How to Use Polyrhythms in Electronic Dance Music

May 14, 2014

I’ve always been fascinated by the intelligent use of polyrhythms in dance music. Some artists, most notably Deadmau5, Matt Lange, and BT, have dabbled with them over the years, but I’m honestly surprised that it’s not more common. So this year, I made a resolution: Release tunes where some tracks superimpose unusual time signatures or odd phrase lengths on what’s foundationally a 4/4 dance floor groove.

The easiest way to incorporate polyrhythms is to apply them subtly to percussion elements that don’t have a lot of pitch content. This way, you don’t have to worry about any unpleasant key clashes as multiple elements cycle and recombine. It also keeps the groove subliminally interesting in the same way that complex automation and editing can work, but with a lot less effort.

Example 1


For example, on my upcoming remix for Bright Light Social Hour’s new single “Infinite Cities,” I wanted to keep the sixteenth-note hi-hat pattern interesting in a subtle way. First, I composed it in 4/4, using four different hat sounds to create a rhythm that wasn’t static in the way that just repeating the same hat over and over.

Example 2


From there, I transformed it into a loop in 7/8 time, by simply changing Live’s clip loop positions so that the final eighth-note was excluded. The result is a constantly evolving top part that involves the ear without dominating the overall rhythm awkwardly. Working with multiple time signatures can get messy very quickly if you aren’t careful. Of course, the song is in a single time signature (4/4), and on score paper the hi-hat loop would be notated appropriately, i.e., as a recurring seven-note phrase that plays across bar lines. However, dance music producers tend to think of parts in an arrangement as independent “objects” with their own “properties,” so treating the loop as “its own thing in 7/8,” while technically less than correct, is more intuitive.

Example 3


Once you’ve got the hang of mixing time signatures, it’s time to experiment with melodies. Dance music rarely strays from simple keys and modes, so with a little planning you can create cycling polyrhythms that don’t step on each other. For my latest track “GUPC,” I took a simple two-chord progression, then looped the lead riff over it in 7/4 (basically, a two-bar loop with the last quarter-note cut out). The result is a lead that is constantly changing in melodic relationship to the underlying progression—and a track that got the attention of one of the hottest trance duos in today’s scene.

With those techniques under my belt, I plan to incorporate more sophisticated polyrhythmic elements into upcoming tracks. It’s a new way of thinking in the context of EDM, but for me, the results are well worth it.

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