Updated: Aug 30, 2019
The Metronome, part 1. By Bold City Music Co. instructor Kate DePalma
Introduction to the Metronome
A metronome is a tool that musicians use to develop various rhythmic and tempo-based skills within their craft. Its primary function is to serve as a timekeeping piece, allowing musicians to develop rhythmic discipline within entire pieces or excerpts of pieces. It works sort of like a clock — it measures units of time called beats per minute, or BPM.
BPM is exactly what it sounds like. It’s a measure of the beats (units of time) that can fit into one minute of time. For example, 60 BPM sounds exactly like the tick of a clock, because both sixty beats and sixty seconds fit into one minute as measured on a clock. 120 BPM sounds like exactly two beats per second, and so on.
Musicians use BPM as their timekeeping measurement, allowing pieces to be easily played at any tempo. This is where a metronome can come in handy — musicians use the metronome to practice playing music at varying tempos to develop their technical and performance skills. You can learn more about this in next month’s blog.
This post will focus on developing some of the basic benefits of metronome use and how to exploit these benefits.
Learning to begin playing at exactly the right time
A lot of my students have trouble learning to play with the click of a metronome. They play notes at inappropriate times or fail to begin playing at the right time. A simple, effective trick I use with my students is to start them playing one or two notes at a time, making sure that they play the notes in time with the click of the metronome. It can take a few tries, but if a student can focus on successfully playing just one note in time with the click, then they will be able to add on additional notes with practice, adding one note, one measure, and one phrase at a time. This is a great way to boost a student’s confidence and make playing to a metronome less daunting.
Learning to play accurate rhythms
Working with a metronome forces students to learn how to think about notes in terms of rhythm in addition to pitch. When students first begin learning to read and play music, rhythm is often easily overlooked. Once a student begins to feel more comfortable with their instrument, it may be time to refocus them and encourage them to spend some time paying attention to rhythms - even if it just means starting with short and long notes.
One effective way to learn rhythms with a metronome is to begin by playing without worrying about pitch at all. Students can practice playing whole, half, quarter and eighth notes on one pitch in varying rhythms until they feel comfortable enough to add pitch back into their practice routine. Once they are ready, they can try playing all or parts of their songs along to a metronome. It will take practice, but eventually students will be comfortable playing any of their songs to a metronome!
Learning to play with friends and peers
Playing music with others helps all musicians develop their skills as well as inspire them to try new ideas, sounds and techniques. Community is vital for musicians of all ages and skill levels!
Playing with other musicians is important, but it takes a lot of practice and focus. The best way to prepare for and learn to play with others is to begin by playing with the click of a metronome. By practicing with the metronome, students will begin to feel comfortable listening for tempos maintained by others. They will learn to internalize tempos and beats, and then to follow those internalized tempos and beats while they play. This can be achieved if students are already comfortable executing the first two skills listed above.
The end results of this practice routine are great! After spending some time playing to a metronome, students may begin to feel comfortable playing with other musicians. This is a great reward for all of their hard work.
Like any new skill, learning to play with a metronome can take an enormous amount of time and patience for students of any age. Many students may be able to develop this skill on their own, however, it is not uncommon to enlist a teacher or a coach for extra help. It is important to find a teacher who is ready to work with you on fundamental timekeeping skills and who can break down overwhelming skills (like playing with a metronome) into smaller, more manageable skills (like learning to begin playing at exactly the right time) that can be practiced comfortably. It takes a lot of work, but it is well worth it.