Avant Garde: Polymeter

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.

How to Borrow Rhythmic Phrasing

Many young musicians (and perhaps old ones as well) believe that an original artist is one who creates without influence. I will admit to having held such beliefs myself in my late teens. This absurd idea is built on the assumption that an artist can create without influence. But try as you might, you will fail (unless you use techniques to make your compositions truly random, but then this has already been done as well!). The mind of a musician, whether consciously or unconsciously, is constantly rearranging materials that are already out there. That brilliant melody that appeared to you as if by magic? It was almost certainly a result of this process. This is not a bad thing; it doesn’t make you a hack. The line between originality and unoriginality is in fact drawn in much more subtle ways than the question of influence. It is how you borrow that matters. Did you transform those materials into something new? This, I’m suggesting, is the important question, and the only one that makes sense.

So if we’re already borrowing and working on the musical ideas of other people anyway, why not do it self-consciously as well? That’s what this series is about, getting you to build on one (and only one) element from a song you love and place it in a different context. If you put in a little effort, your result will never remind anyone of the song you borrowed from. It will be as new and original as a song can be.

I want to start with a method that might initially strike you as unoriginal and derivative. But just try it out and see what happens. There’s no harm in singing something to yourself.

THE EXERCISE
Choose a melody that you love. Now start singing the melody over and over, and as you do, tap your finger along with every note. What you’re doing is working out the rhythmic phrasing of the melody. Once you’ve got it, stop singing and just continue tapping. That’s the pure rhythmic content of the melody, and that’s what you’re going to work from.

Now try to sing some completely different notes to that same rhythm. Particularly at first, focus on keeping your melody as different from the original as possible. Keep going until you get something you like.

As your new melody comes to life, play around with changing the rhythm in subtle ways to better suit your idea. You’ll probably find that you can consciously start sculpting it into something new. In fact, you may have naturally done this as you formed your melody. This is because each melody has its own demands, so to speak.

If you’ve followed these instructions, then you’ve just created something new out of pre-existing materials. And that’s what I mean by the art of borrowing.

WHY DOES THIS WORK?
The rhythmic phrasing of a melody is an important part of its overall feel, and sense of unity and drive. One of the weaknesses of melodies written by beginners is that they lack rhythmic sophistication. If you borrow the phrasing from a melody you love, then you know you’ll be working from a strong basis.

Now pick up your guitar, play some chords, and write a new melody using the same rhythm. One interesting exercise would be to see how many different songs you can generate from the same rhythmic material.

BUT AREN’T I A THIEF NOW?
In case you’re starting to feel guilty, how about this for a bit of interesting trivia. Music historian Spencer Leigh discovered that Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” is almost identical to an earlier hit, “Answer Me” by Frankie Lane, in terms of its rhythmic phrasing (see his Brother, Can You Spare a Rhyme?). Beginning from the word “yesterday” in both songs, you’ll find identical phrasing up until the last “erday” in McCartney’s version.  [It’s my personal opinion that if we had diligent scholars working overtime, we’d find endless examples of this kind of overlap.]

Now I don’t know about you, but if it weren’t for the fact that the songs share some lyrical phrases, I don’t think anyone would associate them.  Rhythmic phrasing is only one musical element among many; it is only in the context of the whole that any one element takes on its sound and meaning.

You might still be worried that your song is too similar to the original.  That’s good, and it’s a good reason to use an exercise like this as a jumping off point.  Don’t ultimately use the same rhythmic phrasing verbatim.  Mix it up a little as your new melody develops, just as I’ve described above.

If you come up with something you like, be sure to submit it as an example for the rest of us.

Next: How to Borrow from Folk Songs