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I have learned a piece (an arrangement I have made myself). When I record it, I notice that the timing is not exact (overall it is exact, I'm recording to a metronome). But when I open the recorded midi, I can see that the notes are usually off by a 32nd (which is plenty).

I tried to practise slower, but the movement is kind of burned into my fingers. Additionally I know that I use different techniques with higher tempo than, with lower one - How should I proceed from there to get the timing right?

I looked up this question on this site, but the undertone of the answers is mostly: "Play slow, don't just repeat the mistimed passage, because then you'll practise exactly the bad timing that you want to avoid". But what to do instead?

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    Yes. I really can tell that it is off. It sounds like someone would stumble. I feel the beat, but my hands don't behave accordingly. I could sing the (more exact) timing of the melody just fine. Jan 20 at 8:13
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    Are you rushing or dragging? [or both at different times]?
    – Tetsujin
    Jan 20 at 9:27
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    Both at different times. sometimes it's too early, sometimes it's too late. It's visible to a listener as some kind of jitter. Jan 20 at 9:57
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    Just to address the debated point: no, in most pieces, we don't actually want to play with exact metronomic precision. But I tell my students "You want to do exactly what you want to do"—you want the fluctuation in timing to be expressive and under your intentional control, not unwanted and accidental. (Though still, you might reach a point where a strict MIDI dictation shows discrepancies that the human ear doesn't perceive. Many softwares have settings to reduce the sensitivity with which they parse durations, and you might have to mess with it.) Jan 20 at 14:03
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    Are your mistakes always the same at the same point? (E.g. you always drag the last note of m4, always rush the first 3 notes of m10 etc. ) Or does it vary?
    – Creynders
    Jan 20 at 18:43

5 Answers 5

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Music generally has the propensity to ebb and flow. Dance music needs to be kept in time for obvious reasons, but all other music can, and does go 'out of time', just because we're only human, and respond appropriately to what the music says or does to us.

Simple question - what does your recording feel like it's doing, as far as others are concerned? You may be Hell bent on keeping it metronomic, but others may hear it as faultless.

To make it constant (boring? Mechanical?) you're going to need that metronome, at slower tempos, and get used to using it in subtly different ways. We all use metronomes to click on the beat, maybe 4 clicks per 4/4. But they can be useful in other ways too. Double the click rate so it's 8 per 4/4. Hear the clicks at half time. Play against it so the clicks are on 2 and 4 instead of the expected 1 and 3. Use your imagination!

Seems like your fingers have learned to play the piece at one speed, but your brain isn't matching that speed. So slow down or speed up certain passages, out of the comfort zone for both muscles and brain. Break it all down, like you did while learning it - re-learn it, bits at a time. No need to go from top to bottom each time.

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    There's a certain difference between slight tempo variations and controlled playing behind and in front of the beat and just clumsily playing all over the place. As far as I understand, the question is about the latter. If you like robot comparisons, think about a broken robot.
    – ojs
    Jan 20 at 10:19
  • Although I wouldn't call it emotionless, the mentioned ways to deal with the off timing sound pretty helpful. Jan 21 at 10:46
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I tried to practise slower, but the movement is kind of burned into my fingers. Additionally I know that I use different techniques with higher tempo than, with lower one - How should I proceed from there to get the timing right?

'Practice slow and build up the speed' is a common bit of advice, but there is a hazard: if you practice slow using a technique that you can use at a slow speed but doesn't work for you at a fast speed, then that practice won't allow you to get up to the fast speed.

That doesn't mean that 'Practice slow and build up the speed' is poor advice, but rather that what you practice matters - you need to be practicing a technique that you know will physically be possible for you at the higher speed. In many cases this is probably about first working out the correct fingering and technique for the passage you want to play - then start practicing that slowly, then build up the speed.

As a more general point, when trying to get a good rhythmic feel, it's helpful to be very aware of exactly where the accents and strong beats should be when you are practicing, and maybe even exaggerate them so that you can use them as reference points. If you can get the strong beats and accents to come down consistently in the right place, the odd stumble in between shouldn't throw off your whole performance.

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    The mentioned hazard is exactly the reason I mentioned the different technique, as a means to say that starting slow alone won't work. Jan 20 at 14:15
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    This hazard actually implies a hidden benefit. By playing the same passages at all tempos, you can gain a general feel for technique at all tempos. In the long run, this will provide a very intimate understanding of the use of the hand. Jan 20 at 23:50
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Out of left field & may not be truly appropriate to your piece [which we have no description of, as yet]

I learned to play at strict tempo back in the 80s… we suddenly got drum machines, after many years of playing in live bands with actual human drummers, who would ebb & flow with the rest of the band.

Drum machines are unforgiving.
You can make that vastly more unforgiving by putting a tempo-synced delay [echo] with a few distinct repeats on what you're playing. Play absolutely in time & your echo matches like a quantised sequencer.
Play badly & it sounds like a three-legged tinker's donkey running down a cobbled alleyway.

So, one way to learn to play in time is - work against a delay, over a drum machine. You will be able to hear immediately if you slip & slowly learn how to correct it as you play. You'll also discover whether you always speed & slow in the same places.
You don't need to record any of this, but it wouldn't hurt to be able to listen back afterwards.

This is cruel and unusual punishment when you're listening.
You will either learn fast or not at all.


Let me add one of my [hopefully] 'fun' anecdotes to this…
In 1983 we got our first chance to record an album of our own - after three years of hiding behind other names & sessioning for more well-known artists.
I'm not a great guitarist. I can get away with it but for this I decided to hire in an old friend I'd worked with a lot in previous bands, who was magnificent. He did some great work on the album, over a couple days in a residential studio in Scotland we had booked for the whole month.
Then, as we had him & his rig ready to go, it was decided one 'chug-a-chug' part which had been done on a synth on one of the demo tracks should be done with guitar instead.
...He just couldn't get it.
We were amazed. Patient, but amazed. This was a really great guitarist, but he'd never worked with a drum machine & echo before. We worked at it for an hour and it was not happening.
I stepped in instead [I really didn't want any hurt feelings - we liked the way this was going, but it needed to be tight].
It wasn't a 'difficult' part, it just required an absolute adherence to the tempo against a stereo echo running at 16s + 8s, left to right, for long periods of the track. "Tinker's donkey" was not an option.
I got the entire track in two takes. Here it is in all its very dated glory… chug-a-chug-a-chug, down the verses… [only the drum machine is sequenced, everything else is played, live. The 'marimba' & one of the chorus synths is also done on a similar echo.]

The album, btw, never recouped its own costs - such is life ;)

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  • I'll see if I can set up a delay, thank you Jan 21 at 10:48
  • I certainly endorse the drum machine use - can't think why I didn't mention it ! Having worked in the '70s/'80s with various small dance bands, sans drummer, it's better than working with a metronome (and some drummers..!) but certainly isn't for everyone.
    – Tim
    Jan 21 at 11:13
  • Huh, I think we've managed to narrow down your real (or at least stage) name to one of 2 candidates, thanks to that album and your note that you worked with an "old friend".
    – Dekkadeci
    Jan 21 at 12:06
  • @Dekkadeci - it's never really been a 'sekrit' - tracks I link to my SoundCloud page are under my real name too. Plus, the band is googleable & has a Wikipedia page. Seems pointless trying to hide my identity like Clark Kent when it's so easily [if incompletely] searchable. Even my nickname here is my "real" nickname I've had since I first worked for Yamaha in the late 80s.
    – Tetsujin
    Jan 21 at 12:13
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I think the following can be helpful:

Let's say you've got a passage full of sixteenth notes. Practice as follows: Play the first five notes. Start a bit slower than your target tempo. Then wait a beat, and do the same, but starting with Note # 5 (that is, the beginning of beat 2). Etc. Here is where a metronome can come in handy. Do not record yourself.

The idea is to send one instruction to your hands, which will result in five notes being rendered. How do you know when you can move the metronome up a approximately two notches? When you feel that the notes are coming out comfortably and evenly, and your hand is nice and relaxed.

I wouldn't up the metronome more than three or four settings on a given day. Also, if things went well on Day 1, then on Day 2 you could start at your second or third metronome setting.

Now let's say that after four or five days you feel good about that. Now, instead of playing five notes at a time, you can play 9 notes at a time. But please go back to a slower start tempo.

But there's more! Now you can play five notes at a time, starting halfway through Beat 2. Or, you can even offset by one or three sixteenth notes!

And then you can pretend the passage is made up of running triplets! You would play 4 or 7 notes at a time!

So, why does this work? Because you are giving yourself time to recover after a cluster of notes, and also time to reset and subconsciously plan the next cluster.

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    Another post that addresses how the metronome can help address accuracy of notes in-between main beats: Quantitative Tempo and Rhythm Precision (in particular, paragraphs 2 and 3).
    – Aaron
    Jan 21 at 0:39
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    @Aaron - Every other beat sounds good also because with the wind-up kind I used to use, the beats weren't uniform! Jan 21 at 0:42
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    I remember that metronome well!
    – Aaron
    Jan 21 at 0:44
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The problem is you've taught yourself to play it wrong, which means that now if you try to play it right, it feels wrong and awkward. My guess is you upped the tempo too early when learning it, which didn't allow the correct rhythm to settle in your muscle memory.

So basically you'll need to "undo" that first conditioning and work on relearning it right. I asked a very similar question a while ago (How to unlearn incorrect muscle memory), it talks about pressing the wrong note, but basically the same advice applies to this too:

Go back, turn the tempo down until you can play it correctly. This might be at 50%, that doesn't matter. And repeat. In the beginning your brain will need to direct your hand consciously to wait where it normally would rush, or to go quicker if it would normally drag. But you'll notice that this conscious effort will become less and less. If there's a part where you make a lot of mistakes it might be beneficial to rehearse that part separately, just be sure to include 1 or 2 measures before the hard part, to attune to the tempo. Stay at this slow tempo until you can do it without thinking about the corrections themselves. Then up the tempo a little and repeat.

This sounds tedious, and in a way it is, but it does give results relatively quickly.

A trick that might help you too: if I am rushing a note, when rehearsing I'll add a "tick" (or yell or the slightest hesitation, whatever matches the amount of time I'm off) in my imagination to precede the note. After a while you won't need it, but it's to counter the initial "wrong" feeling. And the other way around, if I'm dragging, I'll make a mnemonic note and relate it to the previous note, the one right before I'm dragging: something like "G goes fast" which I'll repeat to myself right before playing it again.

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