Avant Garde: Polymeter

February 16, 2012 — Leave a comment

Today we look at a simple method for adding complexity to your songs. We’re going to play around with the idea of polymeter. Why choose between writing a song in 4/4 or 3/4 when you can do both at once?

THE EXERCISE
There are many ways to write polymeters into your music, but we’ll be focusing on one simple approach in this article. This will get you started and will hopefully lead to some interesting results.

Begin by coming up with a part in 4/4 time. If you’re not sure what this means, just count out “one two three four one two three four” over and over, emphasizing the one. This is the most common time signature found in pop music, so you should be able to feel it out. Now write your part to fit the rhythm. Record that part. I would recommend using a metronome or beat to help you keep time in this exercise.

Your 4/4 part can be a chord progression, a repeating riff, a looped melody, or whatever else you can come up with.

Now it’s time to have some fun. Listen to your first part and write a new part over it. This new part will be in 3/4 time. That means you’ll be counting “one two three one two three”.

One thing you’ll immediately notice is that the two parts will repeat at different rates. Different harmonies and accents will emerge as they play out against one another. As you can see below, it will take three 4/4 measures and four 3/4 measures before they line up again:

Part 1: 1  2  3  4  1  2  3  4  1  2  3  4  1…
Part 2: 1  2  3  1  2  3  1  2  3  1  2  3  1…

Explore a variety of combinations. Try the exercise first with a 4/4 drum beat and then with a 3/4 drum beat. Play chord progressions in both. Play a chord progression in one and a melody in the other. Play looped melodies in both. Have fun with it.

TAKE THINGS TO THE NEXT LEVEL

Of course, sticking with 3/4 and 4/4 is only the beginning. Try different combinations if you’re in an experimental mood. And if you really want to go crazy, why not throw in a third part in 5/4?

Part 1: 1  2  3  4  1  2  3  4  1  2  3  4  1  2  3  4  1  2  3  4  1  2  3  4  1  2  3   …
Part 2: 1  2  3  1  2  3  1  2  3  1  2  3  1  2  3  1  2  3  1  2  3  1  2  3  1  2  3   …
Part 3: 1  2  3  4  5  1  2  3  4  5  1  2  3  4  5  1  2  3  4  5  1  2  3  4  5  1  2  …

As you can see, it’s going to take a while before they all line up again! (Fifteen 4/4 measures, twenty 3/4 measures, and twelve 5/4 measures, to be precise).

I encourage you to submit your polymetric results to help break the rest of us out of the 4/4 straightjacket we spend most of our time in.

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