Weekend Woodshed: 7 Smarter Ways To Use a Metronome

Our “Weekend Woodshed" series provides bite-size tips that musicians at any level can take and use to become more attentive, reflective and intentional players. Best read with instrument in hand.

“Click. Click. Click. Click." - The Metronome

It strengthens our inner pulse, improves our rhythmic precision, and increases the consistency of our playing. How does the metronome do all these things by saying the same thing over and over?

It’s all in how you use it.

Beginners think the metronome simply serves to “keep time." They rely on the metronome, rather than use it to build their own internal sense of rhythm. But developed musicians will use it deliberately and intentionally to solve a specific musical problem that presents itself.

So get rid of the images of children struggling along while their teachers claps with the metronome to emphasize the beat. Start thinking of your favorite musician practicing with one at home when no one is looking and then blowing people’s minds at the concert.

These seven metronome tricks aren’t meant to be used in any particular order or all at once. Pick and choose from the list the one(s) that you feel hit home given where you’re at as a musician.

These seven metronome tricks aren’t meant to be used in any particular order or all at once. Pick and choose from the list the one(s) that you feel hit home given where you’re at as a musician. If you don’t have a metronome handy, use ours right here on the page.

Gradually Accelerate

  1. Slow down a section to an easily playable tempo.
  2. Practice at this tempo until it can be played correctly and consistently.
  3. Bump up the tempo on the metronome a few clicks.
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 until the final tempo is reached.

Practicing slowly and gradually speeding up the tempo is usually the first and most common advice for metronome usage. Most of us have probably heard the adage: “You’ve got to go slow to go fast." Doing this is helpful for getting notes “under the fingers," so they are not a jumbled mess or continue to be a tongue-twister for the fingers.

It also gives the brain enough time to listen to each note, process what it is hearing, identify intonation and musical issues, and fix problems that are easy to miss at a faster tempo.

Unfortunately, gradual acceleration is sometimes the only way people think of using it. When the problem is a specific finger technique, string crossing, shift, breathing pattern, or rhythm, there are other more targeted metronome tricks to try.

Isolate The Problem

  1. Play until you make a mistake, then stop.
  2. Analyze the reason for the mistake.
  3. Practice just that issue repeatedly at tempo. Slow it down if needed and built it back to the original tempo.

Let’s say you are playing most of a passage just fine, but at one little part, you always mess up. Gradual acceleration of the whole passage isn’t a good option because you can play a lot of it without a problem.

Practicing just those few notes repeatedly - in time with the metronome - will help you get over the hurdle."

It will be obvious where the problem is. The hurdle usually won’t be more than a few notes or a single measure. Identifying what the problem is usually requires a bit more reflection. Is it the fingering? String skipping? A fingerboard jump? A breathing or embouchure issue? The timing of a particular phrase? Practicing just those few notes repeatedly - in time with the metronome - will help you get over the hurdle.

Work Backwards

  1. Start with the end note of a difficult passage, practicing it until it is in tune and sounding great.
  2. With the metronome at performance tempo, practice the 2nd to last note with the end note.
  3. Add the 3rd to last note.
  4. Continue this process until the beginning of the phrase is reached.

This method is especially good for fast runs. It starts with the top of the run, which many times can be the most difficult. It’s also usually the climax, the part the audience will remember, so nailing it is crucial.

By working backwards, you can work out the kinks of getting to that note at performance tempo, whether it be lower finger action, quicker finger anticipation, or odd fingerings.

Intentionally Distort The Rhythm

  1. Turn straight note values into a dotted rhythm.
  2. Flip the dotted rhythm around.
  3. Play the original rhythm.

This method is extremely useful when you’re having trouble playing runs of quarter, 8th, or 16th notes evenly. By turning the straight notes into a dotted rhythm, then playing the opposite rhythm, it’s easier to internalize the midpoint: completely even, straight ahead rhythm.

Ghost The Clicks

  1. Practice a section with the metronome set to the quarter note.
  2. Practice a section with the metronome set to the half note.
  3. Practice a section with the metronome set to the whole note.

Most people default to setting their metronome to click as the quarter note. By setting the metronome to larger note values, your inner pulse is tested. The idea here is to wean yourself off of the metronome’s audible beat and rely increasing on your internal sense of rhythm. Do you arrive at the next click early, late, or on time?

There are two apps that are incredibly useful for practicing in this way: DoubleTime (iOS only) and Time Guru.

DoubleTime

Time Guru

DoubleTime will allow to cut the click interval in half on the fly, regardless of your original tempo. You can do this iteratively until you’re only hearing maybe four clicks per minute. And that’s when you truly realize just how good (or bad) your internal metronome is.

Time Guru is a bit wilder. It will actually remove expected clicks randomly, weaning you off metronome dependence in an unpredictable way. You can control what percentage of clicks get removed.

Test Your Consistency

  1. Practice a section with the metronome.
  2. Practice the same section without the metronome and record it.
  3. Replay the recording and turn your metronome on at the start, syncing the two. In a DAW, you can use the built-in metronome to start on cue.
  4. Listen for where your alignment with the beat starts to crumble.

Using a metronome too much has a similar effect to not using one at all. If you leave the metronome on all the time, you won’t develop your inner pulse.

Taking away some clicks but not all is a good inner pulse-building exercise (see above). But every so often, you should check in to see how you can maintain tempo without any safety net at all.

Gradually Decelerate to Absurdity

  1. Play a passage at the written or expected tempo.
  2. Cut the BPM (beats per minute) by 10 and play it again with the metronome.
  3. Repeat Step 2 until you can comfortably take a drink in between notes. Stay disciplined to the true timing of the phrase, no matter how dilated the tempo becomes.

The opposite of gradually building up a passage to tempo, this dilation of timing really forces you to examine how accurately you value quarter notes versus eighth notes versus sixteenth notes, as well as the shining a light on the proportion of rest within a measure.

Any accomplished musician will tell you that this is much harder to do than merely play something fast. This exercise will build your mindfulness, persistence (because you will repeatedly mess it up), and your sense of receptiveness, that ability to let the music come to you rather than chase it.

Final Thoughts

Using a metronome isn’t just something you do when practicing a specific piece. It’s a great thing to just flip on and start improvising with.

Not only with this combat the unhealthy tendency to noodle around without adhering to any beat, but it can also serve as inspiration. Playing at 60 bpm doesn’t conjure up the same phrasing and emotional space that playing at 120 bpm does.

Anyone with a smartphone can get a free metronome app, so there’s no excuse not to start using one."

Sit down and tell yourself: “For the next five minutes, I’m going to improvise over an A major chord at 90 bpm." See what happens. Record it. Next time you sit down, change the key and tempo. You’ll be a more a nimble musician as a result.

If you are practicing a specific piece with a given tempo, don’t guess what it should be. If it’s a tempo marking in Italian, look it up. There are accepted ranges for these words. For example:

  • Adagio = 60 - 70 bpm
  • Allegro = 115 - 140 bpm
  • Andante = 70 - 85 bpm

These days, anyone with a smartphone can get a free metronome app, so there’s no excuse not to start using one. If you prefer to go old school, there are plenty of affordable, funky and perfectly functional vintage metronomes on Reverb, of course. And if a metronome isn't sexy enough for you, you can do a lot of the exercises described here with a drum machine instead.

Metronomes Shop Now on Reverb

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