One of the very best practice techniques that most music instructors recommend is to practice with a metronome.
A metronome is a device that will help you keep a steady beat. It creates a ticking, clicking or beeping sound at a regular rate. You can select how fast or slow you would like it to go.
Practicing with a metronome is a really effective way to practice because it forces you to play with rhythmic integrity that will give you a clean and precise sound. It helps propel your music forward at an even rate and makes it easier for you to play with other musicians.
However, metronome practice can be really frustrating. Oftentimes, it might feel like the metronome is changing tempo or skipping beats. The metronome doesn’t wait for you to figure out notes, so it can be challenging to play with a metronome in the first stages of learning a new piece.
Just like learning your instrument, learning to use a metronome will take time and practice.
What metronome should you use?
Metronomes come in a variety of styles.
You may have seen old-fashioned metronomes like this one:
These metronomes don’t require batteries or electricity. You wind it up and the pendulum will move and create a click to a steady beat. You can change the tempo by sliding the metal piece up or down the pendulum.
Electric metronomes are very common and easy to find online and in music stores. A basic model will have an on/off switch and buttons to move the tempo up or down. More elaborate metronomes will include more features such as different tones, a built-in tuner, volume control, and other features to help you practice:
If you practice piano on a digital piano or keyboard, it’s very likely that you have a built-in metronome on your instrument. On some keyboards, it may not seem obvious how to change the tempo. Check your user’s manual – it’s probably pretty simple.
One of the simplest ways to use a metronome is to google “metronome.” Google has an on-screen metronome that comes up in a search. You’ll also find a variety of metronome websites that you can access. Some are more basic than others, so you can browse until you find one that meets your needs.
And, since there is an app for almost everything, of course there are metronome apps that you can download to your phone or device. Once again, these have a variety of features, so you may want to try a couple out. For example, our Musicnotes iOS app features a metronome that you can utilize.
Helpful features on different metronomes
As we’ve mentioned, metronomes can have a variety of different features. Most musicians really just need the most basic functions – an on/off switch and the ability to change the tempo.
However, sometimes it’s nice to have options. Here are some extras that you might come across:
- Flashing light – Some electric metronomes and metronome apps have a small light that flashes to the beat. (On an app, it might use your phone’s flashlight.) If you are a strong visual learner, you might find it helpful to have this visual component to work with.
- Changing tones – Most metronomes produce a standard clicking sound, but some have a few tones to select from. Sometimes, it will allow you to have a different tone for the downbeat than for the remaining beats in the measure. This will help you ensure that you feel those strongest beats and that you don’t skip beats or lose time as you play.
- Counting – Some metronomes have a computerized voice that will say the counts for you. This is especially helpful if you feel like you’re getting lost or can’t keep up. Hearing the beats will help you make sure that your music is lining up with the correct beats.
- Tap – A tap feature will allow you to tap a button to a beat and will start clicking at your tempo. This will help you find your starting tempo or let you hear what your target tempo sounds like if you don’t have tempo markings.
- Change Meters – For metronomes that have multiple tones, sometimes it’s an option to tell the metronome what meter you are playing in. If your downbeat is a different tone than the rest of the measure, you’ll want to be able to set your metronome to different meters. For example, since 4/4 time is most common, it will probably default to playing beat 1 using one tone and beats 2, 3 and 4 with another. However, if you’re in 3/4 time, you’ll only need to hear beats 2 and 3 of the alternate tone.
- Subdividing – Some metronomes can help you subdivide larger beats into smaller units. For example, if you have a lot of eighth or sixteenth notes, but your pulse is a quarter note, it can click out those smaller notes to help you understand the rhythm. Similar to changing meters, your metronome will probably use an alternate tone to help you hear where the main beat is and where the subdivided beat goes.
How to use a metronome
The clicks on a metronome are measured in Beats Per Minute, or BPM. Therefore, 60 BPM would be equal to a second hand on a clock.
If you’re not sure how to get started using your metronome, here are some techniques to try:
- Use your metronome to internalize the beat. The ultimate purpose of a metronome is to help you feel a consistent beat. This is definitely something that can be learned, so if you don’t feel like you have a strong inner pulse or sense of rhythm, spend time with your metronome away from your instrument. Take a couple of minutes in each practice session to listen to and feel the steady beat. Find a way to move to that beat, whether you’re clapping your hands, tapping your foot or nodding your head. The more you do this, the more it will become second nature and the more you will naturally feel the beat and be able to play with a metronome.
- Start slow and move towards your final tempo. A lot of people assume that most practice should be happening at the target tempo, but most professional musicians will tell you that they spend much of their practice time at a slower tempo. If you’re trying to work your music up to a fast tempo that feels unachievable, the metronome is exactly what will help you. For example, if you’re aiming to play at 120 BPM, set your metronome to 60 BPM. Stay at 60 BPM until you are comfortable playing consistently and accurately. Once 60 BPM feels comfortable, bump up the metronome just 2-4 BPM at a time. Stay at your new slightly higher tempo once again until you feel confident. Continuing increasing the tempo by no more than 4 BPM. You will barely notice the increase in tempo, but over time you will train yourself to play at a faster tempo with precision and a strong technique. It will likely take you several practice sessions to reach your final tempo, but this is a solid approach to learning how to play faster and accurately.
- Subdivide difficult rhythms. If you’re having trouble staying on the beat due to tricky rhythms, you can always subdivide the beat to a smaller unit. For example, if you’re having trouble lining up quarter notes to 60 BPM, you could set your metronome to 120 BPM and feel an eighth note pulse. This approach is especially helpful if you’re working on a piece with a slower tempo. Sometimes it can be difficult to internalize a really slow beat, but doubling the beat and feeling a smaller unit of notes is more doable at first.
- Clap or tap along with the metronome to practice coordination. There’s a lot to think about when practicing an instrument. To simplify things, sometimes it’s helpful to focus on rhythm without worrying about pitch and technique. Clapping or tapping your notes along with the metronome can help you coordinate the timing of your hands to help everything fall into place when you return to your instrument.
- Practice scales and simple exercises with a metronome. It can be tempting to rush through scales and technique exercises, but practicing with a metronome will really help your progress in other areas. Practicing scales with the metronome will help you maintain a clear and consistent tone. Plus, it gives you more practice feeling the musical pulse. This will make your metronome work on more complex music come more easily.
If you’ve never practiced with a metronome before, give it a try! It might not come easily at first, but be consistent and over time you’ll start to see the benefits.
Also, you don’t have to use the metronome throughout your entire practice session. Instead, use it on small sections of music or to accomplish specific tasks. Once you can maintain a consistent steady beat, you’ll actually want to practice without the metronome a bit as well so that your music doesn’t become too mechanical.