The Metronome: Slow it Down, Learn it Faster

Aspiring musicians of all levels enjoy learning new songs from our favorite artists.  For the most part, these songs are comprised of a number of different chords and melodies that we believe we can play, each on their own.  However, the other half to music involves time, the art of placing all of these chords and melodies into the exact positions they need to be in sequence relative to a timescale.  So, you may be at a point where you know how to play several chords and/or scales, however it is difficult to comprehend how to play fast enough to the speed of the songs and artists you are trying to learn.

Instead of getting frustrated that we can’t play fast enough, there is a helpful tool we can use to improve our technique and build confidence in keeping up a rhythm.  The aforementioned metronome is the answer, with the ability to set regular ticks at an adjustable rate in beats per minute (bpm).  The metronome dates back to the 9th century, later patented in the early 1800’s as the tool we are familiar with in current times.  It is now available most commonly by way of electronic application for several types of devices.

Before applying the metronome to a song, it is important to keep in mind the time signature of the music.  That is, we need to determine how many beats are in a measure, and what type of note gets the beat.  To do this, listen to the song and tap your foot to each beat. If you find yourself tapping 4 times in a repeatable fashion, then most likely the music is in a 4/4 time signature, also referred to as common time.  In this case, there are 4 beats in a repeatable measure of music, where the quarter note receives each beat.  However, this is not always the case although it is the most common (There are loads of helpful articles and youtube videos on time signatures out there if you would like to explore further).  

Once the time signature is determined, a metronome app can be set to the same time signature so we can apply it to the music we want to perform.  Then, this allows us to slow down the music to a rhythm where we are currently comfortable playing the instrument.  Now that the rhythm is slowed down, we can set personal goals to gradually increase speed until we can reach the full speed of the song.  This method gives more structure to learning and brings what was initially incomprehensible to more gradually attainable.  And it is fun to challenge yourself with a new speed (tempo) of playing each day (in beats per minute - “BPM”).

Personally, it wasn’t until I started applying a metronome to my practicing that I realized my playing rhythm needed some work.  Although my guitar chord changes and solos sounded great in my head, when placed against the metronome at slower speeds the truth started to surface that something was a bit off.  I would invite musicians of all levels to explore this great tool in practicing further, and here are a few ideas on some starting points:

For Beginners:     If you are within your first few months of playing, then you are probably still learning a few basic chords and/or scales.  The metronome can assist with these.  For example, with guitar or piano, we can take the basic beginner chords (G, C, D, E, A, etc) and practice changing from one to the other in time to the metronome.  For instance, set the metronome to 50bpm at 4/4 time, and try to play a different chord you know on beat 1 of each measure.  Be sure to let the chord sustain itself for at least 3 beats however.  Once this confidence is gained, increase the tempo to 60bpm, and so on.  Once you are able to change between chords at 100+bpm, you will be well on your way to learning some basic songs.

For Intermediate Players:     Make a short list of those melodies or solos you’ve wanted to learn.  Pick one and determine the time signature and speed with your metronome.  On the first part you want to learn, listen to the record first several times, then on your metronome cut the tempo in half with the music off.  Now see if you can hear that portion of music in your head at the much slower speed.  Using your tablature or whichever learning method you have, play with the metronome at this slower tempo until it is locked in with confidence.  Then gradually increase the speed towards full rate, each time making sure you have it under your fingers.

For Advanced Players:    Take that favorite solo you’ve been working on, slow it down with your metronome and see if you can determine the rhythm.  This would mean to determine each note value in each portion of the solo you are trying to learn.  Take the first measure, and see if you can plot each note value sequentially with a pencil and paper.  I.E. if the first measure was consecutively sixteenth notes in 4/4 time, we can write:  “1 e & a 2 e & a 3 e & a 4 e & a” as the rhythm (keep in mind to brush up on your time signature knowledge if there are any triplets involved).  Now see if you can both play and say each note in time with the metronome, gradually increasing speed.  This will enhance how “tight” your playing will sound in time, increasing your rhythm skill.

- Written by Travis Palladino, Founder & Director of Music Flow LLC