Apologies for the strange title; I'll explain.

Let's say I'm tapping out a 5:3 beat or playing something like this minuet.

I can think of the rhythms in two ways.

1) It's a single piece—there's one stream of information, and both my hands are working in a way that optimizes for tapping/playing that stream (e.g. - right-hand plays this note at the same time as the left-hand, then the left-hand plays this note, the right-hand plays this one, etc.) It's much easier for me to grasp things, play disparate rhythms, etc. if I think of them in this way.

2) There's two pieces that my hands are playing in tandem. My right hand taps out this beat while my left hand taps out this one, and together they sound nice and form a whole. This feels more difficult to think about.

Am I handicapping myself somehow by processing things as in (1)? Or is this just the natural way of processing until (2) is reached? (Ultimately, I'd like to get to (2), but fear that if I keep processing things as in (1), real independence will never come). Should I force myself into (2) because (1) is the easy way out and will harm me in the long-run?

I welcome any changes to the question to make it more clear

  • The question becomes more interesting when one considers a drummer, with perhaps four limbs working independently.
    – Tim
    Jun 16, 2020 at 7:07
  • @Tim Pianists have ten ;)
    – Max
    Jun 16, 2020 at 22:01

1 Answer 1


Answering this question will require you to analyze your own cognitive process and compare it to the cognitive process used by skilled musicians. Right away, we have a problem: There's no way to get an objective view of your own cognitive processes, let alone of those of others.

  • How do you know whether you are doing (1) or (2)? What would be the test? What if you can do (2) for certain polyrhythms but can only do (1) for others?
  • How do you know whether a skilled musician is doing (1) or (2)? Some professional drummers might claim they can do (2), but there's no way to verify this.

That said, from the way you've framed your question, it's obvious that true independence (2) is a more powerful skillset, and (1) is a subskillset of (2) or a stepping stone on the way there. But I will be brave and say that you shouldn't worry about this.

True independence is rare

For the reasons given above, I can't prove it, but I doubt that many musicians are ever able to achieve true rhythmic independence. The exercises used to teach young pianists to play 2 on 3 or 3 on 4 all center instead around developing a "gestalt" that combines the two rhythms, such as the saying "Nice cup of tea" for 2 over 3. This is precisely what you are describing in (1).

Even highly skilled musicians, when playing polyrhythms, will usually alternate between thinking of one rhythm as the base meter and the other as an embellishment. Sort of like the spinning dancer illusion, we can alternate between bringing the 3 or 4 into "focus", but it's virtually impossible to give them equal cognitive weight.

Functional independence

Instead of trying to develop true independence, the polyrhythm exercises I did in music school focused on memorizing the gestalt patterns and then training yourself to swap the primary and secondary rhythms as quickly as possible. This is the approach jazz drummer Ari Hoenig takes in his polyrhythm videos. Let's call the ability to alternate quickly between assigning focus to one rhythm or another functional independence, since if you can do that, you can function in basically any musical context.

A starter exercise is to tap your favorite polyrhythm (2 on 3 is a good place to begin) while feeling the left hand as the primary beat and the RH as the second beat (permutation 1A). Then, switch the part that each hand is playing without breaking the flow (permutation 2A). Now your right hand has the primary beat. Now, silence the right hand and allow yourself to acclimate to the left hand as the primary beat. Try reintroducing the right hand at the same pace but while continuing to feel the left hand as the primary beat (permutation 2B). Then, switch the parts that the hands are playing once more (permutation 1B). Now you have cycled through all possible permutations.

Here 1 and 2 refer to the configuration of the hands, and the letter denotes which rhythm was given precedence. To an outside observer [1A and 1B] and [2A and 2B] look and sound the same, but the difference is in how you are internally feeling the beat.

You can come up with ways to extend this using a metronome or drum track as the primary or secondary beat.

  • This is a good answer, though I have a difficult time imagining a scenario where I don't know whether or not I'm in (1) or (2); they're very different modes of thought and feel very different when I do one or the other. Part of my hope in asking the question was that skilled musicians would simply tell me whether or not they think as (1) or as (2). Jun 16, 2020 at 21:31
  • Thanks! Yes, perhaps I should've written: "How do you show whether you're doing (1) or (2)?" You can "know" internally what you are doing, but if you start to claim to have true rhythmic independence, be prepared to see a few raised eyebrows.
    – Max
    Jun 16, 2020 at 22:00

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