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How to Master The Metronome: A Learner’s Guide 

 November 6, 2023

By  Kale Good

Have you finally realized that your rhythm & timing aren't quite up to snuff, and you're finally ready to learn to use the metronome? Look no further because I've got the perfect guide for you. I'll teach you how to use a metronome to improve your musical timing and rhythm so that you can find the groove the first time, every time.  

Using a metronome is the most underutilized and game-changing practice technique that beginner musicians overlook. The metronome helps you stay on time and enhances your overall precision, speed, and musicality. The metronome makes playing complex music much more manageable when used correctly. It helps you clarify the timing of neurological signals to your fingertips! Whether practicing scales, playing complex rhythms, or preparing for a performance, your metronome must be your most trusted companion if you want to take your playing to the next level.

Many students are intimidated by the metronome and initially struggle with it. This can lead to students avoiding it as much as possible. In this article, I'll share the tips and tricks I've used over 20 years of teaching classical guitar to help my guitar students learn to use a metronome quickly and comfortably. From the benefits of old-school metronomes, playing with a basic beat, and incorporating the metronome into your practice routine, this guide will be your one-stop shop for learning how to use a metronome. 

Why Old-School Metronome Rule (For Beginners)

It's easy enough to walk with your own steady rhythm. But how do humans march in time, dance together, and play music together in perfect synchronization? 

While neurologists aren't 100% sure, the current scientific theory is that coordinating rhythm is a matter of predicting when the next beat will happen. If you think about it, it's obvious; on a fundamental level, you're guessing when to play next. We can use this knowledge to help you learn how to play with a metronome much easier and faster. 

It's much easier to predict the next beat when you have visual and auditory feedback. These days, though, most people use a metronome app on their phones. And while they all have flashing lights, other kinds of visual feedback are more useful for the beginner musician or guitarist. 

All that a flashing light shows is when the beat happens; this is no more useful than a "tick-tick-tick" in terms of helping students predict when the next beat will fall. The truth is that a traditional, wind-up-and-swing metronome provides the best visual and auditory feedback to help beginners develop their skills quickly.

Teaching my guitar students to play with a metronome got much easier when I got the right metronome for beginners, pictured above. 

Most developers have favored advanced features and left behind the beneficial "swinging arm" type of animation that lets one see how soon the next beat will happen. This results in the best-reviewed and most-used metronome apps being geared towards professional musicians rather than developing musicians. 

Recommended Metronome Apps For Beginners:

These apps show a swinging arm, which makes predicting the next beat easier for beginners. They're rough around the edges and could be more polished, professional, and fully-featured. But they're much better at helping you learn to play with the beat than the top-reviewed metronomes.  

  • Windows: Metronome+
  • iOS: Analog Metronome (subtitle: Simple Metronome) developer: Panus Tatikornphan True Metronome
  • Android: Classic Metronome by Netigen or Real Metronome by Gismart

The last generation of stand-alone digital metronomes (before apps took over) used an LCD screen that mimicked this swinging arm. Companies like Korg, which specializes in metronomes, understood the importance of visual feedback.

The good news is that, regardless of the metronome app or physical metronome you use, the following exercises are set up to quickly develop the predictive rhythmic abilities required when learning to play with a metronome. (it's just easier to do with an appropriate app). 

Level 1: Long Tones

By allowing the metronome to click multiple times between each time you play, you're allowing yourself to gather more and more data to better predict when the next beat will fall. 

Tips:

For each exercise, ensure you feel very comfortable and "in-the-groove" before moving to the next step. 

Counterintuitively, a very slow beat is much more challenging than a reasonable speed. I recommend a speed of about 80-100, which equates to a brisk walking speed.

This first exercise is a warm-up that gets your large muscle groups going with the rhythm. This avoids the common pitfalls of beginning metronome work by focusing on small muscle groups (fingers).  

  1. Set your metronome in the 80-100 range. March in time with the metronome, one foot hitting the ground with each tick, counting to 4 out loud. Make sure you alternate feet. 
  2. Continue marching; now clap on every 4th beat.

Metronome

click

click

click

click

Step 

Left

Right

Left

Right

Count Out Loud

One

Two

Three

Four

Clap (#2 above only)

Clap

Cell
Cell
Cell

Next, get your instrument and do the following. 

  1. If you have an analog metronome or metronome app, turn it on and watch it swing for a bit, getting used to where the swing arm is when the metronome clicks. (If you don't have an analog metronome, skip this step). 
  2. Count to 4 out lout. Play on every 4th click. There is no need to play different notes; keep it simple and repeat the same note. 
  3. Count to 3 out lout. Play on every 3rd click. 
  4. Count to 2 out lout. Play on every other click. 
  5. Play on every click. 

Variations

Scales

Go through these exercises again using a scale or other passage. 

Marching

To really get the groove in your body, march or stomp your feet while playing your instrument with the metronome. 

Finding the Groove

Beginners often struggle to "find the groove" or "find the beat" when adjusting their metronome settings.

The following exercises are designed to develop your ability to quickly adjust to different metronome speeds. By slowly adjusting the BPM away from your "standard" tempo, there is little struggle in adjusting. However, read through the entire exercise to see how the adjustments get more and more extreme!

  1. Set your metronome at your "standard" tempo and practice your exercise until you are "in the groove" and playing on the beat consistently. For simplicity's sake, we'll use 100 bpm. 
  2. Reduce your metronome's speed to approximately 5% below your standard speed. (100 BPM - 5% = 95 bpm in our example )
  3. Play at standard speed. 
  4. Increase the speed to 5% above your standard speed. (100 BPM + 5% = 105 BPM).
  5. Play at standard speed. 
  6. Decrease the speed to 10% below standard (90 BPM)
  7. Increase speed to 10% above standard (110 BPM) 
  8. Play at standard speed. 
  9. Decrease 15% below standard (85)
  10. Continue the playing pattern further and further away from the standard tempo, alternating between playing above and below the standard tempo. 

Rant: Metronome adjustments in metronome apps are universally unmusical. The standard practice since the invention of the metronome was to adjust speed in small increments of approximately 4%. This made sense, as playing 4% faster is equally difficult regardless of speed (assuming technical competence). 

However, modern metronome apps typically have two settings: a short tap on the BPM adjustment buttons changes tempo by 1 bpm. In contrast, a long tap changes it by 10.

At 40bpm, that equates to either 2.5% or 25%. That's an astronomical difference! 2.5% is uselessly tiny, and 25% is uselessly large. Even at 100 BPM, the short and long press results in a change of 1 or 10%. Even 10% is too large to be considered a "quick change" amount.

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Level 2: Subdivisions

Subdivisions are when you take the metronome's beat and break it up into smaller bits (sub-divide!). This is much easier than many think, but only if you use the unconventional method of Tabuteau Rhythm Counting. 

What is Tabuteau Rhythm Counting? Marcel Tabuteau was a master teacher, even by the standards of the world-famous Curtis Institute of Philadelphia, where he taught. He used many different numbering systems to teach his students. When helping his students count subdivisions accurately, he used the innovation of placing the large number on the beat. This makes it far easier to subdivide the beat accurately than the conventional method of always counting "1" on the downbeat. 

Tabuetau Rhythm Counting is an incredibly powerful way to improve the accuracy of your subdivision playing. However, it does not help when figuring out the duration of notes or how to play a rhythm (for that, the classic "1 e + a" form of counting is preferred). Additionally, because it isn't well known, your best bet is to rely on conventional counting methods when communicating with other players. For more on this topic, including why this counting method leads to more musical playing, see Sound In Motion.

Here's how to use Tabuteau Rhythm Counting to easily learn and improve your subdivision playing. 

  1. Set your metronome to a slower-than-usual speed. Maybe 60 bpm or so. 
  2. Count subdivisions of 2, using Tabuteau Rhythm Counting. Once comfortable counting, play each time you count. 
  3. Count subdivisions of 3. This may require slowing your metronome down. Again, play once your counting is smooth. 
    1.  Guitarists: Divisions of 3 mean the pick direction will alternate on every downbeat. Classical Guitarists: the finger plucking the downbeat will alternate every beat. 
  4.  Count subdivisions of 4, slowing your metronome down to whatever speed your comfortable with. Play once your counting is smooth. 

Metronome

click

Cell
Cell
Cell

Step 1

Two!

Cell

One

Cell

Step 2 (not to scale)

Three!

One

Cell

Two

Step 3

Four!

One

Two

Three

Once these are comfortable, repeat them using the "Scale", "Marching", and "Finding The Groove" variations from above. You can also try to slowly speed these up once you've developed a basic comfort level with them. 

Basic Practice Guidance for Using A Metronome:

To help you incorporate the metronome into your practice routine, here are a few exercises and practice routines:

  1. Scale exercises: Practice playing scales with the metronome, starting at a slow tempo and gradually increasing the speed. Focus on playing each note cleanly and evenly; stay on time with the metronome.
  2. Rhythm exercises: Practice playing different rhythmic patterns with the metronome. Start with simple patterns and gradually increase the complexity. This will improve your ability to read rhythms and play with precision.
  3. Groove exercises: Explore different grooves and styles with the metronome. Set the metronome to the desired tempo and play along, focusing on locking in with the beat and maintaining a consistent groove.
  4. Performance Preparation: Use the metronome to prepare for performances by playing with recorded tracks or backing tracks. This will help you develop a strong sense of timing and ensure you can play in sync with other musicians.

Incorporate these exercises into your practice routine and adjust them according to your musical goals and needs. Remember to practice consistently and with focus to see the best results.

Conclusion

Mastering rhythm is a fundamental skill for any musician. A metronome is a powerful tool that can help you develop a rock-solid sense of timing and groove. By understanding the basics of rhythm, choosing the correct metronome, and incorporating it into your practice routine, you can enhance your overall musicality and become a more proficient player.

Of course, if you're a gamer-type, you can use all sorts of apps to help learn and reinforce your sense of rhythm.

Remember to start at a comfortable tempo and gradually increase the difficulty as you progress. Practice regularly and consistently, focusing on playing accurately and in time with the metronome. Explore advanced techniques and exercises to further enhance your rhythmic abilities. I'll cover these in an upcoming article. 

Using a metronome is a journey that requires patience and dedication. Embrace the process, and soon, you'll notice significant improvements in your rhythm, timing, and overall musical performance. So, grab your instrument, set your metronome, and embark on this rhythmic journey. Happy practicing!

Kale Good


Educator and Founder of Good Music Academy.

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