At some point in your musical journey, you will hear the phrase “practice with a metronome”. In fact, I’d be willing to make that a bet and I know I would win because every musician encounters this sooner or later.
It’s no secret that practicing with a metronome will allow you to hit the right note at the right time, and ultimately improving your playing regardless of what instrument you use.
In this article, we’re going to look at what a metronome is as well as how to use a metronome.
What Is A Metronome?
The metronome is a device that has been around for centuries, and won’t be going anywhere any time soon. It is a practice tool used by musicians to help them play rhythms in an accurate manner by producing a steady beat, or a click/pulse, that the musician can then follow. These clicks are measured in beats-per-minute (BPM).
You can set your metronome to a variety of different BPM and adjust it accordingly. This is extremely useful when learning new songs or when teaching yourself complex musical passages.
Being able to play the same musical piece in a variety of tempos is one of the hallmarks of being a well-rounded musician.
Although the metronome has existed for centuries, in 1815 German inventor Johann Nepomuk Maelzel patented it specifically as a tool for musicians under the title “Instrument/Machine for the Improvement of all Musical Performance, called Metronome”. This became the wind-up mechanical metronome.
What Is A Metronome Used For?
Some of the uses of a metronome include:
- Education: Music students are often taught the concepts of rhythm by making use of a metronome as opposed to manually reproducing these concepts. Metronomes provide for greater accuracy.
- Practice: All musicians can attest to the fact that a metronome is a helpful practice tool. This is used to improve speed, timing, and technique.
- Performance: Some songs are quite complex to perform live and musicians may choose to make use of metronomes to help them keep in time during their performance.
Types of Metronomes
As mentioned earlier, musicians have relied on metronomes for many years. As such, different versions have been developed over the years although they all serve the same function in the end. These are analog, electronic and software metronomes.
- Analog Metronome: Analog metronomes are mechanical metronomes are the same thing, they just use different names. These are seen as the ‘classic’ metronomes and they work with a wind-up mechanism that does not require electricity.
They work by adjusting the weight on an inverted pendulum to change the tempo. We’ll go into more detail in the next section.
- Electronic Metronomes: Most of the modern-day metronomes that we use are digital. They use buttons to control the tempo and other settings such as volume. Digital metronomes allow you to do several things that mechanical metronomes don’t such as connecting headphones, changing the click sound and complex time signatures.Electronic metronomes come in several different varieties including clip-on metronomes, pedals, dial, and in-ear. These all serve the same function, just in different forms. Some guitar tuners also have in-built metronomes and act as combo devices.
- Software Metronomes: People tend to joke that “there’s an app for everything these days” but the fact is that this is kind of true. There are many options for software metronomes these days ranging from apps to freeware. All the different DAWs also come with their own in-built metronomes.
How Does A Metronome Work?
We have already explored the different types of metronomes available, mechanical, digital and software. This section will explain how they all work and give you a better understanding of what metronome is right for you. They all work the same way but different people have different needs.
The mechanical metronome is viewed by many as the ‘traditional’ metronome. They make use of a double-weighted pendulum and when the user adjusts the distance between the weights this also adjusts the time between each click.
Within the mechanical metronome is a coiled spring. This spring ensures that the loudness of each tick is constant (it would be quite annoying if the loudness decreased as you used the metronome). The spring keeps unwinding to keep the metronome going thanks to the escapement mechanism within the device.
The escapement mechanism allows the rotating mechanism to move in a continuous manner until the pendulum reaches its peak. The mass of the two weights does not actually affect the time of the ticks.
Their main advantage is that they do not run on batteries or electricity. They are also simple to use and they offer quick tempo adjustments. However, they only work properly on surfaces that are level and you cannot adjust certain things such as the click sound or the volume level.
Patented in 1972, digital metronomes work differently compared to mechanical metronomes due to their mechanisms being quite different. For instance, instead of making use of a weighted pendulum, these metronomes comprise of an oscillator which produces a signal of a predetermined frequency. This is then converted by means of a variable divider into tempo signals which are periodically generated i.e. the click.
If none of the above makes any sense to you don’t worry, after all, we are musicians and not engineers.
Mechanical metronomes produce sound whereas digital metronomes can produce sound as well as a visual cue i.e. flashing with the click.
Digital metronomes are advantageous are they are smaller and more portable than mechanical metronomes. You can also adjust the volume to suit your needs and you can make use of headphones when using it. The only real con would be having to replace your batteries as they wear out with time.
How To Use A Metronome
Most metronomes are pretty straightforward to use and don’t require much technical know-how to set-up and begin using.
- Select a Metronome: Above we explored the different types of metronomes and the options you have to choose from. Each has its own advantages, and disadvantages, so you will need to select the one that best suits your needs.
- Learn the Notes of the Song: The first thing you might want to do is learn the notes of the song you want to practice. By doing this, you will familiarise yourself with the rhythm of the song as well as the time signature. While learning the notes, it is also important to ensure that your timing is pristine.
- Set Time and Tempo: Once you’re familiar with the notes of the song you want to practice, the next step would be to set the time signature and the tempo. To begin with, always start with a moderate tempo that will allow you to accurately play all the notes of the song. Increase the speed accordingly and focus on your technique all throughout.
- Set the Volume: Mechanical metronomes do not offer this option so you won’t be able to adjust the volume on them, but most electronic metronomes provide for this. Select a volume that is loud enough for you to hear without having to strain.
- Slow Down The Tempo: All musicians advance at very different paces. As such, you might feel the need to revert to a slower tempo in order to polish up your technique when practicing a certain song or scale. This is perfectly normal and you should not hesitate to do so if you feel the need.
It will take some time to get used to playing with a metronome as it can feel rigid and intrusive at first, in fact, this is why many people abandon using a metronome while playing. However, like with anything else, practice makes perfect so you need to take your time to get comfortable with using a metronome while playing or practicing.
It is important to understand the concept of time signatures as this will play an important role when using your metronome. The top number in the time signature refers to the number of beats found in a measure and the bottom number is the value of the beat.
If the time signature is 4/4 then what this means is that there are 4 quarter beats per measure. If the time signature is 3/4 then this means there are 3 quarter beats per measure.
Using A Metronome For Guitar
Regardless of what level you play at, the metronome is a useful tool for every guitar player. While it is not a necessity, it can be a great addition to your practice routine.
Many of the great guitarists that we listen to practiced with metronomes in order to perfect their technique and increase their speed as they play. Like we have already explored earlier, you need to start off slow and gradually build up your speed.
As a guitarist, you can use a metronome while practicing picking exercises such as alternate picking. As a warm-up, I personally spend at least 15 minutes practicing my alternate picking as I play along with a metronome. I start with a low tempo of 100 BPM and gradually work my way up.
Once you learn different scales, you should play them along to a metronome to familiarise yourself with the patterns. This is how guitarists are able to play complex solos at blistering speeds. You can also use a metronome to work on your chord transition skills.
Using A Metronome For Piano
Learning to keep time and pace is an essential skill for all piano players. However, if you’re just starting off then you might struggle with this.
When using a metronome to play piano, you want to start off with the basic principle of setting the metronome to a low number such as 60 BPM. Count 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 as the metronome clicks. This allows you to familiarise yourself with the rhythm and internalize it. Increase the tempo in increments of 10 BPM until you can’t keep up with the metronome.
Metronome Practice Exercises
Below is a compilation of various practice exercises you can do with your metronome. These are applicable to all instruments, it doesn’t matter whether you play piano or guitar. The main purpose of these exercises is to perfect your timing and your technique.
Some of these exercises will take a bit of practice before you get a hang of them. So be sure to start off with a moderately slow tempo and then increase the tempo as you get comfortable with the exercises.
- Play dotted rhythms: This refers to playing both quickly and slowly in the same passage. It is often challenging and requires practice before you can fully master a piece.
- Practice polyrhythms: For instance, you can set your metronome to a time signature of 3/4 and set the metronome to click every two beats. It will click the first and third beat in odd measures and the second beat will be in even measures.
- Play along to songs while using a metronome: You should choose a song you’re well versed with and play along to it with as much accuracy as you can. This can also help take the monotony out of practice.
- Play scales with a metronome: As discussed earlier, this will be extremely beneficial towards your solos. It also helps develop your improvisational skills for those impromptu surprise jams.
- Practice with the light: If you’re using a digital tuner, a fun exercise to challenge yourself would be to mute the volume and follow the blinking light rather than the sound. This will give you an idea of how well you’ve internalized a particular rhythm.
Your end goal when using a metronome to practice is to perfect your technique to the point that you can play a piece flawlessly regardless of the speed. The goal is not to have you playing like a robot. In fact, playing so mechanically isn’t always desirable as the performance may lack ‘groove’ and sound lifeless.
As explained, always start off with a tempo that will allow you to accurately play all the notes before you decide you’re ready to advance to a more challenging tempo.