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Hemiola: Definition, Rhythm & Examples

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  • 0:00 What Is a Hemiola?
  • 0:38 Types of Rhythmic Hemiola
  • 2:58 Examples of Hemiola
  • 3:43 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Chris Chouiniere

Chris has taught music and has a master's degree in music education.

This lesson will focus on the hemiola, which is a type of musical pattern. We'll learn about the two different types of rhythmic hemiolas, identify some examples in European and non-Western music, and even have some fun performing our own.

What is Hemiola?

Hemiola is a melodic or rhythmic musical pattern. While not as frequently discussed, melodic hemiola is the difference between two strings that cause a perfect fifth. There are two types of rhythmic hemiolas: horizontal hemiola, which is a singular rhythmic pattern, and vertical hemiola, where multiple rhythms are performed together. In the European classical tradition, rhythmic hemiolas can be found in the work of 15th century composers, especially Brahms and Dufay. In non-Western music, hemiolas can be heard in the music of Africa and the Middle East.

Types of Rhythmic Hemiola

Let's take a closer look at the two types of rhythmic hemiolas, horizontal and vertical. In European classical music, horizontal hemiola refers to a subdivision of the beat that differs from the time signature. In simple time signatures, the musical notes are subdivided by two. For example, the whole note is divided into two half notes, the half note into quarter notes, and so on. In compound time signatures, the subdivision of the beat is divisible by three counts. In a horizontal hemiola, the notes are not part of the beat subdivision.

Vertical hemiolas can be confusing because of the multiple rhythmic parts being performed. The most common vertical hemiola is the 3:2 pattern in which two beats take as long to complete as three beats, or three beats take as little time to complete as two beats. This causes the pulse of the music to be slightly blurred. Other common vertical hemiola patterns include 4:3 and 5:4. Each of these patterns is associated with a mnemonic device that can help you perform the rhythms.

For the following examples, let's assign the right hand to the top number and the left hand to the bottom number, though you could do it either way.

Pattern 3:2: Think of the beginning of Carol of the Bells or 'ring ding a ling'.

  • Clap both hands together on 'ring'
  • Tap the right hand on 'ding'
  • Tap the left hand on 'a'
  • Tap the right hand on 'ling'

Listen to how the rhythm follows this pattern: 'Ring ding a ling.' 'Ring ding a ling.' 'Ring ding a ling.' 'Ring ding a ling.'

Pattern 4:3: 'Pass the bread and butter.' This one get's a bit weird because we need to break up the word butter into 'but' and 'ter'.

  • Clap both hands on 'Pass'
  • Tap the right hand on 'the', 'and', and 'ter'
  • Tap the left hand on 'bread' and 'but'

Pattern 5:4: 'This isn't very hard at all.' As we did in the previous 4:3 pattern, we need to break up 'isn't' into 'is' and 'n't' and break up 'very' into 've' and 'ry'. Here we go:

  • Clap both hands together on 'this'
  • Tap the right hand on 'is', 've', 'hard', and 'all'
  • Tap the left hand on 'n't', 'ry', and 'at'

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