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: