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The band Meshuggah has a straightforward approach to polyrhythms. There's also a base which is 4/4 and then some other count which plays N times then repeats exactly on the 1 of the base. it'll be clearer with example:

3 bars of 7 plus 4 == 32 total hits 3 bars of 9 + 5 == 32 total hits

Would the first be 7/4, 7/32, or what? Same with the second.

  • You example isn't clear to me. Do the "32 total hits" occupy one base unit of 4/4, or eight units - i.e. 32 beats? Also, "3 bars of 7 + 4" doesn't add up to 32 on my calculator! (I make it 25 beats not 32). – user19146 Apr 4 '17 at 4:19
  • I assume you mean 4 bars of 7 plus 4? – ChipJust Apr 4 '17 at 5:10
  • @alephzero yeah my mistake on the 7/4 thing. As to whether 32 'base unit' that is part of the question and i should have specified. From my understanding it differs between songs - usually it's eighths, sixteenths, or their triplet variants right? How would that effect the resulting signature on paper? – max pleaner Apr 4 '17 at 5:18
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    I would call this example "polymetry". Polyrhythm is the other end of the spectrum of two (or more) different beats going at once. For instance, if you had seven beats in one voice played in the same amount of time as four beats in the other, that would be polyrhythm. If the beats are the same length, but combined into different meters, say seven bars of four against four bars of seven (similar to your example), that's polymetry. – Scott Wallace May 4 '17 at 20:01
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I think you are talking about composite time signatures, which is where you change signatures during the phrase. It is another way to write how you are thinking of the time, often allowing you to specify how you see the beat falling. Some composers have used this technique to very specifically communicate the feel of the beat they wanted, going so far as to have bars of 1/8 sprinkled through the work, which forces people to hear consecutive downbeats, sort of like you might use if your roommate wouldn't move his feet and you said, "MOVE YOUR FOOT!" (where each word is a downbeat)

Check out Aaron Edgar's video on Composite Time Signatures. He has some other videos in this series that reference Meshuggah specifically.

Polyrhythm is a little deeper than just moving the beat around. What this is really about is hearing more than one pulse at a time. This can be done with composite time as you pose in your question, but just adding up the eighth notes so that they add up to something divisible by the second meter is not necessarily enough to create a convincing polyrhythm. Check out Example Five from the previous video to see a polyrhythm over 7/8. This is 3 bars of 7/8 that he makes work out by using dotted quarters on the bass. This might be what you were referencing, if you combine that with two extra quarters to put a punch at the end, which I would notate in 2/4. So you would have 7/8, 7/8, 7/8, 2/4; and you would just write it out that way, with a new time signature introducing bar 4. This does not add up to 32, but it would definitely be a cool polyrhythm grove.

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