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What Is the Hemiola Effect?

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If you’ve spent a bit of time learning about rhythm patterns and how to compose or arrange in different time signatures, at some point you have probably come across the term hemiola. Hemiola is a unique-sounding technique than can give any rhythm a syncopated, off-the-beat feel.

In fact, when used correctly, it brings a desired effect to the music that the rhythmic pulse is deviating between duple and triple meter, moving forwards and backwards at the same time, syncopating to activate your dance muscles.

But what exactly is hemiola, and how do you use it in a musical sentence?

The word “hemiola” originates from the Greek words “hemi,” meaning half, and “holos,” meaning whole. In other words, one and a half. And so, a hemiola is a rhythmic pattern that uses a ratio of three to two, and the Greeks, ever concerned with ratios, noticed that three divided by two gives you one and a half, thus their description “hemiola.”

So what does this look like more concretely? There are two types of hemiolas for us to investigate: vertical and horizontal.

Vertical hemiola simply means that the rhythm of three and the rhythm of two are being played simultaneously, or on top of each other (thus vertical). The simplest way of representing this in musical notation is in 6/8 time, with a pattern of three quarter notes per bar played at the same time as a pattern of two dotted quarter notes.

A great example of this is in Maurice Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major, right at the beginning of the second movement (which starts at 7:41 in the below video). In the second measure, the second violin and viola continue their eighth-note pattern grouped in threes, while the first violin plays descending quarter notes, essentially groups of two eighth notes.

The way that these parts play off of each other create a lively, bouncy feel that combines perfectly with the pizzicato strings.

Though it can take some practice to learn how to play, vertical hemiola can spice up your music by forcing the listener to feel the beat in two time signatures at once. Additionally, hemiolas of this sort can act as a sort of syncopation, with one rhythm emphasizing the off-beats of the other. For both of these reasons, hemiola can be found in a variety of indigenous musical traditions, particularly in Africa and the Balkans.

In fact, the 3:2 rhythmic cell is at the base of so much sub-Saharan and West African polyrhythmic and cross-rhythmic grooves, which can extrapolate out in a dazzling array of variations once the pulse has been established.

Horizontal hemiola, on the other hand, is when the patterns of three and two happen not simultaneously but unfold across time. This can be as simple as taking the two lines and putting them next to each other rather than on top of each other (like in the vertical arrangement). For example:

Other examples of horizontal hemiola, particularly in classical music, act as momentary, unwritten changes in time signature. If you have a piece written in a 3/4 time signature, having half notes play over two bars can create an interesting effect that will draw in the listener.

One such example of horizontal hemiola that follows a similar design appears in George Frideric Handel’s iconic “Alla Hornpipe” from his Water Music Suite No. 2. In the video below, the hemiola occurs about 13 seconds in. It’s easiest to notice this happening in the harmony voices, which switch from a 3 feel to a 4 feel, with quarter notes being momentarily grouped in sets of four and groups spreading across the bar line. Without changing time signatures, the pulse of the music momentarily changes, resulting in a perfect example of horizontal hemiola.

But perhaps the most commonly popularized use of the horizontal hemiola pattern is found in Leonard Bernstein’s “America” from his brilliant West Side Story musical. The following Latin-music-inspired motif is so clearly supplanted as the foundation of this song’s structure, it’s almost impossible to hear the horizontal hemiola without thinking of it. Here, the effect of modulating between duple and triple meter feels particularly strong.

Check out Soundfly’s free course made in partnership with Carnegie Hall, The West Side Story Companion, to learn more about the history of this work and what makes it so unique.

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Brant Wilson
Brant Wilson

Brant Wilson is an amateur musician and student based out of Indianapolis, Indiana with a special love for classical music and a goal to learn to play as many instruments as possible.