Make Friends with your Metronome

Most music students seem to have a love-hate relationship with their metronomes. What about you? Do you have a metronome? Do you use your metronome? It’s time for you to make friends with your metronome!

What is a Metronome?

A metronome is a small device that produces a steady beat. Originally metronomes were similar to small pendulums with a way to adjust the speed of the pendulum. Today you can still purchase mechanical metronomes, but more likely, musicians will use digital metronomes or even metronome apps on their phones.

Metronomes have been around for centuries! I guess that means that musicians have had issues with tempo and rhythm for centuries as well! (You aren’t the only one!) Historical records exist for a device similar to a metronome as far back as the 800s. The first successful musical metronome appeared in 1696. By the early 1800s, metronomes similar to what we use today were developed and patented. Beethoven was probably the first famous composer to write metronome markings in his music.

Why Should I Use a Metronome?

Use a metronome to practice keeping a steady tempo throughout a piece.

Too often, it seems, students tend to play the easy parts of a piece of music at one speed but then slow down during the hard parts of the music. Are you one of those students? Do you even know if you tend to do that? A metronome will provide unbiased proof of whether you slow down the hard parts or speed up during the easy parts. It is important to keep a steady tempo throughout both the easy and more difficult passages of your music.

Use a metronome to play at the correct tempo.

What does it mean when your music’s tempo marking is adagio? Or allegretto? Or largo? What if your music says mm = 120? What does that mean? MM=120 written in your music means you are supposed to play 120 beats of music in one minute. Your quarter note (usually designated by a written quarter note with the mm marking) should beat 120 times a minute. That is equal to two beats per second. If your metronome marking is 60, that means one beat per second, so a marking of 120 equals two beats per second. A marking of 90 means to play 1-1/2 beats per second. Confusing? It’s all about the math! Set your metronome to the marking listed in your music, and you will know exactly how fast or slow you should play.

And if the markings use words instead of numbers, your metronome has you covered there as well. Most metronomes provide ranges of beats for each tempo word. Largo means about 45-50 beats per minute (BPM). Moderato is 86-97 BPM, and Presto is considered 168-177 BPM. I remember seeing a piece marked “As fast as you can play.” Metronome markings can go up to 208 BPM.

Use a metronome to practice hard passages with lots of notes.

One effective way to use a metronome is when practicing a passage of music with lots of notes – 16th notes, 32nd notes, etc. The tendency for students is to slow down to play all the notes. Another tendency is to “cheat” your way through the passage – play all the notes but unevenly, or play the notes that come out and skip the rest. However, a good musician will work until he can play every note evenly and up to tempo.

Use your metronome to help you accomplish this. Start slowly, setting your metronome to beat for every 16th note. Then, when you can play the passage well slowly, little by little, increase the tempo. Then set your metronome to beat 8th notes. Again, little by little, increase the tempo. Set your metronome to beat quarter notes, and again, gradually increase your tempo with your metronome settings. You will “soon” (or eventually) master the passage and be able to play it well and up to tempo – without any “cheating!”

Use a metronome to challenge yourself to practice some things faster.

Some things = scales and arpeggios, for starters. I hope you have figured out that much of your music comes from different scales and arpeggios. So, if you routinely practice those, when you come across them in your music, your fingers will know what to do! Playing scales and arpeggios should become almost automatic for you. Your director says to play a D Major scale – your brain and fingers should know exactly what to do without much thinking at all.

Use your metronome to help you get better and faster at playing scales and arpeggios. First, be sure you can play a scale correctly and evenly at a slow tempo, like a quarter note = mm 90. Then increase the tempo to 120. After mastering that, go back to a setting of 90 and practice your scale in 8th notes, then triplets, then 16th notes. Then increase the tempo settings again and go through the process once more. You get the idea. Gradually increase your tempo until you can play the scale well at increasing speed. Sound boring? Maybe so, but it will pay off in the long run. The better you can play all your scales and arpeggios, the better you will play your music.

But what if I want to play rubato, or take some liberties with the rhythm?

Remember this – Your metronome is a tool, not a master. Use this tool to practice steady rhythm, conquer tricky rhythm, to master even playing. And then, set your metronome aside and play with musicality and feeling, with musicianship. Your metronome is a training tool to master the rhythm technique. Remember when you learned to ride a bicycle? You probably started with training wheels on your bike. After you mastered riding with training wheels, someone took them off, and you learned to ride your bike on your own. Think of your metronome as like training wheels. You can remove the training tool and rely on the skills you already learned at a certain point.  

Where Do I Find a Metronome?

You can find metronomes at most music stores, or you can easily order them online. Pendulum-type metronomes can be cool to have sitting on your piano or in the room where you practice. Small digital metronomes are much easier to carry with you, however. Or you can skip the physical metronomes and get a digital one as an app on your phone. Which kind of metronome you have doesn’t matter much. What matters is that you use one!

So, make friends with your metronome. Your band or orchestra directors will thank you; your fellow musicians will be eternally grateful, and your accompanist will eternally bless you. Even your music teacher will be thrilled with your new rhythm capabilities. And your overall musicianship will improve, which should make even you happy!

Looking for more suggestions about practicing? Check out the following articles:

Practice Like a Pro

I Don’t Know What to Practice

I Don’t Know What to Practice!

I don’t know what to practice! How many times have you heard this phrase recently? Or maybe you are the one guilty of saying this. I get it – if you or your child hasn’t had a lesson in a while, you feel like you are sick of practicing everything your teacher assigned you. Here are some ideas for what your child can practice when he doesn’t know what to practice.

Scales

First and foremost – practice scales! I can’t emphasize this enough – practice scales! All you keyboard players, practice your scales hands apart and hands together. Make sure you use the correct fingering. Play scales in contrary motion and parallel motion. Other instrumentalists, you need to practice scales also! If you are going to continue in music, you must know your scales – major, minor (all three kinds!), chromatic scales. Scales in every key!

Past Pieces

Practice music you already learned, music from the past. How can you play it better? What can you do to make it more expressive and more musical? Learn to play something from memory. Go back and work on those tricky passages again to see if you can make them better, smoother, cleaner. Review pieces you played last month, or last year.

Something New

Try learning some new music on your own. Maybe you have a piece that you always wanted to learn but never got to it in lessons. Have you found an arrangement of your favorite song that you want to learn? Go for it! Approach this new piece the same way you would start new music from your teacher. Be sure to check the key signature, time signature, accidentals, tricky rhythms. Learn something new just for fun.

Arpeggios

Do you know what an arpeggio is? Think of a chord but played just one note at a time. That’s the basic idea of an arpeggio. You find arpeggios all over your music, so practicing them in advance will give you a head start on future music. Keyboardists, you need to be sure you practice arpeggios with correct fingering!

Compose Some Music

Try composing some original music. Wouldn’t your teacher be surprised if you come to your next lesson with some original music to play for her? Think of a little theme or melody, play around with it, add some variety to it – see what you can do! And then, take the challenge further and try to write it out with the correct notes and rhythm. Who knows – you might discover a new passion!

Did I Mention Scales?

Let me reiterate – practice your scales! Scales are foundational to all music! Did you know that most of those long tricky passages you see in more difficult music come from scales? So work on those scales until you no longer need to think how to play them, and you will be ready to face those complicated passages head-on.

OK – Go practice! No more excuses! I’ve just given you lots of ideas of what to practice.

Need some more help or ideas with practicing? Check these posts.

How to Help Your Child Practice

When Your Child Doesn’t Want to Practice

Practice Like a Pro

Why Clarinets Squeak and Other Instrument Oddities

Why do clarinets squeak? Why do trumpets have spit valves? What’s with all these instrument oddities? Musical instruments are strange things. Hollow tubes with holes in them. Long metal pipes bent into strange shapes. Boxes with hammers and strings. Holes where you don’t expect holes to be. What’s with all this? Here are the answers to some of those strange questions you always wanted to ask but never did.

Why Do Clarinets Squeak?

Have you ever been in beginning band? Have you had to attend a beginning band concert? It seems like the clarinets are always squeaking! Why does that happen? What can they do to stop the squeaking?

Many factors affect whether a clarinet squeaks. And all these are things that the clarinet player must learn and practice. Beginners are still learning – give them a break when they squeak.

Here is a list of some of the more common reasons for clarinet squeaks:

  •         Biting down, or clamping down too hard on the mouthpiece
  •         Having too much or too little of the mouthpiece in the mouth
  •         Inconsistent airflow
  •         Incorrect tonguing technique
  •         Bad reed – old, chipped or dried out

Good news – the more a clarinet player practices, the less he will squeak. So practice away, my clarinet friends.

If you want more information about this, see here and here.

Why Does a Piano Have Three Pedals?

Almost all pianos have two pedals. Some pianos have three pedals. What’s the difference? Does it matter if your instrument has two or three pedals?

Right Pedal

The pedal on the right is the damper pedal. When pressed, this pedal raises all the dampers (or long felt-covered bars) from the strings inside the piano. The strings will then continue to vibrate and sound until the pedal is released and the dampers are reapplied to the strings. If you have a grand piano or open the top of your upright piano, you can see this happen.

Left Pedal

The left pedal on a piano is the soft pedal. Depending on the piano, this pedal works in one of two ways. Either the use of the pedal causes the hammers to strike fewer strings, or the hammers are moved closer to the strings so they cannot strike the strings as hard as usual.

Every key you see on your piano attaches to two or three strings inside the piano. When you strike a key, you activate a hammer inside the piano that strikes the strings related to that key. When you press the soft pedal the hammer slightly moves so it only strikes a portion of the related strings (two strings instead of three, or one string instead of two).

Other pianos use a slightly different system to get a similar result. In this system, the soft pedal causes the entire set of hammers to move slightly closer to the strings. This means that the hammer cannot strike the strings with as much force, resulting in a softer sound.

Center Pedal

And then there is the third pedal. Not every piano has a third pedal. This third pedal will do one of two things, but not both. On some pianos, the third pedal, called the sostenuto (sustaining) pedal, allows certain notes to sustain (or hold) without holding all the other notes at the same time. It is an interesting effect. However, unless you are playing advanced piano literature, you probably will not need to use this third pedal.

Some piano makers have taken that third pedal and given it a completely different purpose. Sometimes that third pedal performs as a “practice” pedal or a “silent” pedal. If you live in an apartment, perhaps the neighbors aren’t too excited to hear your late-night practicing. Or your early-morning arpeggios. What should you do? Put your piano in “silent” mode, by pressing that third pedal, and practice away.

What’s So French About a French Horn?

What’s so French about a French horn? Actually…not much. And it appears that the term “French horn” is only used in the US, Canada, and Britain. Everyone else just calls it a horn. So where did the term “French horn” come from? Guess what – no definite answers exist. But there are three theories about the use of that term.

Theory #1

Once upon a time, a long time ago, a German Count went to France, picked up some hunting horns, and brought them back to Germany. These horns were a bit different than the ones they already had in Germany. Because of that, the people may have referred to these as the French horns to differentiate them from the German horns that were already in the country.

Theory #2

Horn originally developed from hunting horns. The hunting horns in Britain were different than the French hunting horns. The French hunting horns were larger. When musicians began to use these new horns in Britain they reminded people of the larger French hunting horns, so they called them French horns.

Theory #3

In the late 1600s instrument makers crafted horns in Britain, Germany, and France. Each country made the horns slightly differently, and each country contributed different features in the development of the modern horn. Evidently, the best horns of the time came from French makers, so musicians called them French horns. (Not to be confused with the British horns, the German horns, etc.)

Is there a final answer to the question about the term “French” horn? Of course not. And if you are in a rehearsal and the conductor asks the horn section to play a section of music, does he mean just the French horns or the entire brass section? Play it safe, and assume he is just referring to the French horn section.

Looking for more info? Check here or here.

Why Do Trumpets Have Spit Valves?

Spit valves are just gross, right? Trumpet players get to some rests, and the first thing they do is blow spit all over the floor. What’s with that? Ewwww! Think about how trumpet players produce sound. They blow – directly into their instrument. And with all the air that blows, you also get saliva. The air blows out through the horn, but not the saliva. It stays in the horn and collects.

Pretty soon, our poor trumpet player begins to sound like he is playing underwater. Because he is – sort of. And since he is not playing “Under the Sea,” we don’t want it to sound like that. The spit valve on a trumpet (and all other brass instruments) is located where the saliva collects in the horn. The brass player can open the spit valve, blow through his horn without making a sound, and empty all the water from his horn. Then he can continue to play with a good sound. Just be glad you don’t have to clean the floor after the band concert!

Why Are There Holes in the Tops of Violins?

The reason for the holes in the top of a violin (or viola, or cello, or bass) is simple – to let the sound out! Imagine if you are in your bedroom with the door shut and you want to tell your brother or sister to bring you a snack. You yell, but they never bring your snack. They will say they never heard you. But if you open your door and yell, they will hear you and bring you your snack (you hope). That’s the idea behind the holes on the violin. They are called f-holes – because they look like fancy letter f’s. Or some might call them sound holes. Vibration inside the body of the violin causes the sound, but that sound needs a way to get out. The f-holes let the sound out.

If the idea of f-holes fascinates you, you can read more about it here.

So, now you know the answers to some of life’s perplexing questions. You can impress your friends with your vast musical knowledge!

What are some other questions you have about instruments? You know, those questions you have always wanted to ask, but thought everyone else already knew the answers to. Ask away, and I will try to find the answers.

Leave your questions in the comments!

And check out some of our posts about specific instruments!

Violins

Violas

Flute

Clarinet

Trumpet

Marimba