What’s that ticking noise?
This might be the question your non-musical friends and family members ask when they hear the incessant clicking from your practice space. Knowing how to use a metronome is important, simple and very useful.
This device, nowadays purchasable as a phone app, is a musician’s most trusted tool for inner rhythm development, technique practice and more. It provides us with a consistent and never wrong (unlike foot tapping) “click” which represents the beat in any tempo or rhythm you may need.
It helps us physically hear something we would otherwise only feel; the beat.
How does it work?
The metronome works by providing a beat anywhere from 30bpm to about 252bpm, where the lower the number the slower the click. BPM stands for “beats per minute” and it has to do with time signatures.
For example in 4/4 time, there are 4 beats per measure and each beat is a quarter note. If you need to brush up on basic music theory check out this awesome little website. So, if I was playing Mary Had a Little Lamb in 4/4 time I could set my metronome at a comfortable 86bpm and play a quarter note on each click. If I wanted to play it faster, I would turn it up to say 120bpm and follow the same method.
The metronome’s job is to keep you steady in whatever you play to avoid speeding up or dragging the tempo.
But I don’t know what tempo to pick!
While some sheet music clearly states a metronome marking at the top, most fundamental exercises simply say “Slowly” or “Steady.” This is to promote self-reflection and mindful practice as opposed to playing through fundamentals for the sake of getting them out of the way. If you see the word “slowly,” play the exercise as slowly as you need to to focus your tone, notice the flow and feel the feedback from the instrument.
However, sometimes it’s good to play fundamentals with a metronome, especially if you are having a hard time playing slowly, steadily and if you feel like your inner rhythm is out of wack. Here are some go-to tempo markings, but keep in mind they’re just suggestions.
Long tones: 60bpm
Can I use it to play something other than fundamentals?
Yes, and please do. Use your metronome to practice anything and everything! It’s great for mastering pesky passages with quick moving notes and complicated fingering patterns. My favorite practice technique is “chaining”.
Have you ever played a piece of music that has this one part with a bunch of notes going really fast and you just can’t get it right? Yeah me too, and I’m going to tell you how I fixed it. Chaining comes from the idea of an actual metal chain, which is made of single links put together. Once the links are welded in place it is impossible to pull the chain apart. In practice, we can do the same thing. Take the measure that is causing you trouble, turn on your metronome to something slow like 60, and play the first two notes. Play those two notes three times. If, and only if, you got it right all three times, add another note. See how it works? Once you complete the measure or section you can speed it up slowly.
Another way to chain is to do the same thing but with the metronome at full tempo, an approach I recommend for intermediate and advanced players.
Get more tips on this page: “Practice Techniques”
There is a lot more you can do with metronome apps nowadays, but that is a topic for another time. I will leave you with some suggestions on my favorite metronomes.
First, the simple, free and easily accessible Google metronome. Just do a google search for “metronome” and boom…it’s right there!
The second is the awesome app “Tonal Energy”, available on android and apple devices. It is a metronome, tuner, recorder, tone generator and coffee maker. The last one is a lie…but it’s basically that great.
And finally, I would love to recommend a metronome that never failed to be loud enough, the Korg KDM-2, but it’s hard to come by these days. Instead, look for any hefty Korg metronome with a visible speaker and you should have enough volume to annoy the neighbors.
For more recommendations check out this dedicated page: “Tuners and Metronomes.”
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