Just what is a hemiola? In music the word “hemiola” refers to simple rhythmic patterns where three beats are played in the time of two, or two beats are played in the time of three. This has the effect of sounding like a shift between triple and duple meters, usually for a short period.
Consider the following example. Notice how the first three bars sound like the typical 6/8, while the fourth bar shifts accents to sound like a bar of 3/4 time.
A student once asked, “Could the time signature be in 6/8, while the rhythmic make-up sounded continually like 3/4?”
The answer is no. The time signature should be written 3/4 instead of 6/8 because a hemiola is typically for a very short period, providing a change in the sound of the pulse within a bar or two.
In European classical music hemiolas can often be heard in the work of Brahms, among others. And you can clearly hear them in the tune, “America,” from West Side Storyby Leonard Bernstein. When it comes to drumming, the following exercises will develop the basic coordination required for playing three-against-two and two-against-three.
Try applying that coordination at the drum set. If you’re playing rock in 4/4 time, play three bars of basic time, then one bar of three-against-two, as seen in the following exercise.
Now play three bars of a 6/8 feel, then one bar including two-against-three hemiolas.
For added practice play the snare part instead with the bass or hi-hat. Or you can divide the snare part by alternating it between the bass, snare, and hi-hat while maintaining the cymbal part as written. Taking it a step further, hemiolas don’t have to be 3:2 or 2:3; they could be 5:4 or 4:5 or any other superimposed rhythmic grouping. Explore the added value that hemiolas can bring to your playing by exploring more possibilities on your own. Good luck!
Joel Rothman is one of the foremost writers and publishers of drum and percussion books used worldwide. He also writes humor book for children as well as adults. Although a New Yorker, he resides in London with his English wife, where he continues to teach, write, and publish books, including his most recent title, Just Rhythm. Visit his website at joelrothman.com to view all of his publications or contact Joel directly at email@example.com.