A metronome is a practice tool that produces a steady pulse (or beat) to help musicians play rhythms accurately. The pulses are measured in beats-per-minute (BPM). Most metronomes are capable of playing beats from 35 to 250 BPM. Common uses of the metronome are helping you to maintain an established tempo while practicing, and learning difficult passages.
“Time signatures consist of the number of beats in a measure and the value of the beat.”
The first step in metronome use is to understand time signatures. Time signatures are found at the beginning of a musical piece, after the clef and the key signature. Time signatures (also called meter signatures) consist of two numbers. The top number indicates the number of beats in a measure, while the bottom number corresponds to the value of the beat. Most often, you will see 2, 3, 4 or 6 beats per measure. Beats are commonly half notes (the bottom number of the meter signature is “2”) or quarter notes (“4”) (the bottom number of the meter signature is “4”).
Here are a few common examples:
4/4: 4 quarter beats per measure (common time)
3/4: 3 quarter beats per measure
2/2: 2 half notes per measure (cut time)
Less easily understood time signatures are those with dotted quarters as the beat (compound time):
6/8: 2 dotted quarters per measure.
9/8: 3 dotted quarters per measure.
NOTE: even though this time signature reads 6 eighth notes per measure, this time signature usually refers to two beats per measure, where each beat is a dotted quarter, consisting of 3 eighth notes.
In western music (whether pop or jazz or classical or other) you either divide the beat into 2 parts (simple time signatures) or 3 (compound time signatures). The beat thus will either be a quarter, half or eighth note (for simple time signatures) or a dotted quarter or dotted half in compound time signatures. Simple time signatures are straightforward to read: 2/4 (two quarters per measure), 2/2 (two half notes per measure), etc.
“Compound time signatures tell you the division of the beat because we cannot express dotted values with a number”
Compound time signatures (6/8, 9/8, 6/4, etc.) actually tell you the division of the beat because we cannot express dotted values with a number. When the top number is greater than 3 and is divisible by 3 (6, 9, 12), you have to divide that number by 3 to get the actual number of beats per measure. E.g. 6/8: 2 beats per measure (6:3=2), and the beat is valued at a dotted quarter. 6/4: two dotted halves per measure.
If the music is very slow, then the composer may say something like “slow 8ths”. In this case, you would indeed think of the 8th as the beat, but this you will see only at very slow tempi. In general, thinking of the 8th as the beat in compound time (especially at medium and fast tempi) will make the music sound choppy, and again, is simply an erroneous reading of the time signature.
Odd time signatures also exist in music:
5/4: 5 quarters per measure
7/8: 7 eighths per measure
Now that you understand the meter signature, determine the value of the beat and its appropriate tempo for the piece you are learning. For example, your desired tempo might be quarter note=120. (For more information, see the article on tempo markings.) This is quite brisk, and you may not notice it if you sway from it (rush=get faster unintentionally, drag=get slower unintentionally). Having the metronome give you the accurate pulses will help you stay on track.
At other times, most of a piece is easy to play except for a few measures. When faced with a challenging passage, practice the problem area at a slow tempo that allows you to play all the notes without mistakes (at quarter= 78, for example). Then, click the metronome up a few notches and try the passage at the faster tempo. If you can execute the passage 5 times in a row without any mistakes, you can click the metronome up a few notches again. Repeat this process until you reach the target tempo.
Jokes aside, the metronome is a pretty unique device that is based on the relationship between math and music. Its usefulness has earned the metronome a storied place in the music community. But although it has been in existence for centuries, many musicians still wonder if they need it. Others who are new to playing instruments are not sure how to use the metronome. If you fall in either category, or just curious about the purpose of a metronome and how it is used, keep reading.
What is a metronome?
A metronome is a device timed to deliver clicking sounds at precise intervals. It can be traced back to the dawn of the 19 th Century but was only labeled as an aid for musicians when Johann Maelzel, a German inventor, filed a patent that described the metronome as a musical tool.
Designed as a purely mechanical device, the traditional metronome consists of a pendulum that swings back and forth. The user controls the pace of the clicks by setting the number of beats per second. Today, metronomes are a bit more advanced in that you are not limited to a clicking or ticking sound. Electronic variants make it possible to set a variety of sounds that you can loop constantly. There are also metronome apps that offer additional features.
The purpose of a metronome
A metronome may seem like a simple device but it actually has several purposes. For starters, it is used for both recording music, as well as in normal play. In the studio, for instance, a metronome is commonly used when recording pop songs. Pop music often involves a process called overdubbing, which can be hard to accomplish if the tempo is uneven. People who create musical scores for films and TV shows also use metronomes to ensure the soundtrack is perfectly synced to each frame of the video file. With that said, there are a number of purposes for a metronome in the life of a learning musician.
1. Aids with developing a musical ear
One of the most important elements of music is timing. Great musicians are those who have good musical timing when playing an instrument such as the guitar, piano, etc. Every music composition has intervals that help the piece sound logical. These intervals include quarter notes, eighth notes, and dotted quarter notes. Experienced musicians know how to keep pace with the intervals within a piece of music being played. This is called having a musical ear.
The thing is, most newbie musicians do not have this musical ear, and will end up falling off the beat while playing, even if they are hitting the right notes. The end result is that your playing sounds disjointed and messy, instead of smooth and flowing. And even for those who have a natural ear for music, it is not always easy to consciously keep step, especially if the beat is a bit complex. That’s where a metronome comes in.
2. Keeps your attention on the beat
Using a metronome helps you to focus on the steady beat of a piece of music while playing, so you stay in sync. The device reinforces your inner timing mechanism with its constant click-click sound based on the tempo that was set.
3. Helps with adapting to tempo change
Musical expression is often unpredictable. Sometimes the rhythm and beat can suddenly speed up or slow dramatically. If you are playing in a band, you want to be able to react accordingly, so the performance remains as fluid and mellow as possible. Practicing with a metronome helps improve your reaction to any change in tempo, so you can always adjust accordingly.
4. Leads to better estimation and speed
Music can be played at a variety of beats per minute (bpm). Sometimes you can tell what it will be – if you are using sheet music where the tempo is already indicated, for example. Other times, you will have to estimate what it is based on how a piece of music is being performed. Whatever the case, it is a great skill if you can already estimate the pace of a 75 bpm tempo, compared to a 60, 90, 120, or higher bpm. Speaking of high bpm, if you are interested in playing certain types of music such as techno or salsa, you will regularly come in contact with fast beats (over 120 bpm). The faster the tempo, the easier it is to lose focus when playing. In helping you develop your timing, a metronome will also make it easier for you to keep up with fast beat music.
5. Helps with becoming a better musician overall
If you have never used a metronome before, it can sound jarring at first. The precision of the device may even appear to go against your need to experiment with music. But over time, as your timing gets better, you will likely come to appreciate the metronome. You will find your brain becomes more attuned to keeping a steady pace while playing, even if you are playing a long piece of music. Moreover, a more confident appreciation of beat and rhythm will bolster your ability to control your instrument of choice and use it more comfortably. Also, once you have fixed your timing, you will no longer need to use the metronome, as you will naturally play on-beat every time.
So, how do you use a metronome?
Using a metronome to practice is as simple as adding it to your practice routine. The first thing you need to do is acquire a suitable metronome. This can be a plain, old-style metronome that just clicks, a modern electronic type that allows you to use different sounds, or even a metronome app available in one of the app stores. Here are some additional steps when using a metronome:
– Decide on the interval measure you want to use, whether it is an eighth note, quarter note, etc.
– You want to start off with a rate that you are comfortable with, so if you can’t handle a 120 bpm tempo, you might want to try 60 or slower.
– Starting slowly will allow you to stay on track more often than not.
– Once you become accustomed to a tempo speed, you can keep increasing it. If you practice daily, for example, you can take it up a notch each time or every other day.
Becoming a great musician means constantly improving your skills. Investing in a metronome is one of the simplest and cheapest ways you can boost your skills.
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How to Use a Metronome
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At first, most musicians despise the metronome. That’s normal because this mechanical device makes it impossible to ignore flaws in your playing. At the same time, this is precisely why you should learn how to use a metronome.
In this article, I will address a few common arguments against practicing with the metronome. Also, I’ll give some practice tips which will help you learn to see how the metronome makes practicing easier and more relaxing, once you get over the initial hurdles. Finally, I will give some advice on how to find the best metronome for piano practice.
Argument 1: The metronome only has one purpose.
The metronome has many purposes. It can help you solve a variety of problems, and is useful in a variety of circumstances.
For example, it can be used to:
- Help prevent you from speeding up.
- Help prevent you from slowing down.
- Keep you grounded in the present.
- Make it easier for you to forget about your mistakes and keep going.
- Clarify what specific tempo you are playing at.
- Help you practice.
Thus, I am tempted to say that if you don’t use a metronome regularly in your practicing You’re Doing it Wrong, but I’m sure that would be unfair. The purpose of a metronome is to help you keep one foot in the “real world.” So, don’t ignore how much benefit you can get from it!
If you aren’t accustomed to practicing with a metronome, or if you only pull it out once in a while, try practicing with it more frequently. Have it running the whole time, while you practice for 20 minutes (set a timer). Notice what it does for you. What does it make easier? What does it make harder?
Argument 2: The metronome is only for beginners who can’t keep time.
No one has a problem “keeping time.”
The same beginners who struggle mightily to count to the number 4 in a piano lesson have no problems performing complex dance moves with their friends or singing along to their favorite songs on the radio. Additionally, they have no problems walking, talking, playing video games, or any of the other thousands of tasks that call for highly trained and coordinated senses of rhythm and timing.
The reason they seem to lose all of this in a piano lesson is only that they are distracted. That is, they are trying to do many things at once (play the right notes, read the symbols on the page, please the teacher, prevent themselves from screaming in frustration) and they are caring very much whether they are doing them well. Yes, that messes up your sense of time. So, the purpose of the metronome is to bring you back into the present.
Finally, it is not only beginners who get distracted. However, maybe you’ve learned to hide it. That is, you’ve learned to play reasonably in tempo, despite your distractions, your anxieties, your fears, and your insecurities. However, are you paying any price for that?
If you find that you have a problem keeping time, experiment with letting go of this. Instead of trying harder to play in tempo, rely on the metronome guide you. Trust it to keep the tempo, and focus your energy on playing comfortably. Let it be your teacher.
Argument 3: The metronome is too stressful.
If you think the metronome is stressful, you are probably taking it way too seriously. In reality, the metronome can be a calming, soothing force.
Don’t try to follow the metronome. That is where the stress comes from. Instead, let it click in the background. Sometimes you’re with it, sometimes you’re not. Does it matter? Is it going to yell at you if you deviate from its tempo?
If you feel rushed by the metronome, can you let it go?
Argument 4: The metronome leads to mechanical playing.
On the contrary, I believe that it can be an incredibly useful tool for developing musicality. That’s because the purpose of the metronome is not to learn musicality per se, but rather to learn control and poise. Once you have control, you can express the music however you see fit.
It is musicians who cannot play with a metronome, and instead base all of their movements on escaping their internal anxieties, who end up playing inflexibly and mechanically.
Use the metronome to help you get to a point where you can play mechanically. Once you are at this point, notice what freedom this gives you in being able to play expressively.
Don’t rely only on your feelings while practicing to tell you whether this is working. Instead, record yourself. Does your “expressive” playing sound expressive? Does your “mechanical” playing sound mechanical? Use your ears to guide you, not just your thoughts about how you “should” be practicing.
Argument 5: I don’t have a metronome.
If you don’t have a metronome, you should get one. Luckily, this isn’t a hard problem to solve. There are many types, at all different price points, including free apps for your phone.
You don’t need anything fancy, but here are some factors you should consider when shopping around:
A metronome can help you a great deal if you want to take your rhythm skills to the next level. We’ll look at how you can use a metronome for trumpet playing to become a better trumpet player.
Table of Contents
What different kinds of metronome are there?
Before you get started, you’ll need to pick a metronome There are two different kinds:
Analog wind-up metronome
A wind-up metronome.
You’ve no doubt seen this one around. It’s a little box with a pendulum that lets you set different speeds. As the pendulum swings, it gives you both a visual indicator of the speed of the rhythm as well as an audible click for each beat.
- Will never run out of battery
- Less accurate than digital metronome
- Loudness of clicks can’t be adjusted
- Large, not convenient to carry around
- Only covers conventional rhythms
My MA-30 Metronome by Korg.
Digital metronomes do the same thing as analog ones, they indicate a rhythm with clicks or beeps while showing a visual indicator of the rhythm at the same time. They’re available as stand-alone gadgets or as an app for Android or iPhones.
My recommendation: I’ve had my Korg Metronome* for over 20 years now and it remains a reliable tool for practicing. It’s small enough to fit in any bag, it’s got a volume control wheel, it covers many speeds and rhythms and you can plug in headphones to avoid it showing up in any recordings. The battery life of this little gadget is also incredible.
- Small, easy to carry
- Volume can be adjusted
- Many rhythms available
- Has a headphone output
- Speed can be “tapped in”
- Batteries can run out
Get to know your metronome’s settings
To use your metronome effectively, it helps to get to know the different features it offers. An analog metronome most likely will only offer a “beats per minute” (bpm) value. This will not come as a surprise to you, but the beats per minute value indicates how many beats (or clicks or beeps) there are in one minute at the indicated speed.
A 4/4 rhythm at 80 BPM.
Here you can see my Korg metronome doing a 4/4 beat at 80 BPM, the visual indicator in mid-swing. 4 here means that you have 4 beats per bar, so this value influences the accent you will here. Digital metronomes usually use high and low beeps to differentiate accented notes.
So while a 4/4 beat will sound like this:
Beep, boop, boop, boop, beep, boop, boop, boop, etc.
A 3/4 beat sounds like this:
Beep, boop, boop, beep, boop, boop, etc.
The rhythm you need will be indicated in your sheet music.
Using a metronome to work on your timing
A metronome can be a useful tool to work on your general ability to keep time. Keeping time means you start with a speed of 80 BPM and continue with it during the whole musical piece.
It’s very easy to accidentally speed up or slow down a bit, especially if you’ve not practiced keeping time. If you play in a band with a drummer, it will be a lot easier to keep time if your drummer does, but this is generally a very useful skill to have as a musician.
- Set your metronome to a BPM value of your choice
- Clap or tap along as well as you can
- Pay attention if you’re slowing down or speeding up and adjust
- Play a note on your trumpet in time with the beat
This is not a one-time exercise but an exercise you can integrate into your practice sessions every day or every week. Like any skill, you need practice to master keeping time.
Using a metronome to practice a particular piece
The other main way of using a metronome is to practice a particular piece slowly and then speed up.
- Pick a speed that is a good bit below what you feel comfortable.
- Keeping time, play the notes one by one. This should feel easy.
- Every time you play the piece increase the speed slightly.
- If you stumble across a passage at the low speed, practice it until it becomes comfortable before you increase the speed again.
With this method, you’ll be breezing through your pieces before long.
Note: You can also use the metronome in this way for particularly difficult passages in a piece that you struggle with. Just keep playing the passage at a very low speed and increase the speed by a few beats per minute as soon as it feels comfortable.
The advantage to doing this rather than practicing at your target speed is that this way you can make sure you are learning the actual notes by heart. If you practice a fast passage quickly, there’s a tendency to play an approximation of it that sounds very close at high speeds.
Most musicians and students have a love/hate relationship with the metronome. On one hand, the metronome can be a tool of gratification when one successfully masters a particular exercise at a particular speed. Yet, on the other hand, the metronome can be a tool for exposing the weaknesses of a player at particular points. In both cases, it is still a very useful tool. Some musicians criticize the use of a metronome altogether arguing that no musical piece is designed to be played so rigidly as sticking to a metronome click. While there is some truth to this criticism, nevertheless, the metronome serves as a tool to teach the player to keep tempo, to play with accuracy, and to increase skill in playing with others.
Here is what the NPR Classical Music Companion says:
“ Because its beat is perfectly steady, the metronome is an excellent practice tool for musicians. Practicing with a metronome is extremely useful for developing and maintaining rhythmic precision, for learning to keep consistent tempos, for countering tendencies to slow down or speed up in specific passages, and for developing evenness and accuracy in rapid passages. Most music teachers consider the metronome indispensable, and most professional musicians, in fact, continue to practice with a metronome throughout their careers.”
For the guitar student, the metronome serves as a valuable tool in building technique, precision, and accuracy with the use of the guitar. I use a metronome regularly for my own practice and also with all of my students. Regular use of the metronome for various purposes will contribute to the health of your guitar playing in the long run. It’s part of the vegetable diet of any good guitarist. One has to have the vegetables in order to feast on the sweets ultimately. One has to build the technique and precision to be able to play expressively and accurately in the long run. That is why I recommend the use of a metronome.
How should you be using a metronome? There are of course a number of ways but here are some that I recommend:
When you are learning a new jig, do you often have trouble staying “on the beat” because you are using all of your concentration just to play all of the melody notes, gracenotes and embellishments correctly? Then, after you get those pesky things out of the way, are you still having trouble getting that “jig feel”? Using a metronome during your practice may well be a useful tool for you.
As we mentioned in an earlier post (“How to Use a Metronome to Improve Your Piping”), the metronome is a highly accurate and useful tool that, when used appropriately, can vastly improve our rhythmic accuracy and musicality. Yes, it is also an unrelenting truth detector. This article continues along the path of how to approach using a metronome to improve our playing, but this time with a jig.
Jigs are in a 6/8 time signature. While the eighth note groupings in a jig can be played either “round”, or dot-cut, modern jigs are primarily played round, yet with a slight pulse on the downbeat. Although there are 6 eighth notes in a bar and each eighth note theoretically gets a beat, each beat of a 6/8 is divided into 3 parts. Thus, there are 2 beats to a bar. See figure 1.
The first line of this classic jig, Banjo Breakdown, contains eighth notes and quarter notes. Missing in this line is the remaining element of a round jig, the dotted quarter note.
A good first step in learning a jig, especially for novice pipers, is to use the metronome to help you play the tune in “triple time”. In triple time, each eighth note gets a “click”, a quarter note gets two clicks, and a dotted quarter note would get three clicks. So, if the metronome was set to 90 clicks per minute in triple time, the actual beats per minute would be only 30 bpm. This tempo obviously is quite slow, but in triple time you will be playing a note a little faster than one each second, which might be just right for making sure that all the notes are correct.
Let’s look at an example (See Figure 2), where the first line of Banjo Breakdown is shown marked in triple time.
In triple time, each eighth note gets a click of the metronome.
Note that the G-D-E gracenotes are each played on a click. Also, the G gracenote in the C doubling is played on a click, and since the C is a quarter note, it will be held for two full clicks in triple time. The arrows in Figure 2 may not appear to be distributed proportionately across the music because the music notation itself is not evenly spaced. However, the music should be played perfectly on the clicks of the metronome.
Even though playing in triple time is a good way for many pipers to approach a new jig, the ultimate goal is to play in single time, and at a tempo of at least 90 bpm, at which point a jig starts to sound like a jig! And only in single time can the first downbeat of a bar begin to get “pulsed”, where the first eighth note in a group is held for a tiny bit more than the other eighth notes. Remember, the rhythm of a jig is often vocalized as “jig-i-ty”, with the “jig” getting a bit more time.
After becoming comfortable with a new tune in triple time at a tempo of say, up to 120 bpm, it becomes a bit unwieldy to go much faster in triple time. Thus, it’s now time to switch to single time and continue to build your tempo. In Figure 3, the arrows now indicate simple time for the metronome. Each bar contains two beats. Be sure to play everything correctly relative to the beats, and play each step of the embellishments, before increasing the tempo. And even then, increase the tempo only 2-3 bpm at a time and assure that you can maintain your accuracy.
At this point, if you have approached your jig “the Dojo way”, by mastering each bar or phrase before moving to the next, and you have been using a metronome to assure rhythmic accuracy and precision, it’s now only a matter of time before your jig comes alive musically. Don’t rush. Play slowly enough that you play everything correctly, and rhythmically. Only then will you be playing good music. Remember, if you can’t play something slowly and correctly, you will not be able to play correctly at a faster tempo.
Musicians are supposed to have good timing. But do you just practice with your metronome or do you interact with it during your practice sessions?
Correctly used, a metronome should act as an accompaniment partner. In this article, I’ll offer four exercises to help improve your timing while using a metronome.
There are many different kinds of metronomes and they come in all shapes and sizes, including classic pendulum and digital models; many musicians use an app on their phone for that purpose. It really doesn’t matter what kind of metronome you own. You just need to make sure you have one and that you use it regularly.
A Metronome Is Not Just Something To Listen To
Most people use the metronome only as a passive device — in other words, something to listen to — and it’s true that most musicians need to be able to play along with one, especially in studio settings when you are playing along to a click track. But if you have difficulties playing in time when there isn’t a metronome or click track accompanying you, the reason may be that you have only developed your listening skills, not your timing skills.
Strategies for Developing Timing
In order to effectively develop timing skills, you need to add space between metronome clicks. Here are four strategies for doing so in conjunction with this downloadable exercise sheet . As you continue to work on your timing, be sure you practice this worksheet at different tempos:
1) Add space between beats
– Instead of having 4 clicks in a 4/4 measure, put your metronome on half notes and have two clicks per measure.
– Set the click to just the downbeat of the measure.
– Set the click to the downbeat of every other measure or every 4 measures.
2) Moveable pulse
– If you are using half notes as your pulse, practice with the half notes on 1 and 3 as well as 2 and 4.
– If you have one click per measure, move the click to start on beat 2 of the measure instead of the downbeat.
– Put the metronome on quarter notes, but when you start your phrase, think of the click as being on the “ands” of the beat instead of the downbeats.
3) Create subtractive loops or patterns
– Program a loop into a sequencer program (such as GarageBand or Cubase, etc.) and create a 4-bar loop. On the fourth bar, instead of having a measure of groove, leave it blank.
– Next, practice with two bars of groove and then two bars of space.
4) Put space between your metronome and your instrument
– Put the metronome on the other side of the room with a recording device. The metronome should be loud enough so that you can hear it when you are not playing. Once you start playing, you should only be able to hear yourself and not the metronome. Play back the performance on your recording device and listen to how well you performed with the metronome. I have found this approach especially beneficial when practicing excerpts.
Once you start thinking about your metronome as an accompaniment partner instead of always being a dictator (“you will always play on every beat with me”), your timing skills will begin to blossom!
Click here for more information about Yamaha classic pendulum metronomes.
Click here for more information about the Yamaha ME-55BK clip-on digital metronome.
In this free video guitar lesson I will answer some of the many questions I get on how to use a metronome.
Learning how to use a metronome is essential to anyone that plays a musical instrument. Not only will learning how to use a metronome keep your technique and rhythm more precise, it will also gauge your progress over time and become a great motivational tool.
In this basic video guitar lesson I will teach you the fundamentals of how to use a metronome. It is actually a very simple process that any level of musician can become proficient at very quickly.
In the beginning you may feel it is a bit awkward while trying to play along with a mechanical beat. But very soon it will become second nature to you.
One thing to keep in mind while learning how to use a metronome is to try and not play too fast too soon. Always keep most of your practicing within a comfortable technical level for you while only trying to boost the tempo up and challenge yourself a few times during a practice session.
Learning how to use a metronome correctly will help you play along with other musicians much better as well. You will develop a constant in the pocket feel very quickly as long as you use a metronome during all of your technical studies.
Here is to hoping that you develop exceptional rhythm and technical skills by simply following along with this video and putting the ideas into everyday practice. 🙂
If these free lessons help you, please donate to keep new ones coming daily. Thanks!! 🙂