Metronome 101 – what do I do with this thing?
If you've stumbled onto this piece, it's almost certain that at some point a music teacher or fellow musician has encouraged you to use a metronome when practicing. It's nothing personal, any level of musician can benefit from metronome work. Most pros I know love their metronomes and make metronome practice a regular habit.
What I bet you haven't ever been taught is HOW to use a metronome. After years of teaching, I've realized that almost nobody ever explains to beginners how to get the most out of metronome practice, and that most developing musicians could use help getting started. To begin with, most have to hear the advice a few dozen times before giving in; and when they finally break down and try it, they get out a metronome, turn it on, and start working on whatever piece they're working on at the time. While this may work for a few, most struggle. The end result is often the development of a dislike for metronomes and timing aids in general, or worse yet, they get lots of practice tuning out important audio information while they play.
Getting started the right way with a metronome is critical to really learning to feel the pulse in the music. Once you feel it, playing with a metronome doesn't seem like a chore – it can even be fun, like you're jamming with the world's most rock solid and tasteful percussionist.
My main instrument, both playing and teaching, is the banjo. While I might eventually follow this up with some banjo-specific metronome advice (I have quite a bit), this advice can apply to any musician, regardless of instrument or familiarity with theory. This is not an overnight method. Ingraining a good sense of time is a vital part of good musicianship, and you'll get better results if you take an incremental approach and don't skip ahead of your ability. You might be able to do this in a few days, or it might take you months. Doesn't matter, if you do it right you'll end up at the same place. Don't rush (hah). If you just get through the first step or two, it'll still make you a better musician. If all you ever do is tap along with a click in your car and never use a metronome when you practice your instrument, that'll still make you a better musician. Just dig in and see how far you can go.
Step one: Find a metronome
There's never been an easier time to do this! You should probably find several – there are a lot of options out there, and each has its pros and cons.
First off is the old fashioned mechanical kind with a swinging weight on a stick, which is what everyone pictured when they heard the word “metronome” until about 15-20 years ago. These can be great – they don't need batteries or electricity, you can probably find one at a thrift shop for a few bucks, they look cool enough to impress guests, and they're also usually loud enough. The drawback is that if you don't have them on a perfectly level surface, they get inaccurate, and that inaccuracy can be pretty pronounced at slow tempos – so I'd recommend another option for extra slow tempos. They also don't have programmable “accent” beats – but for you at this stage of the game, that's a good thing. Leave the accents for later, the exercises I'll be discussing are best done with all the clicks sounding the same.
Next up we have the electronic metronomes. These usually are powered by a 9v battery, and like the pendulum kind, will usually give you tempos from 40-208 bpm. They are more accurate than the mechanical ones on any surface (so, great for practicing slow stuff), but they require batteries, which is no fun, and you might have to do some looking to find one with a “click” that you like that and that is loud enough for the instrument you play.
The last kind I'm going to mention is probably the first kind you're going to try. Most people have access to a smartphone or computer, so a working metronome is already in your home. There are digital metronomes all over the web, just type “metronome” into a search engine. There are also some great metronome apps out there (Pro Metronome is my personal favorite, but there are dozens with varying features and levels of complexity). Online/app based metronomes are free or cheap, and some of them offer a wide range of tempos, with super slow and super fast tempos that might not be useful for you now, but can be super handy for advanced players (Pro Metronome for example, goes from 10-500 bpm). The biggest drawback of these metronomes should be obvious – they are attached to the greatest distraction devices ever invented. Having your practice session constantly interrupted by notifications or even the temptation to see what's going on out in the world isn't a great thing. Nonetheless, they are portable, the price is right, and sometimes you just want to practice a tune with a click going at 13 or 350 bpm.
Step 2: Put your instrument down
Yes, that's right. Put your instrument down. Unless you are at a point where your instrument is an extension of your body and you can play without thinking, it's best to work on one thing at a time. If you're at that point, you're probably not reading this anyway. So put it down. The goal here is to make it easy to use a metronome, and really feel where the tempo is, so let's focus on just that at the most basic level right now.
Step 3: First steps
Get a metronome out, and set it to around 112-120 bpm. This is a really comfortable tempo range that's almost ingrained in our DNA as people. It's that “get up and dance” range where square dances, disco, and loads of popular dance musics live. It's been a marching tempo for armies for centuries. It's a good place to start.
Now make a short, accented, sound in the easiest way you can – clap hands, tap a table, tap a foot, snap your fingers, whatever. It doesn't matter. Just try to do it at the exact same time as the clicks from the metronome. Line it up so you can anticipate right where those clicks will fall and make them almost disappear with your own sound. This might be easy for you right away, or it might be hard. Either way, do it for as short or as long as you like, but stop before you get frustrated or sick of it – if your patience runs out in 2 minutes, that's fine, it is still helping. Then put the metronome away, and move on to practicing or get on with your day. Mix up how you make sounds – try clapping, try tapping your foot. You can take a walk with a metronome in your headphones and get your steps in time. Play it through your car stereo and tap the wheel. It doesn't matter.
Do this, every day if you can, until it gets easy for you to line up perfectly with that click. It might take a day, it might take weeks. No worries. The important thing is that you do it right, so that you start to really feel the tempo.
Step 4: Change it up
Once Step 3 starts feeling easy for you, keep doing those same drills with tapping or whatever, but start mixing up and gradually expanding the range of tempos you're working with. Maybe 104-132 for a few days, then 88-144, all the way until you're doing 40-208 and various spots in between. A few minutes of good concentration a day is all it takes – be patient, it's more important to get it right than to get it soon. Believe it or not, slow tempos can be even harder than fast ones, so be forgiving of yourself at the extremes. If you can't get it perfect at 40, you've got good company, but it's good to try at least. Even though you're not combining the metronome with practice on your instrument yet, you might be seeing results already in your playing. That's great, but stick with the program and keep working on your fundamental sense of timing.
As a positive side effect, you're probably a better dancer now than you were before, too – try it.
Step 5: Filling in the spaces
When you can easily do Step 4, in the middle-range tempos at least (as I said – 40 is pretty tough!), it's time to move on to filling in the spaces between the clicks.
You may have noticed that music is rarely an uninterrupted string of identical notes. Well, you can use a metronome to prepare for that. If you aren't familiar with the terminology for reading time in sheet music (half note, quarter note, eighth note, etc, I HIGHLY recommend doing some studying on that. As I said, I'm writing this assuming zero theory knowledge, though). Take as many days as you need to work your way through this section, one part at a time.
First – leave notes out. At various tempos try these:
Count each tap (say the number when you tap) - 1 2 3 4, 1 2 3 4, etc.
Then leave taps out (“rests”) – 1 X 3 4, 1 X X 4, 1 2 3 X, etc. - use your imagination here. If it helps to say the numbers out loud to keep track (don't tap on the silences though!), that's fine. Try some different tempos.
Next – fill in the gaps at a medium or slow-medium tempo:
Count each tap, and tap/say “and” between each number – 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and, 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 and, etc. Try to keep your taps and counts very even. The clicks of the metronome should only be happening on the number, it's up to you to fill in the “and” with your tap.
When you can do that, try mixing in rests like we just did above. If it helps to count out loud, that's fine, but keep your taps where they belong – 1 and X and 3 and 4 and, 1 and 2 and X X 4 and, 1 X 2 and 3 X 4 and, etc. Mix up where you put the rest. Try some different tempos.
Then – fill in the gaps even more at a slow-medium tempo. Just like the last exercise, except you fill in the spaces between the numbers with “ee and a” - 1 ee and a 2 ee and a 3 ee and a 4 ee and a, 1 ee and a 2 ee and a 3 ee and a 4 ee and a, etc.
Remember, the clicks of the metronome fall on the number, and you are filling in the spaces between the clicks with taps (and words). Keep those taps nice and even!
Try mixing it up with rests just like you did above, and try some different tempos.
Step 6: Pick up the instrument
Finally!!! When you can do the above things with some level of ease, pick up your instrument and work through the drills above, this time while playing the instrument. Stay relaxed and patient! At first, try playing one note or chord repeatedly in place of the taps, so you don't have much to think about. Then try doing some patterns that you can do without much thought - scales for instance, or a simple chord progression.
When you start working on actual songs with the metronome, start off with things you can already play easily, don't try to learn two skills at once. It will get easier and easier, and you can gradually incorporate metronome practice into harder and harder material.
It will be worth the patience and effort, I promise! The better your timing, the more people will want to play with you. Playing fancy gets you noticed, but playing solid gets you invitations.
Hope this helped you unlock some of the secrets of metronome practice and improve your musicianship! Feel free to contact me with any questions, feedback, or if you are interested in taking lessons.
UPDATE: accompanying video here - https://youtu.be/s90dmo7G9Jk
- Sam Guthridge