Wikipedia defines polyrhythm as “the simultaneous use of two or more conflicting rhythms” and reports “Sub-Saharan instruments are constructed in a variety of ways to generate polyrhythmic melodies. Some instruments organize the pitches in a uniquely divided alternate array, not in the straight linear bass to treble structure that is so common to many Western instruments such as the piano, harp, or marimba.”

  • What is a polyrhythmic melody?
  • Is Wikipedia saying that there is a type of polyrhythm that is melodic and not rhythmic?
  • How does the placement of pitches on an instrument encourage the simultaneous use of two or more conflicting rhythms?

Is “Polyrhythm” a melodic principle? Not specifically, but as melodies have rhythm, any rhythmic considerations can apply to melodies.

What is a polyrhythmic melody?

It could mean a couple of things:

  • a melody that is set against parts with different rhythms in a polyrhythmic piece
  • a melody that itself exhibits more than one identifiable rhythmic pulse

How does the placement of pitches on an instrument encourage the simultaneous use of two or more conflicting rhythms?

The assumption is that it's easier for one performer to play two distinct rhythmic patterns simultaneously if they can do one with one hand, and one with the other hand. What the article is saying is that instruments like the Kalimba allow the performer to play in the same range with both hands, each hand taking a different rhythm. Because the two hands are playing in the same range, you don't get the effect of a separate bassline and a melody higher up; instead, the two parts merge to give you "a melody that itself exhibits more than one identifiable rhythmic pulse", as per the second definition above.

This video illustrates the idea somewhat:

  • Very good explanation of the Kalimba example, but I would agree more with Dom in his answer, in that "polyrhythmic melody" is a misnomer. At best one could refer to polyrhythmic melodies, as two or more melodies whose rythms make a polyryhtm. Jun 17 '16 at 10:44
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    @joseem I think that definition you give is along the lines of my first bullet point, and I agree that it's the one that fits most easily with the European idea of a 'melody'. However, I couldn't convince myself that a "polyrhythmic melody" didn't make sense at least as a concept, although obviously if there are a lot of simultaneous notes in a given example it wouldn't necessarily qualify as a 'melody' from a European perspective.
    – topo morto
    Jun 17 '16 at 11:05
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    topo morto, I think I see your point better now. For example taking the Kalimba example with the characteristic 3 over 2 polyryhtm, if we discount the "measure" initial beat where two exactly simultaneous notes occur, and the prolonged resonance of the instrument, strictly speaking we have a melody that could even be played on a strictly melodic instrument and that, as you say, "exhibits more than one identifiable rhythmic pulse". That's quite an instesting concept that may even be a useful tool to help analsye the ryhtmic structure of some melodies. Jun 17 '16 at 11:46
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    @joseem I was also thinking that we do often characterize music we wouldn't call 'polyrhythmic' as having strong and weak beats at a number of hierarchical levels; so even there, there's 'more than one identifiable rhythmic pulse' going on... perhaps a unified theory is possible!
    – topo morto
    Jun 17 '16 at 12:19
  • topo morto, your video example seems to illustrate polyrhythm beautifully. And on a kalimba! May I ask, why did you say it "illustrates the idea somewhat"?
    – JAR
    Jun 17 '16 at 18:55

A polyrhythm is strictly a rhythmic phenomenon. What Wikipedia is referring to maybe not in the best worded way is that the Sub-Saharan instruments are created in a way that makes putting a melody to the polyrhythms and performing them on pitched instruments easier.

The Wiki goes on to talk about the instruments and the features they have like having the same range be covered by both hands so each hand can perform a separate melody that is polyrhythmic in nature.


Some African music with polyrhythms (like the rhythms here) may be played using just percussion (multiple djembe / dunun drums). In this context, some polyrhythms played on drums can also be heard as a melody, e.g. the three different tones of the kenkeni/sangban/dundunba can be heard as a three-note "bassline" that holds the song together.

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