Hemiola Explained

Exploring Polyrhythms: What Hemiola Is and Famous Examples

Hemiola is a rhythmic device in music theory where 2 notes occupy the space where 3 would normally be.

Hemiola usually lasts for a couple of bars, sometimes even the entire piece or song.

You can also think of hemiola as being one time signature implied over top of another.

How the Ratio is Determined

Some argue that hemiola is only 2 over 3 or 3 over 2, while others believe the device can mean other ratios, like 6/4, 5/4, and 4/3.

Please listen to the examples here below:

3 Over 2 Hemiola

3 Over 2 Hemiola on guitar

4 Over 3 Hemiola

4 Over 3 Hemiola on guitar

As time has gone on, the term hemiola has become a blanket term for when any time signature is implied over another.

Many jazz cats refer to hemiola as such, but many classical players still tend to think of it as being 3/2 or 2/3.

In this article, I will mainly focus on:

  • Duple : Triple hemiolas
  • Triple : Duple hemiolas

How the Ratio is Determined

In hemiola, the top number of the ratio is the main beat.

For example, if we were inside a 6/8 time and the first bar kept the original feeling, and the second bar implied a feeling of two, then the ratio would be 3/2.

Avoiding (Linguisitic) Confusion

The term hemiola has existed since the 1500s.

In the past, we used the word to represent both rhythmic ratios and intervals.

Oxford Dictionary has two meanings for the word even still. A ratio for pitch and a ratio for rhythm.

So hemiola can be used to reference polyrhythm/hemiola and “a perfect fifth.”

So, if you research hemiola on your own, keep in mind that many of the examples of early pieces with ‘hemiola’ simply mean that they lean into the interval of a fifth.

This somewhat confusing term was created for good reason, though.

Hemiola quite literally means a perfect one-and-a-half ratio, like 3/2 and IVI. The word hemi means half, and holos means whole or complete.

Main Types of Hemiola

The two main categories of hemiola you’ll see are vertical and horizontal hemiolas.

Horizontal Hemiola

In horizontal hemiola, you will feel the time change across the piece in alternating measures.

This is the most common type of hemiola you will hear.

Bernstein’s famous “America” from West Side Story is horizontal hemiola.

Horizontal hemiola (especially in classical music) can sound quirky, fun, and shifting.

Vertical Hemiola

In vertical hemiola, both duple and triple will happen simultaneously, creating a polyrhythm (like the examples at the top of this page)

This type of cross-rhythm feels complex but creates a very different feeling than horizontal hemiola.

Finding Hemiola in Passages

Hemiola can sometimes be tricky to find, visually speaking.

Horizontal hemiola often looks like accents inside of the measures. Vertical hemiola is easier to see, as you can spot the groups of 3/2 or 2/3 stacked on top of one another.

Examples of Hemiola

Many of the tunes and pieces you’ll come across that have hemiola are in time signatures with triple meter.

Guitar music in particular often switches from a 6/8 feel to 3/4 feel.


“Take Five” is the most cited example of hemiola in Jazz, but since it occurs in 5/4 some might not consider it hemiola at all!

You can also hear hemiola in jazz comping, depending on what the players collectively decide to do.

An example of 3 against 2 in jazz would be In The Mood (Glen Miller)

Popular Music

Musicians from Tool to Bob Marley, Brittany Spears, to The Beatles and Radiohead all use this little rhythmic device.

  • Here Comes the Sun (The Beatles)
  • Is the Love? (Bob Marley)
  • Chariots of Fire (Vangelis)
  • Daydreaming (Radiohead)


Of all the classical examples, Leonard Bernstein’s “America” from West Side Story is by far the most frequently cited.

You can find hemiola in many classical pieces- It commonly occurs in Baroque music, Renaissance music, French Courantes, and certain waltzes.

  • Capriccio Op. 76 (Brahms)
  • Canarious (Gaspar Sanz)
  • Lute Suite BWV 995 (J.S. Bach)
  • Joropo from Suite del Recuerdo (Jose Luis Merlin)
  • Symphony No.3 (Schumann)

Brahms tends to use hemiola in his works that are written in 3, like in the Capriccio above.

Bach usually uses hemiola before a cadence happens, which was a common compositional practice in the Baroque era. In Baroque music, the feel before the cadence usually goes from a 3/4 to a 2/4 feel.

World Music

Spanish music/Latin American music, Balkan music, and music influenced by Africa oftentimes use hemiola.

Palo Mayombe (Cuba), and Flamenco (Spain) are two examples where hemiola is prevalent. The metric modulation from 3/4 to 6/8 was even dubbed “Spanish Hemiola”.

Check out a type of Flamenco called Siguiryas, which creates an interesting effect by starting the 3/4 to 6/8 feeling hemiola beginning in the middle of the bar.

When to Use Hemiola

Hemiola can be used to create a multitude of feelings and sensations.

The next time you are writing a song or piece, try using this device to…

  • Create rhythmic tension or make something feel quicker
  • Add dimension
  • Make a transition more interesting
  • Have something sound funky (in a grooving way)
  • Make a quirky, shifting, or topsy-turvy feel

Tips for Playing Songs with Hemiola

Count Carefully

When playing classical and Spanish pieces on the guitar, you’ll be expected to switch from a feeling of 6/8 to a feeling of 3/4 time.

I find that it is much easier to count 123456 | 12-12-12 rather than 123456 | 1+2+3+.

Saying the ‘and’ can get you mentally turned around.

Some people find it easier to simply count the groups in 3’s and 2’s: 1-2-3-1-2-3 1-2-1-2.

No matter how you choose to count hemiola, say the beats out loud or stomp your leg (gross body movement).

Once you get the feel, you can dial yourself back in and go back to just playing.

Make Accents Obvious

Performing hemiola won’t sound right unless the accents are fully present.

The examples at the top of this page sound the same, apart from the accents. Without accents they would be identical!

As with any other technique, slow it down, and make friends with your metronome.

Put more energy behind your fingers when you are picking the accented notes.

I like to think of my fingers as being spring-loaded.

It requires more effect than you might think to make accents in hemiola obvious, especially when fingerpicking.

Hemiola- Common Questions

Is Hemiola the Same as Polyrhythm?

A hemiola is not interchangeable with the word polyrhythm, but it can be a polyrhythm if it’s vertical hemiola.

It is sort of like how all squares are a rectangles in geometry, but not all rectangles are squares.

Why do People Call Hemiola Dissonant?

While we usually think of dissonance as crunchy notes in harmonies, people sometimes call Hemiolas dissonant because they are metrically dissonant.

This means that, at times, they go against the written time signature.

I hope you liked this tutorial.

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