The Hemiola and Other Improvisational Techniques

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Bad news: the Doc says I have a “hemiola!”  “Wow – that sounds serious!!!”

I’m often amazed at the “deer in the headlights” syndrome that I get when I ask some students if they know what a ‘hemiola’ is. Now it is a weird term and albeit does sound like a rare medical condition.  Yet it’s a very easy musical concept to master and will prove to be extremely valuable to any musician whether you are aspiring to be a great improviser or just a better all-around player.  In fact even though you may not have a clue what it is, I would almost 100% guarantee that you’ve played one multiple times.  You just didn’t know that there was a name for it.

So let me grab my trusty ‘ole Hal Leonard Pocket Music Dictionary that I bought wayyyy back in the day when I was in college. According to this, the definition of a hemiola is as follows:  “The rhythmic relation of three notes in the time of two.”  It uses this illustration as a basic example:

Thus, we basically have the equivalent of three half notes that span over the time of 2 full bars.  You could also think of this as 3:2 (three over two) which many refer to as a polyrhythm.  This can also be switched around as well into a 2:3 (two over three) pattern.  Either way the basic concept is that you are hinting at a different time signature or different meter without actually going into a different time.  This has been a time tested technique for improvisers for a long, long time.  Even Mozart used the technique and multiple others before him.

Another way to think about this is to use the term: “over the bar.”  You’ve probably heard this at one time or another.  As drummers/percussionists it’s a very important concept to learn because it increases your musical vocabulary and allows you to think of musical phrases as opposed to just pre-rehearsed patterns.  Basically when you are improvising, you need to think of it as having a conversation.  If you don’t have a very broad vocabulary, your conversation is going to be pretty short and boring and/or repetitive.  Even though, at times, a short and easy conversation is needed and maybe warranted, overall you need to be able to have “something to say” musically speaking every time you play.  Utilizing the hemiola and integrating it and variations into your musical vocabulary should be a necessary goal in your next practice session!

Further, if you look up the term hemiola in Wikipedia there’s a great explanation (I think) that expands the definition a bit more.  It states:  “The term ‘hemiola’ could also be applied to patterns that are repeated, outside of the agogic stress of the written meter, creating either a temporary feeling of a meter change or one meter over another. This could be a 5-quarter-note ostinato, in a common-time piece, or any compound meter superimposed over a even one.”  So now we can start collecting some similar musical terms under the same umbrella, all of which bring about a very similar result: hemiola, polyrhythm, ostinato and others that hint at a metric modulation (skipping into a new time signature based upon a previous pattern).  Note the newest term “ostinato” (one of my favorites) which is basically a repeated pattern, motif, or melody that acts as sort of a ‘drone.’  Terry Bozzio is the master of the ostinato, for sure.  Just go check out any of his DVDs or some YouTube videos and watch what he does with them.  He will play a pattern with one of his hands or feet and use the remaining limbs to solo/produce melodies over the top.  This is just one example of what you can do with the ostinato.

Let’s consider some practical applications for these techniques.  The following simple pattern is one that we’ve all most likely played at one time or another.  Note how although it is a repeated pattern, it goes “over the barline” and gives a sense of being in a different time signature, although you clearly are not.

Another term that is very similar to a hemiola is known as a “teehai” which is an Indian musical term.  I surely do not consider myself an expert on Indian music and their complex rhythmical system but I definitely encourage everyone to look a little closer into their rich musical traditions.  It is amazing what just a little bit of insight into their phrasing can do to expand your musical vocabulary.  Percussionist Pete Lockett has some great information out there and he’s an amazing player to boot.  I highly recommend that you check him out!  The teehai is a rhythmic concept that has been employed by jazz drummers for quite some time now. The basic idea is that you have a three note grouping (like a hemiola) but it always ends on beat one of the next measure.  Here’s an example – note that the accents highlight the three groupings of five which of course end on count one of the following measure:

Ultimately what I’m attempting here is to jam about three textbooks worth of concepts into one small blog!  The possibilities become endless when you explore these afore mentioned musical concepts.  I think it’s more than worth your time; rather it should be an imperative  that any student of music begin to explore these ideas.  I’ve never heard a great improviser who wasn’t first a great musician!  A great musician understands the need for not only breath and silence, but also the ability to weave complex rhythms and melodic ideas into interesting phrases and motifs.  One of my favorite musical quotes comes from Wayne Shorter, who said “Improvising is composing fast and composing is improvising slow.”  That’s exactly what we’re doing when improvising – composing!  Many times people forget that.  Students forget that – they sometimes get too involved in techniques and learning predisposed patterns.  Get your mechanics together but also get your mind into a different place musically where you begin to allow melodies to flow.  Then let these ideas transfer into what you are playing and you’ll find that your playing becomes less “vanilla” and a little more exciting!

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