Robert Estrin - piano expert

How to play polyrhythms

An easy way to play 3 against 2, 3 against 4... or more!

Would you like to learn how to coordinate left and right hands playing different rhythms? In this video, Robert gives you practical tips with clear examples to accomplish exactly that.

Released on June 5, 2013

Post a Comment   |   Video problems? Contact Us!
DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Welcome, I'm Robert Estrin at with a technique video today. We had a viewer ask about polyrhythms, about 3 against 2, 3 against 4. How do you do these strange rhythms where they're not measured so much. Well, 3 against 2 is a lot easier than 3 against 4. I'm going to start with that and show you how to approach 3 against 2 and then were going to move forward to 3 against 4, which is much more difficult, and I'm going to have select compositions for you to demonstrate. First, the Beethoven Sonata Opus 14 number 2 in G major has a wonderful explosive 3 against 2 section.

That was a little abridged version for you to give you a taste. Now, what is 3 against 2? Well, typically if you have 2 against 4, it's all very even, very easy. One, two, three, four, one, two...anybody can do that. When you have 3 against 2, you wonder how do you do that? Well, it's actually not so hard because if you think of three and two it's actually divisible by six, so you've count up to six. The two comes in on the first and the fourth and the three comes in on the one, three and five. One, two, three, four, five, six, one, two, three, four, five, six, one, two, three, four, five, six. You see how that works? So you can do a 3 against 2 pretty easily because it's actually easy simple math and that's the secret.

One, two, three, one, two, three, one, two, three, one, two, three, four, five, six, one, two, three, four, five, six. If I do it very slowly, it's easier to count but that's a 3 against 2. It's actually measured. Three against four really isn't measured. Before I get to 3 against 4, just in case you didn't catch what I just did, I'm going to show you an easy way to approach 3 against 2. It's basically just together, right, left, right, together, right, left, right. So the right hand is going one, two, three and the left hand is going one, two, one, two. So one, two, three, four, five, six, together, right, left, right. That's the secret of 3 against 2. It's measured. It's precise.

Three against four is a little more complex. Why? Because it's not divisible. It's not simple mathematics. So how do you learn how to get an even 3 against 4? Three against four, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, one, two, three. One, two, three, four, one, two, three, one, two. You get the idea? Now, it is almost together, right, left, right, left, right, together, right, left, right, left, right. But it's not exactly that because it adheres the secret of how to practice these rhythms. If I were to do that together, right, left, right, left, right with the left hand tapping on the piano, together, right, left, right, left, right, together, right, left, right, left, right, the four is perfectly even.

But if I were to reverse that now and do the right hand tapping up here and the left hand, you'll hear that the three is not quite even. Together, right, left, right, left, right. together, right, left, right, left, right. Hear that that's not together. It's not even. It should be. So, by doing one hand when you're playing the piano, one hand on top of the piano and the other hand playing the piano, you can hear the evenness of the rhythm. This is a great technique to develop an even 3 against 4. You can also do that by tapping your hands trying to get two different sounds as I was just doing, playing one on the piano and tapping the other with simple notes like just the three in the left hand and the tapping, and try to make it.

If you do the 3 against 4, the 3 is distorted. So you have to come sooner on the second note and little later on the third note. You end up with this. And that's the way to practice it, and you could do that on a musical context. For example, The Snow Is Dancing of Debussy from the Children's Corner Suite has this beautiful section. So you got a 3 against 4. You got the 4, and the right hand does the 3. So when you practice it, you can play the left hand up here silently and you can hear the rhythm. When you play the half [SP] stick [SP] on the piano, it's so complicated. It's hard to hear it. So this is a great technique for solving not just 3 against 4 but any complex rhythm. I hope this has been helpful for you. I am Robert Estrin here at If you have further questions about how to approach these rhythms or any questions at all, contact me here at the website. Thanks for joining me.
Post a comment, question or special request:
You may: Login  or  
Otherwise, fill the form below to post your comment:
Add your name below:

Add your email below: (to receive replies, will not be displayed or shared)

For verification purposes, please enter the word MUSIC in the field below

Comments, Questions, Requests:

john on May 19, 2020 @1:00 pm PST
I have a question. Have humans evolved to develop a natural ability at simple poly rhythms or is it practice? We can just find the LCM of any two numbers n and m signifying the amount of beats? So 3 against 4 is just as easy if we could easily measure up to 12 beats(3 4beats and 4 3beats). Why is 3/4 actually harder?
Robert - host, on May 19, 2020 @3:48 pm PST
The challenge with 3 against 4 is being able to think or play it fast enough. If you think each subdivision, the tempo will be drastically slow. It's hard to keep those beat subdivisions going in your head at a decent tempo.
Rob on December 27, 2019 @10:48 pm PST
Thanks for the clip! Great stuff!

I came to learn the three over 4 (can be called 1/2 Note Triplets) by learning african and afrocuban music. We tend to think in 12/8, as you were describing (and even in 24/16 on top of 12/8) a lot. I like to teach the 3 over 4 (or the 'big-three' as we sometimes call it) counting in 12/8 starting like
"1 an a 2 an a 3 an a 4 an a" and then picking out the accents of the 3 counter beats from those subdivisions. So, the "big" 3 would be: "ONE (2)AN (3) A(4)"

(with anything in the parentheses as silent beats or as the main beats on the feet or tapping along). Of course it's helpful to silently "hear" the "an" and the "a" that are in the 12/8 pulse but can get in the way if you try to voice or tap them all out, and not as musical as keeping track silently or with body language of the unplayed pulses.
Robert - host, on December 28, 2019 @12:06 pm PST
The natural syncopation of Afro-Cuban rhythms can be quite complex lending themselves well to feeling polyrhythms.
Rob on December 28, 2019 @5:14 pm PST
Absolutely agreed! It is handy to have many ways to feel and approach these polyrhythms. I suggest people interested look into Afro Cuban “Batá” drumming to hear how it uses some of the concepts I’ve mentioned above. After a while it’s entirely possible to hear the polyrhythms from multiple ‘perspectives simultaneously and use the approaches to musical ends.
One thing I found Westerners do sometimes when confronted with these more syncopated concepts is lose track of where the foot-beats are and often let their feet follow the syncopation rather than staying “grounded“ in the beat. So having somewhere in your mind or body to keep that feeling of grounded to the beat is often necessary to keep things cohesive.
AbKam on May 30, 2016 @4:36 am PST
Thanks. I used your method on La Fantaisie-Impromptu Frédéric Chopin in C sharp minor , Opus posthumous 66 . First I set the hands approximately , to gather , right, left ... For the second step it was not easy to play the right hand on the wood to regularize the left hand. I then recorded the only left hand and then I played with both hands accompanied by my record. I made ​​recordings with the metronome in different tempos. And it works!!
Fulvia * VSM MEMBER * on April 21, 2016 @5:20 pm PST
Maybe the most extreme of the polyrythms can be found in Hummel's piano concerto # 3, especially in the second movement. Twice he has 19 notes for the right hand against 4 of the left hand. Being a slow movement and, in my opinion, the most heavenly music, I had to learn it. I found the use of a calculator and a pencil worked nicely to draw lines from the bottom 4 notes to the top notes of spaces. Then for practice, I used your method, one hand at the time, while tapping the other one on the piano. It also helped listening to Steven Hough's recording over and over !
Robert - host, on April 22, 2016 @12:37 pm PST
Writing in the subdivision of irregular rhythms can be very useful. Here is an article and video which explains the process a bit more:
Oluwaseun Collins on April 21, 2016 @12:51 pm PST
Thanks a lot, really helpful.
00slevin * VSM MEMBER * on April 20, 2016 @5:04 pm PST
I ran into the :polyrythym" with Meade Lux Lewis's" Honky Tonky Train Blues." I am self taught and I figured it left right left - then both hands together .. seems to sound ok but is it correct?
Robert - host, on April 21, 2016 @11:12 am PST
It's impossible for me to know if you are playing the rhythm correctly without hearing it. You can check your work by playing one hand on the piano and one hand in your lap listening for evenness. Do the same thing reversing which hand is playing in your lap. If each hand sounds even, you are probably in good shape!
paul.plak * VSM MEMBER * on April 20, 2016 @12:56 pm PST
exactly when I needed it. Thank you very much.
David makori on April 20, 2016 @9:08 am PST
Good job
Virtuoso * VSM MEMBER * on October 26, 2014 @3:09 pm PST
Dear Robert,

Thanks a lot for posting this video. I have just started to work on the Fantasie Impromptu on the piano and was wondering if you could provide me with some tips to help me with the poly rhythms used in the piece. I am able to play each hand separately at their own beat, but I cannot co-ordinate the two hands when I play it. Thank you.
Robert - host, on May 30, 2016 @11:25 am PST
First you should become extremely fluent playing hands separately. Then you can utilize the techniques described above including playing hands together with one hand playing silently on top of the piano or in your lap. Then reverse which hand is playing silently. This will enable you to hear the evenness of your playing.
Patsy L.Free on June 6, 2013 @5:58 pm PST
I have trouble reading the notes above and below the lines (ledger notes) Any suggestions on how to automatically recognize them as easily as the notes on the lines.
Robert - host, on June 7, 2013 @7:49 pm PST
If you practice reading those notes you will become fluent with them eventually. Be sure to never write in the names of the notes or you will never learn them!
Questions? Problems? Contact Us.