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My understand is that syncopation works in the same time signature, but polyrhythm introduces a new time signature.

For example:

Syncopation would be when a piece is in 4/4 and the lead soloist accents the 1 of 4, while the drummer accents the 2 of 4 and the bass player the 3 of 4. The result is effectively 3 different 4/4 rhythms interlocked with each other. The music over-all has a staggered but forward moving, easily discernible 4/4 pulse, making syncopated music very suitable for use as modern popular dance music.

Polyrhythm would be when the lead soloist is playing in standard 4/4 while the drummer is playing in 5/4 and the bass player is playing 7/4. The result is a staggered, often supspended and only vaguely forward motion - much more difficult to follow than syncopation, because of the assymetrical nature of the rythmic structure. Only a very talented dancer could successfully dance to polyrhythmic music.


Is my understanding correct?

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It's a bit simpler than that.

Syncopation is accenting the off beat, especially accenting in between beats. For example, "Superbad" or "Mother Popcorn" by James Brown. A single rhythm can be syncopated. It's just an unusual stress pattern.

Polyrhythm is playing two rhythms at once. For instance, on the piano, playing straight eighth notes (quavers) on the left hand while playing eighth note triplets on the right hand, or "Kashmir" by Led Zeppelin (the drums are playing straight 4/4 but the guitar and bass rhythm is in threes). In this case, at least two rhythms must be present. As you might logically conclude, generally at least one of the rhythms will come across as syncopated, since either the typical stress pattern or one of the other rhythms will seem to be unsyncopated. But both/all rhythms in a polyrhythm could be syncopated.

  • As you might logically conclude, generally at least one of the rhythms will come across as syncopated - Yes. That's one the reasons I asked the question - there is almost invariably some overlap between the two. – Stinkfoot Nov 25 '17 at 21:53
  • @Stinkfoot Yes but it’s one way. Meaning polyrhythm almost guarantees syncopation, but syncopation exists quite frequently without polyrhythm. – Todd Wilcox Nov 25 '17 at 22:02
  • Understood. But there are certainly also situations where syncopation will also result in polyrhythm - the syncopated accents can create a meter of their own. – Stinkfoot Nov 26 '17 at 20:29
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Syncopation isn't essentially a multiple-player thing, though in a band some players may be laying down 'four on the floor' while another plays syncopated rhythms over this steady beat. Easier to illustrate than to explain:

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Polyrhythm is basically what you said. 'Micro polyrhythms' are much more common than whole sections though. Wheras suncopation is ubiquitous in popular music, jazz, ragtime and many other styles of music. Only traditional hymn tunes are free of it (and I'm sure someone will find an example in Hymns Ancient and Modern :-)

  • I understand syncopation doesn't have to use more than one player, I just took what was for me an easy example. Your notated example explains it better. I see my example is not entirely correct - I have to play it out. I play such things all the time but I never tried to categorize them. A couple of weeks ago i answered a question about syncopation and when i started thinking about it, I realized I wasn't sure how to distinguish polyrhythm from syncopation. – Stinkfoot Nov 25 '17 at 2:22
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Syncopation: playing on the offbeat. On the ‘and’ of “1-and-and-3-and-4-and”.

Polyrhythms/cross rhythms: when two lines (either the right and left hands of a piano piece or multiple lines in an orchestral score for example) play with a different “feel” in time signature. One might be playing triplets whilst the other plays straight.

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