Most of us musicians will admit to a love/hate relationship with our metronome. Its relentless clicking, ticking or beeping reveals our failings. It has no mercy, and it never gets tired. Batteries even seem to last longer in a metronome than in any other electronic device.
So why has the metronome been an essential tool for generations of musicians?
Consider carefully what the metronome does.
The metronome is the audible representation of the space between two beats. A beat in music is actually a span of time, a space between two pulses. The consistent length of those spaces provides the framework for the rhythm of the piece. And the metronome is one way we can hear that framework.
The metronome is precise; it defines beats that are even and equal. Music without an even pulse is not satisfying to the listener. A rhythmic beat is a primal, instinctive sort of communication. It is one of the most important ways we connect to music. When the pulse is unsteady, it can make us feel uneasy and off balance, like being in a rocking boat.
The metronome does not discriminate. To the metronome, every beat is equal. But most music is metered, and each beat in a meter carries a different weight. For instance, the first beat of every measure is usually stronger than the others. The metronome doesn’t make this distinction, which is why we still have to count.
I think every musician needs to practice with a metronome. Not all the time, but regularly. It will help you achieve more clarity, consistency and comfort in your playing. It is invaluable for developing an even and reliable technique. It will help you train your “inner metronome,” an essential skill for sightreading and playing in ensemble. There is no other tool that can make your practice as effective.
Working with a metronome is not easy at first. It can be difficult to listen and play, to learn to adjust your playing so that it matches with the clicks. It’s very much like bouncing a ball. Your hand needs to meet the ball at the top of its arc. If you hit it too soon, it smacks your hand. If you hit it too late, the ball has already started down again. Learning to play with the metronome requires you to make similar adjustments, but on a micro level, as you play. A note that is played too early or too late is an incorrect note.
Over the next few weeks, I will be giving you some pointers on working with a metronome. Start with this little exercise. You will need a metronome that has a “mute” button, or a volume control.
Set your metronome to a comfortable counting tempo, maybe around 60. (You don’t need your instrument to do this exercise.) Count with the metronome, from 1 to 10. When you say “10,” turn the metronome to silent but continue to count, counting backwards from 10 to 1. Just as you say “1,” turn the metronome’s sound back up. Are you exactly with the metronome? Try the same drill at different metronome speeds. (Hint: faster speeds are sometimes easier!)