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I've ben playing drums for about 22 years now and am quite capable around the kit. I've been working on some more complex polyrhythmic stuff, like 9/8 grooves with 7/8 or 5/8 ostinatos on the hats/ride and, while I can do them, I find that my ear is drawn to the ostinato meter, and the groove sounds very robotic; in fact, I struggle to play the groove without writing it out. Here's a simple example of a 9/8 groove with 5/8 ostinato:

example of 9/8 meter with five-beat sub-rhythm

When I play it, it feels (and therefore probably sounds) like a confusing 5/8 groove instead of a straightforward 9/8 groove with polyrhythmic cymbal work. My question is: how can I train my ear to hear the groove meter and let the ostinato be the autopilot portion? Obviously it takes practice, but if anyone has any pointers for "hearing" one rhythmic piece instead of the other, I'd appreciate the ideas.

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    This is polymeter (rather than polyrhythm).
    – Aaron
    Feb 21, 2022 at 5:42
  • @Aaron isn't it both? Any drum kit pattern is polyrhythm unless all the instruments are struck at the same time. I mean, you could write it as three independent parts, with for example the top line being alternate quarters and dotted quarters (or equivalent tied notes according to the meter) without changing the performance (other than making it more difficult -- or easier? -- for the performer to read).
    – phoog
    Mar 23, 2022 at 9:35

2 Answers 2

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It might be refreshing to study a genre built on polyrhythm/-meter. Have you done a deep dive into West African music? What if you incorporated pitched percussion—marimba, etc., or just a drum pad with pitched instruments—and then you have melodic interactions emerging.

Disclaimer, I'm no expert in West African music or much else. But I suspect the bottom line is that we're inclined to think of "the whole"—the additive rhythm that is the sum total of the interlocking parts, like how 4 against 3 yields "pass the goddamn butter"—but the real fun lies in holding multiple grooves in our head at the same time rather than just calculating their interference pattern. This becomes almost some sort of mindfulness exercise—if you can get both "plates spinning," try shifting your attention from one to the other and back again, without letting either stop. Rinse and repeat with more plates.

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I find that hearing a polymeter is the same as feeling it, so I train the latter.

I practice patterns like the one in the question away from the instrument, just tapping my hands on my lap. A few approaches I find most effective.

  • Get both hands going, then practice counting one meter (e.g., counting 5), then the other (e.g., counting 9), out loud. The out loud part is the key, because it's easier to cheat or miss mistakes if one counts silently. Out loud is harder, because it requires extra brain space.
  • Get one hand going, then add the other. One direction is near always harder than the other, which will help focus your practice.
  • With both of the above, after it can be done easily, switch hands.
  • When it can be done both hands, with each hand responsible for each meter, do it with the feet, then one hand and one foot, then ... clicking my tongue, snapping my fingers, nodding my head in one meter and counting the other. Basically, constantly come up with new ways to confuse my body and work through the polymeter again.
  • If you really want to drive yourself nuts, set a metronome for a third pulse pattern.

For an approach to polyrhythm, see How to tackle this tricky rhythm -- nested triplets?

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  • When you tap with your hands are you tapping just the '1' or are you tapping all five or all seven or whatever beats within the tuplet? If you are tapping all the beats, how do you distinguish '1 from all the others? Feb 21, 2022 at 12:51
  • @BrianTHOMAS That's the role of the audible counting.
    – Aaron
    Feb 21, 2022 at 13:37
  • I'm sorry Aaron I don't understand what you mean. I want to though. Can you break it down into smaller steps? Feb 21, 2022 at 13:40
  • @BrianTHOMAS One hand taps the 9/8 rhythm, then other taps the 5/8 rhythm. Then I count either to 9 or to 5 along with the two rhythms, so my counting is "in sync" with one hand but not the other in terms of where the 1 falls. But the hands themselves still have to maintain the proper accent patter for their respective meter/rhythm.
    – Aaron
    Feb 21, 2022 at 13:47
  • @BrianTHOMAS Another way to think of it is that I tap the OP example as written, and then I rewrite it in 5/8 (i.e., change the placement of the bar lines) and practice tapping/counting that as well.
    – Aaron
    Feb 21, 2022 at 13:50

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