutes the 15-minute trial period expires and it quits). Still, doing it in 10 minute stints is enough to start me on the path towards what I'm going for. Thanks!
posted by anonymoose at 8:47 AM on February 1, 2007

Exactly what invitapriore said. Start slow, be patient, and it will come, though you may want to start with five over four (or maybe even five over two) before you move on to 6 over 7, which is really hard.

When you try to do 6/7, beware of seven, the only two-syllable two digit number. It's a common mistake to make when you're trying to count out polyrhythms to go "one-two-three-four-five-six-seven" and because seven has those tricky two syllables, uh oh! you've just counted out eight beats. I use "seh" in place of seven, but figure out what works for you.
posted by joshuaconner at 2:01 PM on February 1, 2007

The only way to do the really complex rhythms is to be reincarnated and get born this time in Bulgaria, where everybody does them.

Richard Taruskin says he used to walk down the street beating, I think it was, 5 against 17 for an experimental early music piece. Training does work.

Some geniuses, e.g., Michael Tilson Thomas, are born with that ability, but even they have to work to perfect it.

Everyone should be able to do 2 against 3 and 3 against 4 by subdividing.

And by the way, it's PASS the GODdamn SPINach. I learned it that way, and I'm stickin' to it.
posted by KRS at 11:20 AM on February 2, 2007

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