Metronomics 101

Sheri has a love-hate relationship with metronomes.

“It’s more of a hate-love relationship, really”, she corrects me; “the hate comes first.” She elaborates below …

I don’t want to use a metronome because

  • They’re boring. TAP tap tap tap TAP tap tap tap TAP tap tap tap ARE we done yet HOW much lon-ger HOW much lon-ger TAP tap tap tap ARE we done yet …
  • They’re not cool. Gone are the days of the elegantly-crafted wooden pyramid with its perky little arm swinging back and forth making its cute little click. All I have now is a soulless plasticky TAP tap tap tap coming through my earbud from my phone.
  • Also, they’re boring. (Did I say that? It bears repeating.)

But once in a while, with a heavy sigh and much ostentatious griping, I practice with a metronome anyway. Because it’s effective. Just a couple minutes repeating a problematic riff with the boring, soulless plasticky earbud tap, and it sorts itself out. I feel more relaxed playing it, it sounds better, and (here’s the big pay off) when I do it again later I can speed everything up and feel like a hotshot. And isn’t that what every ukulelist is secretly after?

Sheri’s uke hero, Jake Shimabukuro (like lots of other hipper, younger musicians) practices with a drum track instead of just a click. If you have a drum machine or sequencer or some other kind of variable-speed playback device, playing against a rhythm track sometimes is great, because it can be less boring than a simple click, and can feel a little more like “real music”. So when I say “metronome” I also mean that kind of thing.

Being able to vary the speed (tempo in Italian, if you want to be hoity-toity) is really the reason metronomes were invented in the first place. After all, if you wanted to play everything at 60 or 120 bpm (beats per minute), you could just use a ticking clock for reference. But some songs don’t sound right (or feel right) at that speed.

Also, struggling to play along with the original album version by the original artist at the original speed is often not the best way to learn a new song. A metronome can help you learn things accurately at a manageably slow speed, then gradually increase your speed while maintaining accuracy.

Some people worry that using a metronome and paying attention to rhythmic accuracy will “cramp their style” or make their music more “robotic” and less expressive. Here’s the thing, though: Really good musicians—the creative, expressive, accomplished professional musicians that we all admire—pretty much all practice with metronomes (and use “click tracks” in the recording studio). Because accurate timing is cool.

Accuracy doesn’t have to be robotic, and sloppiness isn’t the same as expressiveness. Speeding up and slowing down can and should be real artistic choices, not just something that happens by accident.

Ironically, though, probably the only thing that will really convince you to use a metronome is to use one—really bite the bullet and give it a chance—and then observe the improvement.

Coming soon … Advanced Metronomics!