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I've been learning to play the piano for over a year and a half now, and have never used a metronome to date. My rythm and tempo are usually decent, at least after playing the piece properly a few times. The pieces are however getting somewhat trickier, especially in terms of rythmn. Would anyone recommend that I starting using a metronome for practice? In certain cases at least?

I've also wondered how useful a metronome is when playing pieces of varying tempo. Romantic works in particular often permit, or even encourage strong variation of tempo. Indeed in all sorts of classical music, you commonly encounter a few bars marked as "ritardando" (slowing down). Would a metronome not hinder playing in such cases?

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Small comment about pieces where you may vary the tempo: Often, you want to stay in time over the course of 4 bars or so, with the variation being from bar to bar. A metronome can be useful in this case to let you know how far you've varied, so you can avoid straying too far or not returning to the original pace. Again, that only applies to some pieces. –  Matthew Read May 15 '11 at 16:24
    
@Matthew: That's true, indeed. In other cases though, whole sections (or at least phrases) should be played at different tempos. –  Noldorin May 15 '11 at 18:32

8 Answers 8

up vote 16 down vote accepted

I'd definitely recommend a metronome, especially when the rythms are trickier. I basically use it for these types of exercises: the ones with difficult rythms, and the ones where the point is to build up velocity. The latter ones, I use a metronome to keep in check, because the main mistake in virtuosity exercises is to want to go too fast too soon and then at the first difficulty you slow down or mess up, and start fast again and you get something very ugly and unequal. So, with a metronome, I can force myself to keep going at a steady but slow pace, progressively building up and in this way pay attention to all details of articulation.

Concerning the romantic pieces, I think it's always better to learn to play them at a steady tempo at first. If the differences in tempo are too large, you can always cut up your work into pieces so that you can change the metronome according to what you need. But overall, it's better to be able to play at a steady pace, the rubato and tempo changes you can do them afterwards.

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Thanks for your reply. This sounds like good reasoning to me. I guess a good example of a piece for which a metronome would be useful is a WTC fugue? –  Noldorin May 15 '11 at 18:33
    
Certainly, but also pieces with 3 against 2 rythms (or 3 against 4) for instance. I break up to a common denominator so that I can play them exactly and progressively speed up until I get the feel for it. Once I have it, I don't need the metronome anymore. –  Raskolnikov May 16 '11 at 7:54

A metronome is the best tool for learning a new rhythm (besides a good piano teacher). I would highly recommend you use a metronome when learning complex rhythms. You should not, however, soley depend upon the metronome to do the work for you.

I am not a piano teacher or expert, but these are my suggestions:

  1. First, try playing the piece slowly without the metronome and see if you can play steadily and in time. This is your sight reading skills comming into play.
  2. Next, play it again. This time use the metronome and see if the rhythm matches up with what you just played. This is like checking your work as if you were being tested. The metronome fine tunes your playing and spots any rhythmic mistakes that you've made.
  3. Finally, make your adjustments and play it without the metronome. Envision the metronome ticking in your mind as you play. If it doesn't sound right, go back and try it again with the metronome at a slower pace. The goal is not simply to play the rhythm in time - it is to feel the rhythm as you play.

As for retards, when you are first learning the section, you should play it without them. Retardando can be applied to anything you play. I believe learning the backbone of what you play first is important. Then, without the metronome, play the piece normally with the included retards. I personally dedicate a little extra practice time to these sections as it can sometimes be tricky playing the "right" retardando.

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Thanks for your response. Your suggestions (order of practice) is in fact exactly what I was thinking I might do, so this just confirms it nicely! :) –  Noldorin May 15 '11 at 18:34

If you ever wish to play in a band or record a multi-track piece, you will need to keep in sync with someone else's rhythm while you're playing. In a band, typically the drummer sets the beat. Playing with a metronome should help with this, although it's not the same since a drummer can deliberately speed up or slow down. When recording, sometimes musicians use a click track to keep in sync, which is similar to a metronome but more flexible. So this is a useful skill, even if you don't need it when playing alone.

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My focus is on classical music, but thanks for the comment anyway. –  Noldorin May 16 '11 at 23:05
    
The comment applies equally to classical ensemble pieces. –  slim Sep 27 '11 at 13:42

A sense of time varies from person to person. Some people have an acute sense of time and have less need for a metronome, while others may struggle with time. So the use of a metronome is relative to your personal sense of time. But even good time keepers will sometimes devote themselves to a steady regimen of metronome exercises in the spirit of improving on excellence.

There are two aspects to using a metronome. One is using it for exercises designed to improve your sense of time overall. The other is to use it while playing a musical piece to improve your sense of time through the piece itself (which also adds to your sense of time overall of course).

Using a metronome for general time exercises is invaluable, and is to me much more important than using it for playing along with music (You can research the many exercises). This is not to fully diminish the latter use, but the obvious piece of advice when playing along with music is to learn the music first really well, or at least the passage of music to which you wish to apply the use of the metronome. Playing along with a metronome to a piece that you are still struggling to learn will only hinder your progress and will make the musical journey more of a frustrating chore rather than an inspiring journey.

The metronome is a tool to improve your "feel" for time. When I am playing a jazz gig with good players, it is not uncommon to start a song at a given tempo, play the song for five minutes or so with an array of embellishments and improvisations in lead line, harmony, rhythm, sometimes even time signature, and so on, and end the tune in exactly the same tempo and musical integrity that we started with. This is the "feel" for time that you are looking for when using a metronome, and metronome exercises will do you a world of good to this end.

As for using it to play along with music, do so to check yourself and measure your progress, but take the emphasis off of it when you are satisfied with your progress. However, you may want to never take the emphasis of metronome exercises that are independent of any piece of music to develop your overall sense of time.

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Thanks for your answer. I think I agree with a lot of what you have to say. Using it for exercises seems like one of the most practical applications. –  Noldorin Jun 2 '11 at 2:06

About using a metronome when studying a piece with tempo variations

Using the metronome is especially useful when studying Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt or Scriabine. You should be able to play them in straight tempo, and the metronome can help you do that. When this is achieved, you can use it to train for a given acceleration or deceleration.

It is often tempting but dangerous to begin applying too soon most expression and tempo variation indications. When you do that while you are still working out technical points, overall speed or memorizing the piece, you end up freezing these interpretations together with the other learning processes and you loose some ability to hear yourself.

The risk is that an uneven, excessive or unconvincing acceleration will stick to your memory and you will have a hard time polishing it. You will have also lost a certain perspective needed to really interpret the piece instead of playing it.

Short ritenutos at the end of parts or subparts are often easy to do but continuous acceleration over more than 4 ou 5 bars can be uneven or too concentrated (you can easily run out of acceleration capacity after 2 bars, what do you do next?).

Fortunately one can train for acceleration (as you would train for certain styles of keystrokes or for ornaments)

Using the metronome at one stroke by bar, quite slowly, you can use it to set a target. Say that you have to accelerate over 3 or 4 bars. Try to have a whole bar in advance over the metronome when playing the first beat of the 4th or 5th bar, so that you will play it on a stroke of the metronome. If you have already mastered the piece at steady tempo you won't need to listen to the intermediate bar signals: just ignore them now. By using integer bar time relations like this on longer and longer parts you can build an attention-grabing acceleration.

Before you train to do that on a real piece, try that on something simpler and more repetitive examples or routines, of various length and rythmic structure. It will help you train for listening to or ignoring the metronome at will.

Traits and small odd groups

There is another aspect where the metronome is a valuable friend : large "traits" with many small notes fitted in a few beats. Chopin's music contains also little groups of 5, 7, 11, 13, ... notes who must fit a few beats. You can treat them as local accelerations (more rarely decelerations). Metronome test for this passages is especially important because most players slow their left hand to accommodate the extra notes instead of accelerating the right hand (which usually plays the trait).

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If you're playing classical music, you need to remember that tempo is inherently flexible, and learning to play with a metronome isn't going to help with that. It definitely is hard to play a rit. or an accel. with a metronome going. A metronome is an invaluable tool, but it shouldn't be overused. It is most useful if someone (usually your teacher) says you are speeding up or slowing down, and you aren't aware of it. It's extremely useful to figure out whether you're starting and ending the piece at the same tempo, which is A Good Idea (tm). As you probably know, it's surprisingly common to start a fast, difficult piece at a reasonable tempo and then speed up until the piece becomes unplayable. A metronome will help cure that. I don't find a metronome very helpful for tricky rhythms; the only solution there is counting every 8th or 16th (or 32nd or 64th) if you can--but perhaps that's because when I need a metronome, I use one that's about 50 years old, and that just keeps a beat, no more, no less. I have an app on my phone that can be programmed for complex rhythms, but I never use it--but if something like that helps you, fine.

So--my answer is: don't keep the metronome on all the time. Use it when you need to, but only when you need to, and know what you're trying to accomplish when you use it.

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Yeah, this sounds sensible. I like your last paragraph in particular - seems to be good advice! Not sure what you mean regarding flexible tempo. Sure, tempo can be flexible in almost all music, but I would argue less in classical (compared to e.g. jazz or some modern genres). Certainly, a very rigid tempo is encouraged in Baroque music. –  Noldorin Jun 2 '11 at 2:10

I would say that metronome work is most useful at the "middle" stage of learning a piece. You will probably want to start learning a difficult piece without the metronome, not worrying about being out of rhythm too much. Once you know the notes, try working up slowly with the metronome. Some pieces (or parts of pieces), especially those of the Romantic period, cannot be played musically with the metronome. Some need a lot of pauses (caesuras) added, a problem when using the metronome. The period of Classical music which works best for metronomic playing is the Classical period. Mozart and Haydn usually sound fine without changes of tempo and large caesuras.

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There is another excellent use of the metronome in learning technically challenging passages that I can recommend.

To wit:

  • Play the passage at whatever speed, however slow, that you are absolutely sure you can play it correctly.
  • Raise the metronome one tick and play it again. If you play it correctly, raise it again. If you don't, take it back down one.

Continue to practice the passage this way, until the speed increases to the point that something about it feels different under your hands. At that point, leave it to gel until tomorrow.

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