How to Practice With a Metronome – And Why You Should

If you’re a musician, you’ve likely used a metronome. Click… Click… Click… It can really get on your nerves. A lot of students feel weighed down by it, even stifled in their creativity. Music is about expressing yourself right? So why do we need to play like robots with a machine clicking in our ears?

There are good reasons. Your teacher isn’t trying to make your life miserable. Your teacher tells you to use the metronome because it works.

Keep a Steady Tempo

Let’s get the obvious reason to use a metronome out of the way first. When many young students practice a piece of music, they’ll work on different sections at different tempos (or tempi depending on who you talk to). The “easiest” part of the piece will normally be practiced too fast. Young students feel they need to finish the easy section, so they can practice the difficult section.

Practicing large sections is not a good way to practicing in and of itself. But if you’re going to just play through your music, you should definitely keep a steady tempo throughout. Young students have a very hard time with this. This is one reason why a metronome is so important. Turn the metronome on and keep it on for a lot of your practice.

A Metronome Doesn’t Stifle Creativity

Ok maybe it does if you only practice with the metronome. But you won’t. Turn off the metronome when you’re working on a ritardando, accelerando, or you need to take time somewhere. Other important times to turn the metronome off is when you are thinking. How do you plan to play a particular section? Music isn’t all about repetitions, it’s also about using your mind and creating a insightful and beautiful interpretation of music.

You will know when to not use the metronome when the time comes. Try to make turning off the metronome the exception, not the rule.

The Metronome Can Improve Technique

I bet you never thought of this one, but studies show that golfers can actually improve by practicing with a metronome. Who knew right? How does golf relate to music? Well it’s a motor skill in a similar way that music is. It makes sense that if a metronome can help improve the technical aspects of one motor skill (that isn’t even rhythmic like music is) the same would hold true for another.

I won’t go into the study too deeply Noa Kageyama at Bulletproof Musician has already done a good job of that. The biggest take away should be that metronome practice does not necessarily only improve our rhythm and pulse, it may have affects on other aspects on our playing.

From a purely anecdotal experience, I can say that I feel much more confident both with memory and technique when I practice a piece often with a metronome.

Don’t Play From the Beginning to the End

There’s a place for playing a piece through from beginning to the end with a metronome. I’m not saying never do it. But it shouldn’t be needed too often. When students turn on the metronome it seems like an excuse to play the piece from the beginning. You should be working on the music with the metronome the same way you work on a piece of music without the metronome, in small sections.

Starting Slow and Slowly Speeding Up Leads to Speed Walls

It seems like it would make sense to start at a slow tempo and gradually raise the tempo every day. The changes in tempo are so small you won’t even notice that every day you’re playing the piece a little faster. It makes sense then to think that eventually you’ll have the section up to the correct tempo. It could happen, but you might also reach a speed wall.

What is a Speed Wall?

A speed wall is when no matter what you do, you just can’t seem to pass a certain speed and still play accurately. This phenomena occurs when you practiced with a motion that is impossible to do at a fast tempo. At the very slow tempo you can play a section of music in just about any way out there. If you’re playing the piano, you can lift your hands and fingers high off the keys for every note. Heck, if the tempo is slow enough, you could stand up turn around and sit back down and the notes could still be right. Obviously you couldn’t do that when the piece is fast. The problem is that at the slow tempo you’ve worked those slow movements into your muscle memory and if you play a little faster every day eventually you’ll find that there is a speed you can’t physically play faster than.

What Can You Do Instead?

Practice technically difficult sections of the music in small groups at a fast tempo without the metronome. There is a lot more to say about this subject, but I’ve already talked a lot about it here. It’s far more important to practice with the metronome accurately than it is to practice with the metronome at performance tempo.

To Subdivide or Not to Subdivide

By subdividing the beat you’re dividing the beat into smaller parts. If you’re playing a lot of 16th notes, it’s often helpful to count the 16th notes and note just the main beats. The same can be true with metronome practice. Some metronomes will subdivide on different parts of the beats for you.

For example, you can set the metronome to 120, but then have the metronome “click” for each 16th note in the 120 tempo. Most metronomes will have a different sound for the main beat. This can be helpful if you’re having difficulty feeling the subdivision. Often it can just add to your confusion though. Use it when you feel like it will help.

Half Time

It’s harder to stay in time with a metronome the slower it gets, so depending on the speed of the music, it can be helpful to set the metronome at half time.

Here’s an example, the piece you’re learning is supposed to be at quarter note = 160. You can’t play it near that fast accurately yet. So you set it down to 60bpm, but it’s still too fast for you. Like the good student that you are you continue to make the metronome slower and slower. Eventually you get to about 46bpm. It still seems fast, but now it’s hard to even follow because it’s so darn slow! This is when you should double the speed of the metronome.

Instead of 46bpm set the metronome to 92bpm. Now all the note values are cut in half. You play an eighth note for each click of the metronome, not a quarter note (I’m referring to quadruple meter here, that’s when there is a 4 on the bottom of the key signature). The end result is the same. It’s the same speed as if you were working at quarter note = 46, you’re just now working on eighth note = 92 and the metronome is easier to follow.

This can be applied to any time signature I just used quadruple meter as an example. The point is to double the metronome and double the value of notes as well regardless of the time signature.

Sight Reading with a Metronome

One of the most important uses of the metronome is for sight reading practice. If you play in groups often, you’ve likely gained the skill of following a musical score and keeping up with the group you’re playing with. Sometimes you may not be able to sight read every note and rhythm perfectly, but at least you can keep your eyes moving and stay with the conductor or group.

This can be an issue for pianists though. Pianists tend to play solo sometimes exclusively. There comes a time in every serious pianist’s life where they do need to play in a group. Perhaps this means accompanying a singer or instrumentalist, or playing for a church or choir. Regardless of the reason, every good musician needs to know how to keep up with the music even if they can’t play every note correctly.

This is when the metronome comes in. As long as you have the metronome on when you’re sight reading, the goal is to always keep up with it. Regardless of how bad you’re playing, you have to keep up. This is only one of many ways to practice sight reading, but it’s important nonetheless.

When practicing this way, you can practice both at slow tempos and at the final correct tempo. A slow tempo will help you to recognize notes and patterns better, but a fast tempo will help you learn to keep up with the music regardless of how well you’re playing.

Conclusion

Growing up I didn’t like the metronome. I seemed to always leave it as a last resort. Now when I practice it’s on a lot. We’ve made up. The metronome is nice. He never meant to hurt you. You should be his friend too.

What’s your experience playing with a metronome? Good? Bad? Let us know in the comments.