Before we dive in with some advice on how to play with a metronome, you might be wondering: why oh why do I need to use one of those annoying ticking things?!
I hear ya.
A lot of fresh faced musicians, picking up their first instrument, will think the same. The metronome reminds them of music lessons they reluctantly went to when they were kids.
But it turns out, there’s plenty of good reasons. And to give you a balanced view, we’ve thrown in some reasons why you shouldn’t bother (for the none believers).
But first, how by the beard of Zeus did they come into existence?
A Brief History Of The Metronome
The history of the metronome is a long and torrid affair, but we’ll try to wrap it up in a few sentences.
Several centuries ago, Etieune Loulie was inspired by Galileo’s ‘Seconds Pendulum’ to invent the ‘Chromometre’. This was a vertical ruler with peg holes in it, and composers were to insert their pendulum at different heights to enable the pendulum to swing at various tempos.
It wasn’t perfect, as the device measured inches – which weren’t known to be related to the duration of seconds – but it was an important step in the right direction.
Many inventors continued Loulie’s work, to produce a working mechanism.
In 1816, Johann Maelzel manufactured the first, working metronome. His design is the one that we use to this day.
Types Of Metronome
You’ve probably walked into a music shop and spotted a metronome among the other gadgets.
There are two main types to look out for:
Analogue, or mechanical metronomes are the classic, old fashioned ticking devices you’re most likely used to seeing.
They wind up – so never run out of battery – and you can adjust the slide-able pendulum to a speed that suits you.
Analogue metronomes also look quite stylish. So, they can double up as ornaments in your practice room.
Digital metronomes are handy, smaller devices which you can easily pop in your pocket.
Unlike analogue metronomes, which tick and sway in a natural way, these make digital beeping/clicking noises at set intervals.
You can control speed of your beats per minute on digital metronomes using buttons, which is easy and accurate.
Which type of metronome you buy is up to you. Some people prefer the classic, mechanical sound and visual movement of an analogue metronome, whereas the portability and ease of use of a digital metronome appeals to many.
So, they’re pretty cool devices. But why use them?
Why Practice With A Metronome?
Timing is the most important thing when performing any musical piece. A metronome is the ideal tool to help you to improve your timing, by using a set interval.
All metronomes are versatile, so you can change the time required for intervals.
Does your sheet music state adagio? Perfect, set your metronome for 60 beats a minute. Need presto? Set it to 150 beats per minute.
Here’s a few more…
Presto = Very Fast, 168 – 208 bpm
Allegro = Fast, 120 – 168 bpm
Moderato = Moderate Speed, 108 – 120 bpm
Andante = Walking Speed, 76 – 108 bpm
Adagio = Slow, 66 – 76 bpm
Largo = Slow and Solemn, 40-66 bpm
Knowing the correct tempo for a piece of music is essential when learning a piece. Metronomes can keep you in control of how a piece should be played
When beginning to practise a piece of music, check to see if any musical term is stated in terms of how quick the notes should be played.
These Italian terms can be anything from largo to prestissimo. In a lot of modern pieces, they actually have the number of beats per minute written down by the title.
Knowing and ‘feeling’ the beat, can get lost when any musical piece has a slower or quicker pace. Using a metronome will allow you not to get ‘carried away’ and lose the rhythm.
It can be hard to remain consistent when you’re practising a new piece, especially for beginner players.
The metronome, with its accurate intervals, can give you an accurate portrayal of the beat needed.
It’s like having your own personal conductor.
Setting The Pace
Sure, it’s great to learn a new piece slowly. And with a metronome you can do this accurately!
At some point though, you actually want to get up to the proper speed, right? Increasing speed is easier with a metronome.
Either slide the pendulum or press your buttons to set the pace, and once you’re used to the beeping, the speed should come naturally.
Use the metronome to quicken the intervals until you are at the ideal pace. Hey presto; you’re playing a piece you thought looked like the devil.
It may take some time, but using a metronome to control your speed of learning will ensure you get it right eventually.
Developing Studio Skills
Metronomes aren’t just for classical musicians, who need to play in time in an orchestra.
When using a recording studio, it may be a requirement that you record using a click track (which works in the same way as a metronome).
Some believe it creates a consistent sound, while others believe it takes the ‘magic’ out of making music. It certainly makes it easier to edit!
To ensure that you have a wider range of options when recording, it is a huge advantage to already be used to playing with a metronome.
How To Play With A Metronome
So, now you know why you should be practicing using a metronome, how do you do it?
Set Your Speed
This is an obvious starting point, but of course, before you start playing along with the ticks, you need to set your tempo.
If you’re not sure what tempo the song you’re playing is, and it’s not written anywhere on the TAB or sheet music, there’s an online tool called Song BPM, where you can find out the BPM for any published song, no matter how obscure it is.
If you really want to play consistently, and build your way up to a perfect performance of the piece you’re learning, you need to start slowly.
Setting a BPM that is lower than the actual song will enable you to get it right, in time, before you are ready to play along with the piece.
It’s also enjoyable to play around with the tempo of pieces you’re learning, particularly on classical instruments like the flute.
An obvious one, but it needs saying. You need to listen to the beat if you want to play in time with it.
Sometimes, people regard the ticking noise as a mere annoyance, and completely ignore it. That’s understandable, but not very helpful.
If you listen to the ticking before you even start playing, and get into the rhythm, you’ll be more consistent and therefore more musical.
Move With The Beat
This one might not suit everyone, but it works for some.
If you’re using a mechanical metronome, you can try tapping your foot or even swaying with the pendulum.
This will get you really in time and you’ll find playing with the beats to me much more natural if your body is moving with music.
Disadvantages Of Using A Metronome
For all of the pros of using a metronome, there are a few disadvantages to be aware of.
You May Become Dependent
One of the biggest complaints surrounding the use of metronomes is the musician’s reliance on that click.
The fear is, you’ve used a metronome for every single practice session. Can you ever perform without that clicking?
As a beginner, a metronome can be useful to learn the correct tempo. But for touring artists and anyone wishing to work commercially, using a metronome may be something to get away from.
You Lose Flexibility
The consistency of the intervals between beats can mean that the tempo becomes too rigid. This can lead to the musician having a lack of fluidity or spontaneity in their playing.
Musicians should have some flexibility in how they play their music, to make it ‘human’. Metronomes can take this away.
This said, it can suit some styles – like dance music – and metronomes can work alongside drum machines to help maintain a steady rhythm.
You Can Become ‘Stuck’ In Certain Tempos
You can become a slave to the tempo of the metronome.
Beginners may stick to the same few tempos, as many introductory pieces offer few variations.
Once a player is used to these set beats, it can become harder to get used to other paces.
It’s Not The Same As Playing With Other Musicians
Getting too used to playing with a metronome can be detrimental in terms of playing with other musicians.
Every musician, no matter which instrument they play, may change the beat while playing a song.
If you are a diehard metronome user, you may find it hard to suddenly change pace.
Keeping up with other players and anticipating their change in tempo, is essential when working in an ensemble.
Unless you find a group who use metronomes exclusively, you may want to think about how you practice.
So… To Beat Or Not To Beat?
Knowing how to practice with a metronome and knowing how to play with a metronome are two important skills. But they’re not appropriate for all situations.
When you’re learning a piece, they are great tools for gaining control over the speed. They also enable consistency of rhythm.
However, when you are playing live, using a metronome might take away from the ‘real’, ‘human’ feel of the music, and removes rhythmic flexibility.
If you’re a classical musician, they’re an absolute must have, as they enable you to easily discover the composer’s intended tempo.
If you’re in a band who plans on going in the studio, they’re also super-handy. They give you click-track skills, which can potentially save you a lot of time (and money!) when you are recording.
Whatever your style, keep it steady!
Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He’s a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band ‘Django Mango’ and a lover of all things music. When he’s not ripping up and down the fretboard, he’s tinkering with his ’79 Campervan.