Piano music - Canon in D

Learn to play piano music with polyrhythmic phrases by developing a sense of tone through listening, absorbing the rhythm and practicing in small sections

The process involved in learning a new piano song is a slow one. More so when it consists of polyrhythmic phrases. It is with such phrases do I find myself struggling. As the term suggests ‘polyrhythm’ means; well… many rhythms. Hmm…not much of an explanation eh…? 


  • What? - Polyrhythm
  • Why? - Differing tempo and beat
  • How? - Absorb, divide and conquer

Maybe by looking at the phrase in Image 1, an excerpt from Scriabin's Etude Op.8 No.4 below can help with understanding the definition.

There are groups of 5 beats of notes that are to be played in the treble clef by the right hand, while there are groups of 3 beats of notes that are to be played in the bass clef by the left hand.

The challenges of polyrhythmic
phrases in piano music


Performing such a phrase on the piano is challenging because of the coordination needed from the right hand and the left hand which are each executing a unique set of rhythm with a dissimilar tempo.

Although not indicated in Image 1 they are each quintuplets and triplets. The right hand shall be attempting to complete a group of notes made up of 5 beats of semiquavers in one crotchet beat. While the left hand shall be attempting to complete a group of notes consisting of 3 beats of quavers in one crotchet beat - polyrhythm.

Therefore, the two hands shall be moving at different speeds from one another, not to mention all the fingers involved in landing on the keys accurately too.

From my point of view, there are 2 tasks I need to get done for me to render the phrase in Image 1 satisfactorily. The first task is to absorb the rhythm. The rhythm in the right-hand notes and the left-hand notes differ, therefore I shall have to do it separately one hand at a time. There is then the matter of reproducing the rhythm accurately, while staying true to each of their artistic image, mood and intent. Elements that are mostly influenced by tone. If I can coax the proper tone out of the piano I would not be far off.

A full cantabile is the tone the phrase in Image 1 demands. A good sense of tone is developed through hearing, after which you can make use of your other skills already in possession to reproduce them on the piano. Judgment is finally called upon to decide if whatever sound you are making is acceptable music. I have made a habit of attending live orchestra performance to develop my sense of tone and musical judgement. At an orchestra, I could listen to violinists and cellists who have perfected their mastery of cantilena and are proficient in extracting the full cantabile quality. Cantilena is Italian meaning a vocal melody or instrumental passage in a smooth lyrical style.

Untying the knots of
polyrhythmia in piano music

With impeccable sense of tone developed and those of the polyrhythmic phrase in Image 1 duly absorbed, one can delve into the second task at hand in the pursuit of executing it with excellence. Whenever a task is too big, break it into smaller manageable sections. If a word with the prefix “poly” has anything to do with the task, it is a big one. Therefore, break the phrase into smaller, shorter sections which also means to practice the tiny sections one hand at a time separately.

Since they will be moving at different tempos, to get the right-hand and left-hand coordination assimilated into a harmonious pitter-patter over the keys of the piano, play the right hand alternately with the left hand. For example, play the right hand twice followed by the left hand twice. Several more times if deemed necessary. Eventually the 2 unique rhythms each played by the right hand and the left hand will symphonize into one harmonious polyrhythmic phrase when played with both hands together.

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