Why is a Metronome so Important?
Background – Developing Your Rhythmic Ability
Part I – The Five Steps of Practice
Part II – Principles of Mastery
Credit: Troy Stetina
If you have a desire to play well — any instrument, any style — the use of a metronome is critical. Here we will cover how to make the best use of it to help you improve the quickest.
Why is a Metronome so Important?
A metronome is the tool by which you learn to control the time element of your performance. How can you know whether your tempos are even if you don’t know what “even” truly is? And in the case of more elastic tempo, how can you create steady accelerando or ritard unless you have first developed a solid sense of playing evenly? Musicianship is about developing control over all aspects of music. And timing is a biggie.
Just how important is timing? Beginning musicians invariably pay more attention to notes than to timing. Perhaps this is because we commonly stretch time from the start — slowing things down to learn them accurately. Or perhaps it is because the fingering of the notes is visual while timing is a bit more abstract. But did you ever stop and think about the fact that it is just as “wrong” to play the right note at the wrong time as it is to play the wrong note at the right time?
The recording environment exposes all faults, and nothing is worse in the studio than a musician with poor time. Everything sounds bad! The inexperienced musician pushes the pulse, giving a stilted, jerky quality to the performance. Laying back “in the pocket” makes magic happen. This comes with experience, of course. But you can do a lot to hone your rhythm and timing ability by correctly using the metronome in practice. You can guide yourself subtly forward and back on the click. On the other hand, without metronome practice you may find it difficult to hit the pulse reliably, let alone worry about subtleties like pushing or pulling it!
Background – Developing Your Rhythmic Ability
Every note of music occurs at a precise time in relation to the underlying pulse. If we cannot feel it, we cannot express it. And that means we have no groove. Ideally we want to develop the feel of rhythm deep in the core of our being. Then it will come out naturally and effortlessly wherever we like-in a head bob, body sway, tapping foot, etc.
In order to develop that rhythmic flow, it helps to articulate it in different parts of your body. At the very least, feel that pulse by tapping our foot and/or hands. Mentally counting is the least reliable method of time keeping. After all, the mind is a poor time keeper as evidenced by the simple fact that time seems to move faster when we are busy or occupied versus when we are bored. Movement-based time keeping is a far better guide.
Therefore, it is a good idea when practicing with the metronome to keep some of your body moving in time with it. Don’t sit motionless while you play with the metronome. Supply your own groove to it, always listening and self correcting as needed to stay on the pulse. Before we even play a note, try this rhythmic exercise:
- Turn on the metronome at a moderately slow tempo (say 90 beats per minute) and tap your foot or hand, or clap along with it. Try to make each foot or hand tap perfectly in time. It’s harder than you might think!
- Now try moving you hand in a circle throughout the length of time between the clicks. Articulate the click with the same tap or clap as before. Now timing becomes slightly easier, because you have a long physical motion going. Keeping the speed of that motion constant is far easier than simply anticipating the moment on each upcoming click.
- Lastly, try feeling and marking the midpoint (eighth note) subdivision halfway between each beat as your hand moves through the beat “circle”. Then try slowing the click down slightly and mark sixteenth note subdivisions as well.
Slower tempos are actually more difficult in that you must supply more of the groove yourself, rather than having it handed to you. Novice players invariably rush the slower clicks. Now that we’ve got some background, let’s take a look at some ways to use the metronome to improve your technique as well as your sense of timing.
Part I – The Five Steps of Practice
Step 1: Turn it Off
Now that I have convinced you to get a metronome, the first step is to turn it off. What!? Yes it’s true. When you first begin to learn a portion of music, you want to familiarize yourself with the notes without regard to rigid time. Let yourself feel the patterns, chords, etc. taking as long as necessary to get each change and to memorize the feel of it. After you have the notes down, it’s time to break out your metronome.
Step 2: Moderately Slow, then Build
Now turn it on and play slowly. Not excessively slow, but moderately slow. How fast that is exactly depends on the part of course — an eighth note phrase may be moderately slow in the ballpark of 80bpm, while quarter notes might be moderately slow played at 120bpm or more. Of course what is slow for a beginner is not the same as an advanced player. The point is to find a range that feels comfortable to you, then raise it gradually.
Step 3: Find the trouble Spot
Music is never of equal difficulty throughout. There will be easier areas and harder areas. As you raise the tempo, you will notice certain problem spots and “stress points” begin to appear. The metronome’s unforgiving nature helps you identify these spots. Without it, you are likely to unconsciously slow down at these points, as you attention falls away from the pulse and becomes absorbed in the difficulty at hand. By keeping that relentless clicker clicking away in perfect time, the difficult spots become more obvious. Don’t avoid them! It is by correcting difficulties that you become a better player.
By contrast, many people push through the difficult spots hoping to get by without a mistake. If they do mess it up, they go back to the beginning of the song, over and over again like this, hoping to get through it. This is a terribly inefficient approach that is unlikely to ever yield mastery. Instead, isolate the motions at that point and figure out what is so hard about it. Does one finger move in an unfamiliar way? Does it require several motions simultaneously? Does one finger cause stress in another finger and prevent a necessary motion?
To say a bit of music is “difficult” really just means that you have yet to put in the requisite level of mastery over that set of motions. Any single note by itself is not difficult. Therefore, reduce the music to this level-one note to the next-and you will see exactly where the problem lies. (I am reminded of the great composer J.S. Bach, who when asked about his remarkable keyboard ability, simply said, “I just put each finger in the right place at the right time, and the keyboard plays itself.”)
Step 4: Practice Outward from the Middle
With the metronome off, try playing just two notes/chords that lie on either side of the difficulty. In other words, play just the difficult motion by itself, in isolation, over and over until it begins to feel more comfortable. Keep in mind you may need to take this extremely slow at first. It doesn’t matter. This practice is far more beneficial.
Then add a note ahead of that motion. Then add a note behind the motion. Add another in front of that and continue building slowly in both directions. Gradually increase the tempo as you do this. Literally, I have seen students achieve more in a few minutes of this kind of focused practice than in weeks of the common “roll through the motions and hope for the best.”
Step 5: Rinse and Repeat
Now turn on the metronome and you will find that you remain more relaxed through what used to be the trouble spot and now you can push up the tempos to a higher level without stress. Then, if faster tempos are required, repeat the whole procedure. Identify the new stress spots and refine your technique as appropriate using the same system we just went through.
Part II – Principles of Mastery
Music is Easy
Many of us have the mistaken notion that difficult sections are innately “hard.” The fact is that when the proper level of mastery is attained, there are no “hard” sections. Mastery by definition is effortless. There is of course a some level of effort required to physically move, but I what I mean here is that there is no additional stress associated with the music. There is no uncertainty. Every note comes out perfectly, every time. Knowing this puts things into the proper perspective-now you can strive for the same stress-free experience, albeit at somewhat slower tempos to begin. Eventually, with enough repetition, tempos evolve to higher levels. But throughout the process, let it be easy!
Perfect In Makes Perfect Out
While on the point of “perfect” playing, it should be mentioned that overplaying in terms of tempo is generally not good. There is an exception I’ll cover next. But generally speaking you want to repeat the correct motions over and over. Playing too fast with lots of mistakes is counterproductive. Play it perfectly 100 times at gradually increasing speed and the 101st time is likely to also be perfect. But play sloppy and with errors 100 times and the 101st time is likewise going to be sloppy and full of errors. How good do you want to be?
Sure, we are all guilty of pushing more than we should from time to time. We are impatient and desire to be better than we are. That’s okay. In fact sometimes a little push is a good thing…
While the majority of the time must be spent playing at controlled tempos, playing at “full speed” even when you cannot perform it well can have a legitimate role, too. It can provide you a peek ahead, to see what it will feel like when you get it at tempo. That has one big advantage in particular: Faster tempos may mean smaller motions are required. In other words, the technique that works great for you at moderate tempos may not work at higher tempos. In that case, trying to work it up gradually using the wrong technique will produce a feeling of hitting a “brick wall” that you just can’t get past.
By getting a glimpse of the future, so to speak (what it feels like to play at faster tempo), we can see if significant technique alterations are going to be necessary. Then we can implement these things at the slower tempos and build up the right technique to get where we want to go. Don’t overplay tempo more than 5% of your practice time or it will erode your accuracy.
Part III – Speed Training and Advanced Metronome Tricks
To develop the highest level skills, you must master the fundamentals to the point of perfection. This enables faster and faster tempos without undue stress or inaccuracy. One great way to go about this is to extract the difficult motions you isolated previously and build exercises that utilize these motions repeatedly. Or you can use “pre-selected” sets of exercises from books like my Speed Mechanics for Lead Guitar, or Hanon for piano, etc. Every instrument has its advanced studies. Here is the blueprint for speed training:
- After familiarizing yourself with the example, begin at a moderate tempo with the metronome. Focus on smoothness of transitional motions. Even if the notes are moderately slow, the transitions can be snappy. Also focus on evenness of dynamics. Sometimes I like to improvise various dynamic accents to keep things more interesting. Or trying playing exceptionally quiet, then full volume.
- Raise the tempo a few notches and acclimatize yourself to the new tempo. Continue such tempo increases at you repeat the example until you begin to feel some stress, as you are approaching your controlled top speed.
- Drop the tempo slightly. Then push it above the comfort level. Focus on relaxing the excess tension that develops here.
- Drop the tempo again but less so. Then push it up slightly higher than the previous peak. Again, focus on relaxing the excess tension. Keep in mind that your technique may need to be modified slightly (reduced motions) at faster tempos. Of course the increasing tension may cause an increase in the size of your motions as the tempo rises. Avoid this.
- Continue this escalating tempo attack until you’ve had enough. Then try a different example beginning again at slower tempos.
Advanced Metronome Practice Tricks
A helpful trick to strengthen your timing ability is to play around with adding and removing subdivisions of the click. For example, instead of playing sixteenths over a quarter-note click, try doubling up the click so it is doing eighths. Yet as you play over this, retain the feel of the main pulse only on downbeats (every other click). In this case the “middle” eighth click is there just to help you mark the upbeat more precisely so you can focus on hitting that note (the 3rd sixteenth) precisely on time. After playing like this a while, then halve the click tempo back to quarter notes and focus on supplying the same articulated feel of the upbeat — but without that middle click to support you.
Along the same lines, try removing beats entirely. Transform 16th notes into 32nd notes by halving the speed of the click. Or you can think of this as still playing 16ths, except the click only cues you to every other beat. Then let the click hit just every third beat. That’s tough! The slower the click goes, the more space you must fill to stay in time.
When playing exercises or pieces containing a constant flow of notes-straight eighths for example-my favorite trick is to move the click to hit different notes of the pattern. The 3:2 ratio (a hemiola) is the best place to start. So instead of playing eighth notes, for example, change the beat to fall on every 3rd note and play the same sequence in triplets. Wow! That breathes new life into old, stale exercises. The 3:4 (triplets on sixteenths) pattern gives a similar effect. You can also try 4:3 and 5:4 for a little more adventure. After a little practice with this kind of rhythmic interplay, it comes easy yet always feels more interesting. It literally feels brand new, yet your fingers seem to already know the way.
Next try moving the click to a rhythm off of the beaten path. That is, instead of making the click define the pulse, you make it play quarter note triplets for example. Now YOU generate the feel of the pulse and it clicks away somewhat “against” you. On top of that, play your exercise in eighth or sixteenths or whatever. That puts an entirely new spin on things!
Part IV – Metronome Recommendations
What are the Best Options?
A drum machine is the most versatile metronome, as you can program virtually any pattern and use any sound. But there is something to be said for simplicity and ease of use. We don’t really need a full set of drum patterns for this kind of practice. On the other end of the spectrum are small handheld metronomes — nice for the portability factor, but lack volume and selectability of sounds. If you happen to practice in the vicinity of your PC, your best bet is probably a software metronome. They are fuller-featured than any hand-held, yet offer dead simple operation and cost less.