Today I would like to talk about polyrhythms. The definition of a polyrhythm is this: A polyrhythm, also called ‘Cross-rhythm’ is the simultaneous combination of contrasting rhythms in a musical composition. Rhythmic conflicts, or cross-rhythms, may occur within a single metre (e.g., two eighth notes against triplet eighths) or may be reinforced by simultaneous combinations of conflicting metres. Simply put, a polyrhythm is more than one type of rhythm that is played at the same time, with each rhythm containing a different subdivision.
One of my favorite modern composers, Nine Inch Nails front man Trent Reznor uses polyrhythms frequently. One notable appearance is in the song “La Mer” from the album The Fragile. The piano holds a 3/4 riff while the drums and bass back it with a standard 4/4 signature. It’s genius.
He also uses a moody, polyrhythmic composition for “The Lovers,” off the Add Violence EP which began with a combination of idiosyncratic drum and synth loops.
Perhaps the most famous song is “Piggy” from The Downward Spiral which features a polyrhythmic drum solo with beats wildly falling inside and outside the song’s meter. It was played by Reznor himself, originally just as a placeholder.
Hesitation Marks’ “I Would For You,” “Copy of a” and the sci-fi flavored “Running” are all driven by rolling techno polyrhythms. NME critic Louis Pattison recognized this and stated: “This is the sound of a cleaner, smoother Nine Inch Nails, one that delights in complexities of rhythm more than caustic blasts of rage.”