I'm hoping that you are like me. Sometimes my practice starts to get a little bit stale or monotonous and I find myself searching the internet for ways to inspire some change, to open up new avenues and provide myself some opportunity for musical growth. If this sounds like you, if you feel like you've hit a kind of plateau in your playing or your development on your instrument, then this advice is for you.
In this article, I'd like to outline some of the ways that I use the metronome in my regular practice. I have a handful of helpful techniques that I'd like to explore here, each one aimed at improving a different aspect of my playing. While it is true that at the end of the day a metronome is a tool for improving your sense of time, time feel is in fact a multi dimensional component of your musicianship and it can be worked on from a variety of different angles.
When I was young and I first began to regularly involve the metronome in my practice, I did what I now see many of my students do. I would practice my scales using the metronome and play each note of the scale in time with the click. Once I felt comfortable doing this with a particular scale, I would increase the speed of the metronome in an effort to improve my ability to play at faster tempos. Looking back, I can see now that this approach yields diminishing results. Even if I were able to practice my scales every day increasing the speed bit by bit without burning myself out, and even if my metronome were able to reach an abnormally fast tempo, I'm not teaching myself to hear the subdivisions required to be able to play fast with a band in a practical performance setting.
What I should have done then, and what I often do now, is practice different subdivisions of time. Allow me to elaborate on what that means if the term subdivisions doesn't mean much to you. Think of it like this:
This image is a visual representation of playing a note that always lands on a click. Each number represents a note that is played, and it is occurring at the same time as each click. What I was doing was just speeding this up to faster and faster tempos. This can be thought of as quarter notes.
This image is meant to represent a subdivision called eighth notes. Like before, the numbers represent a note that is played on the click, however the additional "&"'s between each number represent another note that is played in between each click. You should practice counting this subdivision with a metronome before you try playing this way.
This image represents another subdivision called eighth note triplets. In this image, the syllables that make up the word "triplet" (tri-pa-let) can be used to visualize how to evenly place three notes inside of one click. With a metronome on, try saying the syllables "tri-pa-let" out loud, making sure that the first syllable "tri" always falls on the click.
This image represents a subdivision called sixteenth notes. In this image, the numbers one to four fall on the click, however the additional characters "e & a" that exist between each number also represent notes that occur before the next click. Due to the fact that there are four notes inside of each click, this subdivision should be played with the metronome set to a rather slow tempo.
This short list of subdivisions is by no means an exhaustive one, however it should be enough to get you started on the right foot. By subdividing the click into two, three or four notes, you will start to train your ear in a way that will positively impact your ability to play fast lines in a way that constantly playing on the click will not be able to do.
Displacing the Click
One popular way of working with a metronome is to move or "displace" what beat you are conceptualizing the click to land on. To explain this further, consider the images used earlier in this article to describe various subdivisions. In each image the click is occurring above the numbers. While these numbers do represent a note that is to be played at the same time as the click, they also represent (to those who are familiar with this concept) the beats in a bar of 4/4 time. It is very common to practice with the metronome in this way, with the click happening on each beat of the bar. However when we begin to displace the click, we are in effect manipulating where the click falls in terms of beats in the bar. Take a look at this example:
Putting the click on beats 2 and 4 only is a very popular metronome technique. In 4/4 time, beats 2 and 4 are considered the strong beats in the bar. In a pop or rock context, the drummer will frequently play the snare on beats 2 and 4. This makes playing with the metronome a little more musical, and it allows for your phrasing and time feel to sound more musical. This technique is also popular among jazz musicians.
Aside from putting the click on 2 and 4, there are other ways that it can be displaced. You can put the click on only beat 1, for example. In my experience, moving the click around to different beats of the bar is time well spent, because it really allows you to feel what each individual beat sounds like in the bar. This may sound a little lofty and vague, but if you ever find yourself in a situation where you are asked to sight read something, you will find that knowing what each beat feels like makes it much easier to understand what it means when you see a phrase that starts on beat 3, for example.
You can also move the click so that it lands on different eighth notes in the bar, or even sixteenth notes.
In this example, the click is occurring on the eighth note in between beats two and four.
In this example, the click is occurring on the very last sixteenth note of the bar.
By displacing the click to different positions in the bar, you will train your ear to hear what each of those beats (or off beats) sound like. It will help you to grow an understanding of what it means to start phrases, end phrases, and hear phrases around each of those individual moments.
Stretching Out The Click
As I mentioned at the opening of this article, when I first began to use the metronome my understanding of it was that as my playing improved, I would be able to speed the metronome up to continually faster tempos. What I have since learned however, is that this is actually the polar opposite of what real progress should look like.
As you continue to work with a metronome, your sense of time will improve. As your sense of time improves, you should be able to steadily decrease the tempo of the metronome and use your ever improving sense of time to subdivide the clicks into longer and longer fragments of time. Eventually, your sense of time should be good enough that rather than having the click on each quarter note, or even on a single beat or off beat as illustrated in the previous section of this article, you should eventually be able to have the click on beat one of every fourth bar. Depending on the metronome that you are using, there may be limitations on how slow it can go, but barring any such limitations it would be ideal to be able to have the click come in on beat one of every eighth bar.
This type of exercise is quite difficult to do and it does a lot to develop your own internal sense of time and your ability to play without speeding up or slowing down. I like to apply this exercise to a jazz standard that I am familiar with, placing the click on beat one of every fourth bar to see if I can play the changes without falling too far off of the tempo. To complicate this exercise further, you can also apply the principles of displacement. As an example, you can position the click to fall on the "&" after the first beat every four bars.
Working On Odd Meters
Compound time signatures like 5/4 and 7/8 are increasingly popular in progressive rock music and modern jazz, and a metronome is a wonderful tool in developing your fluency with those time feels.
The first way that you can use a metronome to work on these time feels is by using a feature that most (though not all) metronomes are capable of. This feature may go by different names depending on the particular metronome that you are working with, however it should be easy enough to find, and it is essentially an "accented click".
An accented click is one that provides you with a slightly different click sound at a pattern of your choosing. For 5/4 time signatures, you can put a different click sound every fifth click which will allow you to keep track of the first beat of each bar. Alternatively, you could put an accented click on the first and third beat of each bar, giving you a pattern of two and then three beats, or on the first and fourth beat of each bar, giving you a pattern of three and then two beats.
For 7/8 time signatures, you could put an accented click sound on every seventh click which would help you to keep track of the first beat of every bar. Or you could put the accented click on the first and fourth beat of every bar, giving you a pattern of three beats then four beats, or you could put it on the first beat and the fifth beat, giving you a pattern of four beats then three beats.
When I am using an accented click sound to help me with odd meters, I like to keep the tempo of the metronome fairly fast. This is to help me to get a grasp of the vibe of the time signature that I am working on, and to try to develop a musical sense of phrasing in that time signature without being too cerebral about it.
The second way to use a metronome to work on odd meters is in my estimation a little bit more advanced. Using this method the metronome is set to a moderate tempo, and you place the click on every second beat. Think of it like this:
In the image above, the click is placed on every other beat beginning with beat one. In the first bar, the click falls on beats one three and five but in the second bar the click falls on beats two and four. The reason why this method is a bit more advanced in my experience is that in order to be able to practice over a tune this way without losing the form or falling off the beat you must already have a pretty solid grip on your time feel in the time signature you are working on. The fact that the click is falling on different beats in the first bar than it is in the second makes it harder to keep track of where you are if you're not already fairly comfortable in that time feel.
I should mention quickly here that although the above image demonstrates how to use the metronome to practice in 5/4 using this method, it can be applied in the exact same way to work on other odd meters like 7/8 and the same principle applies. The click will fall on different beats in bar one than it will in bar two.
Finding A Metronome That Works For You
It is important to find a metronome that will have all the tools that you need to focus on your practice goals. If you're planning on working on your subdivisions, you really aren't asking much from your metronome. Just about any metronome will provide a workable range in terms of tempos to suit anything from quarter notes to sixteenth notes, so let me recommend some of my personal favourites.
This Korg metronome is a newer version in a long line of indestructible metronomes. I have had one of these metronomes for an unbelievably long time (over twenty years) and the battery has lasted for so long that I'm starting to think it might be haunted or maybe evil. The newer versions like the one shown here actually have accented beat patterns which are not necessary for working on subdivisions but are a nice feature to have.
These throwback mechanical metronomes are very stylish and look pretty cool, but they don't have very many features and the tempo range isn't very big. However, if you're working on subdivision exercises this is more than enough and they look very beautiful.
If you're working on displacing the click, or if you're working on stretching out the click, you will want a metronome with a good range of slow tempos. Most physical metronomes have a range of around 40bpm for the slowest tempos, which doesn't help too much if you want to put the click on beat one every eight bars.
This metronome watch by Soundbrenner can receive MIDI from DAW's like Ableton or Pro Tools. These DAW's can be set to tempos as low as 1bpm, which makes this watch pretty much the best thing on the market as far as tempo range goes. You could potentially set this watch to click at beat one every 32 bars. By the way, if you're able to successfully keep time for 32 bars without speeding up or slowing down, please post a video of it!
If you're working on odd meters using a metronome, all you will really need is something that will do an accented click. All of the metronomes that I have posted in this article (except for the mechanical one) are able to do an accented click. That said, I don't only use physical metronomes and in fact for accented clicks I tend to use an application on my iPad called Pro Metronome.
Pro Metronome for Mac
Thank you for checking out my advice on how to practice with a metronome, I really hope you found it informative!
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