a metronome in the grass

How to Use A Metronome: The MVP of Music Practice

The metronome is such a powerful tool in music practice. Most people know it as a tool to help you learn to play a piece with a steady beat. What they don’t realize is that it can also help you to create a specific, attainable plan to bring a piece from sloppy and arduous, to easy and ready to perform.

Don’t believe me? Read on to learn the many uses of the metronome, as well as how to recruit it into your inner circle of practice resources!

Note: This article may contain affiliate links. That means that if you make a purchase through one of these links I may receive monetary compensation. However, I only ever include links to products I truly believe in and recommend!

3 Arguments Against the Metronome

Many people dislike using the metronome. Like most cases of dislike in our world, this usually comes from lack of understanding of how to use it properly.

Below are three of the top reasons you might be feeling resistance to the idea of using a metronome, and why you should anyway!

1. It Makes Me Play Like A Robot

Robot
Photo by Rock’n Roll Monkey on Unsplash

As a creative musician, of course you want the freedom to allow your music to ebb and flow, and not stick to a stuffy old strict tempo.

I heard on the radio once that when creating the re-imagining of the music of The Beatles album called Love, they experimented with using modern technology to make Ringo’s drumming adhere to a click track (same thing as a metronome but in a recording studio).

The result: “It wasn’t The Beatles anymore”. Lots of music requires a certain level of rhythmic freedom in order to feel like the creative, emotional expression that it is.

I am not trying to convince you to play like a robot. The metronome is a wonderful tool, but by no means do I suggest you should perform the way you would play with a metronome.

What the metronome does is create a temporary limitation to tempo variation so you can focus on other aspects of the piece. In the simplest of terms, it helps us stay slow when we need to practice slow, and stay fast when we need to practice fast.

On top of that, it helps us keep track of exactly how fast or slow we’ve played so we can plan how much faster or slower we want to play the next time.

Once it has served its purpose, it’s always important to spend some time playing the piece without the metronome so you can establish a natural tempo.

2. It Messes Me Up More Than It Helps Me

Kid covering face with a question mark to the side
Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

This is the most common complaint of beginners. When you’re just starting, playing music is hard! There are so many things to pay attention to all at once!

You have to read the notes and rhythms, use the correct hand and fingers, and play with good technique and good sound. As if that wasn’t already hard enough, now I’m suggesting you also have to do it at a steady tempo, enforced by an unforgiving machine. 

Actually no, that’s not exactly what I’m suggesting. When you’re still overwhelmed with the notes and fingers and technique, that’s not the time to add the metronome. First you need to get to a point where some of those things become a little bit more automatic.

Think about when you were first learning to drive. At first, it was probably a little overwhelming. You were focusing on switching your foot from the gas to the break, keeping your hands positioned at 10 and 2, and your eyes were doing the mirror check circuit that they teach you in driving school. 

You probably had hardly enough brain space to hold a conversation while focusing on all of that! Now you probably do all kinds of things while you drive including messing with the radio, talking with passengers, maybe even eating, but hopefully not texting while driving (and if you do so, please stop as it’s very unsafe)!!

The point is, you probably hardly even think about where your feet, hands, and eyes are when you drive. They just do what they’re supposed to do automatically.

Similarly, you will get to a point like that with your music. And if you let it, the metronome can help you in this process.

3. It’s Loud and Annoying

Kid covering ears
Image by Ulrike Mai from Pixabay

Obviously, this depends on your metronome. Some are extremely loud, which is necessary if you have a very loud instrument, or if you are hard of hearing.

Luckily there are many to choose from in this day and age. One thing I will say is if you end up getting one of the old-fashioned wind-up pendulum metronomes, make sure you keep it wound and keep it on a flat surface. Otherwise you can’t rely on it to keep the true tempo.

I currently recommend the Seiko SQ50-V Quartz metronome. This is because it’s simple and reliable.

I find it has a reasonably loud but not annoying sound, the battery lasts a very long time, and it can handle being dropped on the floor more than a few times.

There are plenty of other great options out there, as well as apps with different sounds and volumes. I’m sure you can find something that works for you.

If after exploring the above options this is your excuse for not using a metronome, that of course is your choice. Just know the consequences are that you’ll be missing out on an amazing tool that can greatly improve your skills in a short time.

How to Make the Metronome Work for You

Person straightening their tie
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

A good place to start when getting comfortable with the metronome is while practicing scales and other technical exercises. This is for several reasons:

  1. They tend to have simple, consistent rhythm which makes it easier to keep with the metronome tempo.
  2. These are ideally exercises that you are able to play automatically without too much thought. 
  3. It’s a great way to track your progress these exercises as your tempo gradually increases.

Start Where You’re At

For an example, let’s start with a scale you’re fairly familiar with. First play it without the metronome to get an idea of a comfortable tempo. Ideally this is a pace at which you can play the scale without any pauses or mistakes.

Note that you may need to pick a tempo that is much slower than you’re used to playing the scale. Many of us try to play things too quickly before we’re really ready. This is a great way to create bad habits with lots of stops and starts.

Once you’ve found a slow, steady pace at which you can easily play the scale, figure out what that speed is with the metronome. Note that you have several options of what to set as your “beat”. 

What I mean by this is you could consider each note and each metronome click to be a quarter note, which would mean each click of the metronome coincides with each note in the scale.

You could also play in 8th notes while the metronome remains quarter notes, which means you’d play two notes for each metronome click.

One of my favorite methods, especially for playing slowly, is making the metronome work twice as hard as I do; Imagine each note in the scale is a half note while the metronome is still clicking quarter notes. The metronome has to click twice for each note you play.

Playing this way makes it much easier to follow very slow tempos, plus it gives you a helpful “preparation” click in between each note.

Slowly Increase the Pace

Now that you’ve found your metronome tempo, write it down. Each day, increase that tempo by just one unit. Depending on your metronome that might be literally increasing from 80 to 81 for example, or if you have an old school metronome you’ll see that you don’t have every single numerical option, and would therefore increase from 80 to 84.

If you increase gradually like this every single day, or even every other day, you will painlessly see vast improvement in your ability to play that exercise. This is because every time you play it, you’re doing so in a relaxed, steady manner.

Most likely you don’t even notice the difference in tempo from day to day, but over the course of weeks and months your progress will add up quickly!

Applying this to Pieces

Once you feel like it’s pretty easy to keep up with the metronome during technical exercise, it’s time to apply the same principals to your repertoire. Remember that, like I said above, this is for practice purposes only.

Once you’ve made the intended progress with the metronome it’s very important to spend some time playing the piece without the metronome so you can get a natural feel for the tempo.

If you still find it hard to play a complicated rhythm with the metronome, try clapping or tapping the rhythm instead. Isolating the issue by taking away the difficulty of playing the correct notes may help fix the problem.

Practice!

As with most things, the key to getting used to the metronome is practice. It may be slow and challenging at first, but the more you do it the easier it will become.

Think of something else you didn’t like at first but enjoy now. Perhaps it was exercising or eating healthy food or your in-laws.

In order to get the most out of life it’s necessary to overcome some challenges in order to benefit in the long run. Over time if you stay consistent and persistent, you’re bound to reach the top of what now seems like an endless staircase.

Making a solid plan for your practice can definitely help too so you can make decisions in advance rather than deciding each day what and how to practice.

Just remember, the view from the top will make you realize what a valuable friend your metronome really is!

Make Practice Time Easier By Planning Ahead!

Hands playing piano keys with a metronome and pencil nearby

Learn how to plan exactly what you need to do each day to accomplish your goals. Then all you have to do at practice time is sit down and play!

The Piecewise Practice Planner will help you make meaningful progress every time you practice, even with as little as 5 minutes per practice session.

Best of all, it’s completely FREE–to opt in, click the button below!

What are your thoughts on using the metronome? I’d love to hear about your trials and triumphs in the comments below!

Heidi has been involved in music in one way or another for most of her life. She studied music composition in college, has taught piano, voice, composition, ear training, and guitar, and has worked as a piano tuner and technician. Before the pandemic she loved playing concerts at retirement communities, bringing the joy of music to those populations. She is currently working on learning more about the connection between music and healing.

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