As the joke goes, mathematicians like metronomes because they are…a rhythmic-tic. Get it? :-)
Jokes aside, the metronome is a pretty unique device that is based on the relationship between math and music. Its usefulness has earned the metronome a storied place in the music community. But although it has been in existence for centuries, many musicians still wonder if they need it. Others who are new to playing instruments are not sure how to use the metronome. If you fall in either category, or just curious about the purpose of a metronome and how it is used, keep reading.
A metronome is a device timed to deliver clicking sounds at precise intervals. It can be traced back to the dawn of the 19th Century but was only labeled as an aid for musicians when Johann Maelzel, a German inventor, filed a patent that described the metronome as a musical tool.
Designed as a purely mechanical device, the traditional metronome consists of a pendulum that swings back and forth. The user controls the pace of the clicks by setting the number of beats per second. Today, metronomes are a bit more advanced in that you are not limited to a clicking or ticking sound. Electronic variants make it possible to set a variety of sounds that you can loop constantly. There are also metronome apps that offer additional features.
A metronome may seem like a simple device but it actually has several purposes. For starters, it is used for both recording music, as well as in normal play. In the studio, for instance, a metronome is commonly used when recording pop songs. Pop music often involves a process called overdubbing, which can be hard to accomplish if the tempo is uneven. People who create musical scores for films and TV shows also use metronomes to ensure the soundtrack is perfectly synced to each frame of the video file. With that said, there are a number of purposes for a metronome in the life of a learning musician.
1. Aids with developing a musical ear
One of the most important elements of music is timing. Great musicians are those who have good musical timing when playing an instrument such as the guitar, piano, etc. Every music composition has intervals that help the piece sound logical. These intervals include quarter notes, eighth notes, and dotted quarter notes. Experienced musicians know how to keep pace with the intervals within a piece of music being played. This is called having a musical ear.
The thing is, most newbie musicians do not have this musical ear, and will end up falling off the beat while playing, even if they are hitting the right notes. The end result is that your playing sounds disjointed and messy, instead of smooth and flowing. And even for those who have a natural ear for music, it is not always easy to consciously keep step, especially if the beat is a bit complex. That’s where a metronome comes in.
2. Keeps your attention on the beat
Using a metronome helps you to focus on the steady beat of a piece of music while playing, so you stay in sync. The device reinforces your inner timing mechanism with its constant click-click sound based on the tempo that was set.
3. Helps with adapting to tempo change
Musical expression is often unpredictable. Sometimes the rhythm and beat can suddenly speed up or slow dramatically. If you are playing in a band, you want to be able to react accordingly, so the performance remains as fluid and mellow as possible. Practicing with a metronome helps improve your reaction to any change in tempo, so you can always adjust accordingly.
4. Leads to better estimation and speed
Music can be played at a variety of beats per minute (bpm). Sometimes you can tell what it will be – if you are using sheet music where the tempo is already indicated, for example. Other times, you will have to estimate what it is based on how a piece of music is being performed. Whatever the case, it is a great skill if you can already estimate the pace of a 75 bpm tempo, compared to a 60, 90, 120, or higher bpm. Speaking of high bpm, if you are interested in playing certain types of music such as techno or salsa, you will regularly come in contact with fast beats (over 120 bpm). The faster the tempo, the easier it is to lose focus when playing. In helping you develop your timing, a metronome will also make it easier for you to keep up with fast beat music.
5. Helps with becoming a better musician overall
If you have never used a metronome before, it can sound jarring at first. The precision of the device may even appear to go against your need to experiment with music. But over time, as your timing gets better, you will likely come to appreciate the metronome. You will find your brain becomes more attuned to keeping a steady pace while playing, even if you are playing a long piece of music. Moreover, a more confident appreciation of beat and rhythm will bolster your ability to control your instrument of choice and use it more comfortably. Also, once you have fixed your timing, you will no longer need to use the metronome, as you will naturally play on-beat every time.
Using a metronome to practice is as simple as adding it to your practice routine. The first thing you need to do is acquire a suitable metronome. This can be a plain, old-style metronome that just clicks, a modern electronic type that allows you to use different sounds, or even a metronome app available in one of the app stores. Here are some additional steps when using a metronome:
- Decide on the interval measure you want to use, whether it is an eighth note, quarter note, etc.
- You want to start off with a rate that you are comfortable with, so if you can’t handle a 120 bpm tempo, you might want to try 60 or slower.
- Starting slowly will allow you to stay on track more often than not.
- Once you become accustomed to a tempo speed, you can keep increasing it. If you practice daily, for example, you can take it up a notch each time or every other day.
Becoming a great musician means constantly improving your skills. Investing in a metronome is one of the simplest and cheapest ways you can boost your skills.