What is a Metronome and How Do You Use One?

Somewhere lurking around in my music studio is a dusty old wooden metronome. It hasn’t seen the light of day in quite a while.

MetronomeA metronome is a device designed to make a clicking sound at regular intervals so that musicians can practice with a guide to keep them in time.  It can be set at any speed, very slow, very fast, and everything in between.

While some music teachers insist that their students use a metronome to practice many students dread using it. It is no secret they can be really irritating at times. 

I do favor practicing with a metronome – but sometimes, and for a very short time – maybe 30 seconds or a minute.  I find a strange thing happens after playing for a short time with a metronome.  The pulse stays in your brain and you start to play more evenly, even though you’ve turned the metronome off.

So how long has this tortuous instrument been around, and who was cruel enough to invent it?

The metronome was patented in 1815 by Johann Maelzel although it’s thought that it was actually designed by someone else and Maelzel stole the idea.  Inspired by a clock, a weighted pendulum swung from side to side, and by sliding the weight up or down, it would change the speed.  For years metronomes worked by winding up a clockwork mechanism, as does the 50 year old one in my studio.

Electronic Metronomes
Electronic Metronomes

These days, there are much nicer electronic metronomes that have a softer, more bearable clicking noise, which can be adjusted for a different sound or volume. But even better are metronome apps – there are many to choose from – that you can use on a phone or tablet. If you don’t want to go with an electronic metronome or an app, you can visit any online metronome website (such as metronomeonline.com) or just type the word “metronome” in Google and start practicing.

Metronome Apps
Metronome Apps
Google Metronome
Google Metronome

And of course digital piano manufacturers like Yamaha or Casio include built-in metronome into their keyboards and digital pianos. Even the most simple beginner models have one, cause it’s very important to train your playing skills. So if you have one of these keyboards just check the options, most likely you don’t need to look for additional device.

So, how do you go about using a metronome? Let’s say you want to practice your scales on the piano, (and I hope that you do!).  You can set your metronome to 100 bpm (beats per minute) and play one note with each click of the metronome.  This is a slow speed and it will take control and patience to play in time.  A slow speed gives you time to think carefully about each note you play.

  • Did you play exactly with the click?
  • Did your notes match the velocity of the previous notes?
  • Are your hands and fingers relaxed?
  • Are your hands in a great piano playing position?
  • Did you remember the correct fingering? 

If you feel you did that as well as you can, you can now move the speed up by about 5 bpm and play the scale again, checking all the same things.  Then, when that is very accurate, move the speed up again.  Keep doing this until you are at the top speed you can comfortably manage.

No matter if you take online piano lessons or study at a musical school practicing like this will help with you master fast, even scales. But you can also practice pieces of music with your metronome. At the beginning of a piece of music, you will often see a metronome marking that has a music note, an equals sign, and then a number.  The number is how many beats per minute, and the music note tells you the note value of the BPM.  When you have notes half the value of the note shown in the metronome marking, you’ll need to play two notes per click.

So, if you want to improve your piano playing, by all means use a metronome, but go for a nice modern one and don’t use it for too long at one time so you won’t want to throw it out the window!

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