I've linked below to the song by Meshuggah, "Break those bones who sinews gave it motion".

What is the rhythmic technique/grouping that the drums and distorted guitar are using from 0:29 to 1:01 of this song? The meter is 4/4, and this meter is established by the intro guitar riff from 0:00 to 0:28. But at 0:29, the drums and second guitar begin playing a figure that doesn't seem like it's in 4/4 time. This would suggest that the figure is some sort of polymeter, but it doesn't seem to ever sync back up with the 4/4 time. If it's not a polymeter, then what is the rhythmic nature of this figure occurring from 0:29 to 1:01?

  • The tempo (as defined by the 16thi notes, if you think the intro is in 4/4) is rock steady for most of the time. Just transcribe the rhythms and then see where you think the "beats" and "bars" should to go. There is no "rule" that says music "must" have a simple time signature like 4/4. Some Indian classical music uses perfectly regular rhythms with more than 100 beats to the bar! – user19146 Jul 4 '17 at 12:06
  • @Charlie, I think there's an interesting question here & a way to ask it so it's on topic. I think this phrasing would do the trick: "What is the technique that the drums and distorted guitar are using from 0:30 to 1:00 of this song? The meter is 4/4, and this meter is established by the intro guitar riff from 0:00 to 0:30. But at 0:30, the drums and second guitarist begin playing a figure that doesn't seem like it's in 4/4 time. The figure also doesn't seem to ever sync back up with the 4/4 time. How would music theory describe the rhythmic nature of this figure occurring from 0:30 to 1:00?" – jdjazz Jul 5 '17 at 23:31
  • @Charlie, in addition, I think the new title would be something along the lines of "Trying to understand a non-standard polymeter." If you're amenable to making these edits (while keeping the video link there--that helped a lot), I think it would be a valuable question and good addition to the site. There aren't many questions on rhythmic analysis, and phrasing it that way would make it a searchable topic that other users certainly could benefit from coming across. – jdjazz Jul 5 '17 at 23:34

You're right that this is a polymeter-like figure, but there are some important deviations from traditional polymeters. I'll try to explain the ways it deviates from typical polymeters and some of the effects this has. In particular, the polymeter-like figure in Meshuggah's song is made more complex by three factors: (1) it is played on the drums (among other instruments), (2) the eighth note groupings are highly complex, (3) the polymeter repeats over a 6-bar phrase.

The instrumentation is worth mentioning because of the impact this has on the listener's focus or attention. It appears that there are more instruments playing the polymeter figure than emphasizing the 4/4 time. Moreover, the drummer is playing the polymeter, which continually draws the ear toward that polymeter beat and pulls the listener away from the natural metric accents and divisions of the 4/4 time. Given how many rhythm section instruments are playing the polymeter, that pull is quite strong. But the first guitar from the intro continues to play the 4/4 lick, thereby keeping the song rooted in the 4/4 structure. Continuing the 4/4 time (instead of abandoning it altogether) emphasizes the unnatural-sounding nature of the polymeter and obfuscating the 4/4 rhythm in a more exaggerated way that may not be typical of most polymeters (depending on genre). The listener can't simply adjust his/her ears to the polymeter and establish that as the rhythmic structure. Rather, the listener continues to try to fit the polymeter into a 4/4 time signature, but is perpetually unable to because of the polymeter's complex rhythmic structure. In addition, it might be easier to hear the polymeter if there were a stronger 4/4 beat with more emphasis on the 1 and 3, but this strong 4/4 beat isn't given in the song, which makes it harder (when listening) to identify where the polymeter lines up against the 4/4 time.

In addition to this first feature (i.e., the way the polymeter is distributed across the instrumentation), there's a second really crucial feature: instead of a simple 3-3-2 eighth-note pattern that fits within a single bar of 4/4 time, this song is based on a 3-3-5 eighth-note pattern which necessarily spills over the barline and restarts on different beats. The best way to show this is by highlighting the groupings in a transcription. I've emphasized the 3-3-5 groupings with the colored brackets. The top staff shows the guitar line, and the bottom staff is just a simpler rhythmic representation, which shows the first beat of each 3-3-5 grouping. Each time the 3-3-5 pattern repeats, the color of the bracket changes. This is hopefully a useful way to visualize the pattern spilling over and starting in different places of the 4/4 measures.

enter image description here (Please pardon the non-standard way I've grouped eighth notes--I've tried to draw the beams so that they connect the groups of 3 and 5.)

As I mentioned above, the 3-3-5 grouping doesn't fit within a single measure (it contains more than 8 eighth notes), and so it necessarily restarts at different places. The first 3-3-5 pattern starts on beat 2 (see measure 1). The second 3-3-5 pattern starts on the upbeat of beat 3 (see measure 2). The third 3-3-5 pattern starts on beat 1 (see measure 4). This destabilizes the 4/4 meter that was previously established by the intro guitar.

So far I've described features 1 and 2, which complicate the rhythmic structure of this polymeter-like figure. As if that weren't enough, there's a third thing to point out. The polymeter repeats over a 6-bar phrase, which has two important consequences. The first consequence of the 6-bar phrase is that the 3-3-5 polymeter isn't perfectly continuous. Typical polymeters simply repeat perpetually without any interruption or break in the core pattern/structure. But during the fourth repetition of this polymeter (half way through bar 5, where the 3-3-5 group starts for the fourth time), there is an interruption after the initial 3-3 grouping. Maybe this fourth and final iteration of the pattern could be called a 3-3-6-3 grouping, where the '6' represents the first 6 notes of the bar 6 lick. If we use this description, the full 6-bar polymeter-like phrase would be:


The second consequence of the 6-bar phrase is that the polymeter does not repeat in sycn with the 4/4 guitar. The polymeter repeats for the first time after bar 6, when the 4/4 guitar is exactly halfway through his 4-bar riff. This places the polymeter squarely in contrast with the normal Western tradition of using 4-bar phrases, 8-bar phrases, 12-bar phrases, etc. when composing in 4/4 time. I've put a double bar after measure six where you'll see the whole 6-bar phrase repeat a second time. So whereas most simple polymeters sync back up with the rest of the band over relatively short periods of time, it takes 12 measures for the intro guitar's 4/4 lick and the 6-bar polymeter to line back up and begin together.

So I think it's fair to say that there is a 6-bar phrase that uses a 3-3-5 polymeter, but the 6-bar phrase probably can't be called a polymeter outright. There are some interesting rhythmic techniques worth studying in this piece!

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