I am trying to learn a piano accompaniment for flute. It is called "Madrigal" and it is pretty easy for the most part except for these 4:3 polyrhythm sections. Not only are these complex rhythms, but they also aren't totally 4:3. As you can see in the picture, there are sections with an eight note and sixteenth note rhythm in the right hand and triplets with a tied note in the left hand. I tried just listening to the song, but I just can't get it into my head. I have also tried to practice each part separately, but I can't put them together. Finally, I have tried the word tricks (i.e. Pass the golden butter), but those only work for me at very slow tempos. I can't keep up at 40 BPM, even. Here is a recording of the piece with sheet music. The first set of polyrhythms starts at about 1:47.

The section in question

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    Don't be afraid to practice at 20 BPM, or even slower, until you "get" it.
    – Jos
    Commented Jan 29 at 21:36
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    Probably not the best most professional answer: when I learn rhythms like this I just make it so each hand can play its part independently and then run both hands together and synchronize them at the beginning of each measure or whenever their rhythms line up. Pros might have the time to count it through and work on precise polyrhythms but I only have enough practice time to fake it. Commented Jan 30 at 2:23
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    @Tod Wilcox: I suspect your method is actually the musical one. I wouldn't call it "faking"... Commented Jan 30 at 13:40
  • @BrianChandler Maybe I’m just not very good at my method. The results are not very clean. Tuplets tend to lean towards subdivisions and subdivisions get messy. Perhaps it’s fine for solo piano but percussionists would never be satisfied with how I render things like this. Commented Jan 30 at 15:38

2 Answers 2


For a generic quarter note containing a three against four rhythm there are seven total pulses over twelve (triplet sixteenth) beats. I could explain that one must count to twelve (giving each number exactly one syllable, I'm looking at you, "Sev", "Lev" and "Twev"), and then mention that there would be notes on 1, 4, 5, 7, 9, and 10, and that the 1, 4, 7 and 10 are the four part of four against three, while the 1, 5 and 9 are the three part of four against three. In the rhythm above, it's a bit easier - skip the '4'.

Perform slowly until you have it and then speed it up, but ... you can also cheat a bit. Modern metronome apps often have this functionality built in. The key is to get the right number of beats (5 against 3 would have 15, 7 against 4 would have 28, etc...) , and then populate them with sounds at the appropriate times. Once you're playing the rhythm pretty well, lock it in by putting the metronome pulses on off-beats.

Metronome app

Note that these beats are '0' indexed instead of '1' indexed as is more common in music.


Last night, I finally figured out the polyrhythm. I would seperate my answer into three strategies:

  1. Using a trick like "Pass the golden butter" to understand the 4:3 polyrhythm as one rhythm (here's the YouTube video I used:


  2. Practice each hand separately until you know each part pretty much by heart, as Todd Wilcox said in the comments. Each hand must be able to play its part without you having to think.

  3. Practice both hands together slowly, as Jos said. Keep increasing your speed until you finally get the rhythm.

This isn't a sure-fire thing, of course, but these strategies are pretty effective, no matter what you are trying to learn. And, of course, patience is necessary, but that shouldn't come as any suprise. Being a musician takes a lot of patience!

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    Snap! I use the same trick. The difficulty is in avoiding the three stresses inherent in "PASS the GOLDen BUTTer". The phrase may need to be practised (if not actually performed) with its 'complementary' syllables stressed: "PASS THE golDEN buttER". For 5:4 I use "Let's have a mug of Rosie Lee". Speaking it we stress "LET'S HAVE MUG ROS LEE", whose 'complement' is the somewhat awkward "LET'S A OF SIE"! Commented Feb 1 at 5:27

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