How many times have you heard that the best way to master something is to go out and just do it? That it's ok to make mistakes because you will learn from them? Indeed for some skills this is true. However, for the more technical skills – like playing piano – just playing and trying to learn from your mistakes may not be enough. As a novice piano player, it’s best to get the elementary skills, like timing and tempo, tied down fast. It is a frightening reality, but playing out of tune is hardly motivating. Before you know it, you may start doubting whether you are cut out for it at all...and simply give up.
Fortunately, there are quite a few tools you can use so you don’t feel overwhelmed in your next piano practice - and fewer are better than the humble metronome.
What is a Metronome?
Metronomes have been used since 1815, invented by music learners looking to master timing and tempo for different instruments. Even Beethoven is known to have been a fan. It is fair to say the metronome is, partly, responsible for his genius. And if a man of such ample talents could perceive its usefulness, surely you too can.
How a Metronome Works
A metronome is a device that produces repeated rhythmic sounds at a steady tempo. Originally, the instrument was made in triangular wooden boxes marked with a swinging pendulum on the face. The pendulum produces the visual representation of the device’s noted ticking sound.
These mechanical devices have to be adjusted for speed using a switch that is ergonomically fixed to the swinging pendulum. You will also have to power them manually by rotating a wind-up switch on the side, the same way you would a gramophone radio.
However, there are now available pocket size electronic models with more advanced features. If you are the tech savvy type, there are now even computer loadable MP3 files and mobile apps that you can use on the go.
Metronomes make regular ticking beats, measured in 'beats per minute' (BPM), to help you play at a more comfortable tempo as you learn a new piece. The swinging pendulum on mechanical metronomes also serves a practical purpose. It provides a visual aid to help you time your strokes.
How To Use a Metronome
How you use the metronome is ultimately up to you. But the target is almost always the same – to enhance your musical development. Often, reading music does not present major problems for you. But as a learner, reading and making sense of that music while trying to play at the tempo required for the piece presents challenges.
That is sure to cause frustration for any learner. But by slowing and following the metronome’s speed, you are able to play at a slower tempo. You can gradually turn it up as you master your strokes. It is fair to say you may struggle with a metronome at first. But it will get easier as you get used to the tool.
Baby steps – don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to master too much too soon.
Baby Step 1
To start, set your metronome at 60 – 80 bpm and take some time to listen to the metronome’s rhythm. You may find it helpful to do a count off, in tune with the metronome, and align with its rhythm before you start playing. As you play, pay special attention to areas you often struggle with.
Avoid putting pressure on yourself by trying to master the whole piece in one go. Instead, start with the first note and repeat it until you master it. Push it into the next note and repeat the measure until you master that too. Often, the metronome will help point out passages of the piece you need to polish up on. Isolate those and repeat them until you can play them to precision.
Baby Step 2
To aid your concentration, follow the pendulum as it swings from left to right. Digital metronomes have a bleeping LED light that works just as well. These also allow you to set and accentuate your own tones. However, in the beginning, try to stick to monotones, at least until you are comfortable following the metronome’s lead.
Keep at it until you can play the whole piece in one go. With that out of the way, push the metronome up a couple beats until you can play the piece at the goal tempo. If you feel the metronome getting drowned out by the piano’s sounds, get a digital one whose volume you can pitch a couple decibels louder than the piano.
3 Ways To Use a Metronome For Piano Practice
We instinctively tap our feet when we listen or sing along to a song. This is often an involuntary way to tune into a song and better grasp its rhythm. That is your own internal musical clock, or metronome. Using a real metronome is not a lot different. Let us discuss a few tried and tested ways you can try as you learn to practice with your metronome.
1. Practice tempo in isolation
One of the goals of practicing with a metronome is to get stroke precision. You want to hit your strokes with unerring accuracy, for both tempo and timing. The easiest way to practice this with a metronome is to just pick a single note and play it alongside the metronome.
If you can hear the metronome’s ticks, your strokes are not as precise as they should be. You may want to pitch the metronome at the same volume as your strokes so one does not drown the other. The goal here is to play as if the metronome is not even there but with enough awareness to let it tell you when you go off key.
2. Set the metronome at a different tempo than what you play at
Use this trick to exercise your internal clock. Set the metronome at a different tempo and see if you can still keep your timing and tempo. The trick will equip you with the skill to block out all competing noises and concentrate on the piece you are playing. This skill will come in handy when you have to perform at venues where there are interfering sounds.
For example, if you are playing a piece at 180 bpm, set your metronome at 120bpm so the first beat of the measure will play at every third metronome click. The metronome not only becomes an interference you have to ignore but one that you still have to play in tune to. It can be difficult to master, but it also is incredibly useful.
3. Play without the metronome
What better way to test if all the metronome practice has paid off than to guess a tempo by playing without the metronome? Without breaking tune, turn on the metronome at the same tempo you are playing at. If you have the tempo and timing tied down the merge should be seamless.
As you learn to practice with a metronome you will discover even more ways to develop your sensitivity to both rhythm and tempo. Indeed, there are so many more ways that other musicians have developed over the years. You will find some that will work for you and some that will not. Choose those that do and, better still, develop your own.
About the Author: Helen Baker
I am a freelance teacher and writer based in Ann Arbor, MI. After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Music, I spent some time teaching English in Paris and, thereafter, returned to Ann Arbor where I was involved both in the media and academics. Currently I am a stay at home mom, working as a freelance writer and teacher. I love all my guitars and I also have an affinity towards old grand pianos. I love singing, traveling, reading, writing, watching films and spending quality time with my husband.