Why Use A Metronome?

Tick, tick, tick, annoying?

Perhaps.

That is if you are the one not practicing your scales with the metronome and you hear it across the hall…

Tick, tick, tick…

Annoying especially if you don’t understand why you are using it, or question whether or not it really helps your technique. We know good musicians use it and our teachers tell us it’s a must, but has anyone explained why?

Before I made the connection, I only knew that it worked. So I did it without really knowing why.

I guess it was magic.

Yes. I said magic.

The builders of metronomes are actually elves that harness the power of rainbows into magical rhythmic clicks that musicians use for developing awesome speed. It worked for me, but there just might be more to it.

I actually have some thoughts as to why this works. Is it scientific? I can’t say whether or not it’s been proven but once you consider this analogy, you will see the point I am making.

We use our hands to play the guitar, but the signals that tells our fingers to move come from the brain. The brain is a very complex organ with many functions but for the musician in particular:

brain input = motor output

In general, good information and habits are rewarded with good output. Bad information and habits are rewarded with poor output.

Simple enough.

We all know this but for some reason it’s still easy to fall into poor habits. A lot of this has to do with not knowing how to approach a new skill. We allow our emotions to override reason. We get excited and want to imitate what we see and hear on TV or at a concert without considering the preliminary work that went into that successful mind blowing performance.

Following a moment of inspiration and without thinking we grab our guitars, crank up our amps, and play the notes as fast as we can. Sure, we have memorized the notes in order but, whoa…

It’s sloppy and slow. It hurts and worst of all- it sucks!

How do they do this on stage?

Back to the analogy.

Have you ever seen a ceiling fan with a missing blade? Ever tried to operate a boat with a broken propeller? In both instances the imbalance of rotating mass creates instability. You might notice the wobble effect on the fan with a missing blade. Not only does the lack of stability affect the speed of rotation, it’s less efficient and hardly puts out air.

This wobbly fan is no different from untrained hands trying to play a fast scale run or tremolo technique on the guitar. Training with a metronome stabilizes our technique by creating perfect timing much in the way a fan can be repaired by adding an extra blade.

The metronome provides perfect rhythmic input into our brains. In turn our brains are able output perfect timing into our muscles. This perfect timing is good for stability. Stable hands are fast and efficient.

It’s an illusion.

Practice with a metronome not only make us faster and more efficient, it makes us seem faster than we really are. It’s an illusion created by perfect distribution.

Did you know the grass on your lawn could actually cover two or three lawns of the same size if the blades of grass were evenly distributed? The same is true about hair. One teenager’s head of hair could cover up to four bald men if each follicle was evenly distributed. It’s seems like more without having more.

Likewise four sixteenth notes properly distributed over a single count at 120 beats per minute can sound very fast and cool. A casual listener might think many more notes were present in that count.

On the flip side, a novice with good speed but poor distribution can sound slow and uninteresting even at a faster tempo of 140 bpm. It’s all in the timing. Practicing with a metronome forces the musician to make a conscience effort at perfect distribution. The result is synergetic, an increase in overall speed plus the illusion of speed. Also because this is efficient, it’s hardly any work for the well-trained musician.

You’ve heard the term “practice makes perfect”? For the musician its more like “perfect practice makes perfect”.

If a song requires us to play sixteenth notes at 160 beats per minute and our true ability is only 80 beats per minute, moving our hands really fast in hopes of getting to 160 with perfect technique and distribution will only lead to developing something far worse than before we started.

Trust me on this, it happens to me and many other experienced players all the time. In the end things only improve by slowing things down and putting focus on “perfect practice” with the metronome.

It hurts the ego and seems like an impossible task, but if you do it, the rewards are well worth the effort.

Here’s the plan:

1) Slow down and find a tempo on the metronome that you can play with no mistakes using perfect technique and rhythm.

2) Increase the tempo by five beats per minute until you can play the passage with no mistakes using perfect technique and rhythm.

3) Repeat step 2 until you reach the goal.

This process could take minutes, days, weeks, months or years depending on the difficulty. The point is without the metronome setting goals would be impossible. Guessing at a practice tempo is like training in the dark.

“Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement. If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it.” ~H. James Harrington

We need real numbers to track our progress and determine whether or not our practice is effective. That is how I teach my students and that is how I practice. Watching real numbers increase as you improve should serve as encouragement and keep you motivated to achieve the goal.

Tick, tick, tick…

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