This Is Your Brain on Polyrhythms

Posted on May 25, 2011


Lately I’ve been studying polyrhythms for the drum set with one of the foremost teachers on the subject- Peter Magadini. A polyrhythm is defined as two corresponding, simultaneous but loosely related rhythms based on a mixture of subdivisions such as even (8th notes, 16ths) and odd (triplets, quintuplets, septuplets, etc.).

Thinking contrapuntally, all contrapuntal rhythms fall somewhere on a spectrum of interdependence (close relation) on one end, and independence (unrelated) on the other. Many polyrhythms would tend to congregate on the independence side of the spectrum. The one shown above is a classic and at the core of many of the exercises that I’m working on with Pete. Using this 6:4 skeleton, either the quarter note triplets of the upper part or the steady quarters of the lower could be further subdivided by either two’s or three’s (or conceivably any other number, but I haven’t got that far yet). Those subdivided notes can also be broken up around the kit- an interplay between the snare and bass drum for instance.

Playing these rhythms has really helped me with ear training, developing better time-keeping behind the kit and, strangely enough, helped me get a little bit of groove back that I felt I had lost over the years. (It would take something like that for a 42-year-old white guy who constantly over thinks anything and everything. Yes, makes perfect sense).

But what’s truly interesting about my experience with polyrhythms is not what it’s done for me but what it does TO me while I’m in the process of learning them. And believe me, this is cognitively painful, brain hernia type learning we’re talking about here. It’s not just rubbing your stomach and patting your head- it’s rubbing your stomach in one time signature and patting your head in a completely different one. The key is trying to hear how these seemingly unrelated rhythms actually fit together into a composite rhythm…

…and then forcing your muscles to do it. It takes a little faith (I will eventually get it) and a lot of will (I’m not moving from this ket until I get it!). As I tackle this material I feel new neural pathways being formed– at the speed of a smacked-out snail. Like a microscopic man trying to dig his way out of Alcatraz with a dull spoon. Ten minutes of confused, stuttering strokes. Wait-wait, ok. No. Wait, ok. No. Rest for 30 seconds think about something else. Go back to it- it’s a little easier. I think I’ve got the first half of the bar. Fifteen more minutes of struggle, another rest. Repeat, over and over.

One day I had a whole page of this stuff down cold. I was OWNING it. Went in the next day for the lesson and it was all gone. NOTHING. It wasn’t even a matter of choking. It was like I’d never seen the page before. Still, I wouldn’t say that these rhythms are merely mathematical or wholly “unnatural.” In fact, there is something profoundly natural about them. They approach the irrational simultaneity of nature- the sound of water droplets falling out of trees and striking the dead leaves below. The cyclical interlacing of hundreds of singing crickets. That type of stuff. The rigidly divided grid of 4/4 is starting to sound more like machines.

Anyway, this stuff is heavy lifting for the brain. It challenges all of the facilities needed for acquiring drum knowledge: conceptual understanding, aural acuity, muscular performance and limb coordination. I’d love to see a researcher at Stanford hook up a drummer trying to execute 7 over 3 to a live cat-scan sometime. I’m going to do this stuff for the rest of my life. It might keep the Alzheimers away! I’m ooollllddddd.