Tuplets and polyrhythms

A section of John Cage's "Living Room Music" which features quintuplets

How do I do this accurately at a slow tempo?

5 for 4 over a full bar of 4/4 at quarter=60? How do you do anything but fake that? All it takes is a little math! Slow tuplets can be a real killer, and if you try to perform them like you would an eighth note triplet (probably by feel), you’ll be all over the place. The least common multiple is your friend! In the case of our example (from John Cage’s Living Room Music, if you’re playing along at home), that would be 5×4 = 20. This number is the number of even pulses the bar is divided into that can accomodate both the quintuplet and the normal quarter note pulses. We could also have come to this from another angle: if the rules and standards of notation are preserved (tuplets over 3 beats need to have dots. Very few composers follow this standard; Carter does), tuplet notes will subdivide just like normal ones. This means a quintuplet quarter note split into 4 will yield 4 quintuplet sixteenth notes, just like its non-tupleted cousin will split into 4 normal sixteenths. Each normal quarter note in the bar could be divided into 5 quintuplet sixteenths. Either way we get there, 5×4 or 4×5 results in 20 quintuplet sixteenths, four of which add up to a quintuplet quarter. Knowing this, we can re-notate the rhythm as follows.

The quintuplets renotated

First the pulse, subdivided by accents, then written with ties

Now instead of a mysterious 5 floating somewhere in the bar we have attacks in relationship to the quarter note pulse, easily realized with a facility in subdivision. The purely mechanical accuracy of this method is, in many cases, only a first step; ideally, a tuplet like this should be realized without the syncopation accents implied by the re-notation. When you know exactly where each note lands in relation to the regular pulse of the piece, you can perform the tuplet smoothly, knowing proper points of reference throughout.

Any interaction of pulses can be rationalized in this manner – a more complicated example yielding a similar method: 5 for 3 over 3/32 in Aaron Cassidy’s I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips. We can use our knowledge of the standards of tuplet notation to find how the pulses interact. First, we can imagine each iteration of the the 5 over 6 to have dots, which would make the first note of the quintuplet 9 pulses long, and the second note 6 pulses long. This 15 part division of the bar is in fact the LCM, allowing us to easily place the 32nd note every 5 pulses (15/3) and the 32nd note of the quintuplet on the 10th iteration of this pulse, leaving us with attacks on iterations 1, 6, 10 and 11 of a 3/32 measure hypothetically subdivided by 15 128th note quintuplets!

The same method can be used in the abstract to learn a polyrhythm. What does 5 over 3 in general sound like? Find the LCM (15), write out the digits 0 – 14 on a piece of paper, and circle every multiple of 3 and put a square around every multiple of 5. Following the numbers as a regular pulse, tap both hands at 0, the left at circled numbers and the right at numbers with a square. Voila, 5 over 3, mathematically done! Practice feeling each number as the ‘main pulse’, and each as the ‘cross rhythm’.

Two ways of feeling a 5:3 polyrhythm

Two ways of feeling a 5:3 polyrhythm

Generally, feeling the higher prime as a pulse will be easier, as it will feel subdivided by a lower prime. Take the above example: the 5/4 measure requires accurate placement of only triplets, while the 3/4 measure would require quintuplet level accuracy. An ability to shift between the two feels can help with accurate performances of polyrhythms and tuplets.

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1 comment

  1. Jeff! This showed up on the first page of a Google search I did for 5 vs. 6!