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As a beginner guitarist, I am always practicing with a metronome (for now 60 bpm). But, for the timing, I feel like sometimes I am going milliseconds ahead or back of the metronome. Especially when playing whole or half notes. For example, keeping with the metronome when playing 4/4 measure made up of four quarter notes is easier. But, when it comes to progressing from a two beats or four beats note to another, I lose precision to some degree.

For short, should I really bother this much with the metronome?

Edit: After carefully examining the below answers, I am now using my body also as a means of time measurement. I mean, I nod my head at every beat of metronome even while not playing after a whole note. This also requires some practice, but it seems to me that developing such a thing a second nature is not hard.

Edit: After some more reading, I am now also incorporating drum loops in my practice. As it "fills the gaps" and also "brings rhythm to the silent parts of guitar playing" helps with timing more. Also another gaining with this is learning to play with others from the very beginning.

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    "Perfectly"? Maybe a better way to word it would be asking what level of precision you should expect to achieve
    – Edward
    Commented Apr 23 at 22:54
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    Congrats. Practicing regularly with a metronome and being aware of (mis)match is 90% of the purpose. Commented Apr 24 at 10:38
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    We all know that as soon we start playing the metronome changes its pace. There is som magic (not the good kind) going on.
    – ghellquist
    Commented Apr 24 at 11:11
  • Nothing can be measured "perfectly." Commented Apr 24 at 12:57
  • @Edward, yes, asking it like you said was in fact what I meant to learn. Commented Apr 24 at 13:31

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Legend has it that the best rhythm players achieved accuracy on the order of 1 millisecond... Although I'm not sure how true that is.

Accuracy to ~10ms is achieved by world-class drumlines (top 10 DCI groups). Discrepancies of 30-40ms across the line can sound audibly "fuzzy" compared to a tighter performance, but fast rhythms are still clear. I figured this by analyzing this popular video of the Blue Devils drumline playing "Ditty".

I imagine a guitar band would sound great with half that level of precision, as long as the drummer is tight.

The slower you're playing, the more tolerance there is for rhythmic inaccuracies, and the harder it will be to maintain "perfect" accuracy, since you are having to judge longer intervals of time between notes. 60bpm is quite slow. Rhythmic accuracy also matters less on instruments with a soft attack.

My practical advice: Listen to your timing as you play, especially when playing exercises, and continuously adjust to fix any discrepancies that you hear. You will continue to get better rhythmically, and if you reach a point where you can't hear any discrepancy, knowing the above numbers won't help you get even better.

I've also heard this analogy which I think is good- playing in time is like driving a car. You shouldn't focus on the road (beat) immediately right in front of you all the time. You should look a few seconds down the road and point the car where you want to go. If you notice yourself drifting off either way, you gently nudge yourself back to the center.

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  • I blame the linked video for me having ended up watching an hour of DCI clips & shows yesterday …. but dang are those horn lines good. Commented Apr 24 at 20:24
  • It should be noted that the tolerance has to be considered in relative terms, with inaccuracies considered in absolute ones based on the time relation. It's not so different from other measuring units. For instance, a one millimetre tolerance may be perceived quite differently; for instance, consider: 1. the distance between a planet and one of its satellites; 2. the distance between two electronic circuit lines; 3. the angular difference in trigonometry units to a target. In reality, as the reference is wider, the tolerance perception becomes higher, based on the relative unit. Commented Apr 28 at 4:39
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A trick that's used with the slower bpms is to speed up the metronome. in your case, 120, 240 or even 180, etc. You'll still play at the same speed, the tempo will remain the same, but it will be sub-divided into smaller time segments, allowing your count, or feel, to be kept more even.

Also try to use your body as a rhythm machine. The very least is tapping a foot, but nodding the head, moving the upper body, etc., to literally give a feel of whatever rhythm you're playing in.

If it's a metronome that you can turn off the sound with, you should also be practising without that crutch for a bar or so on occasions. You can also do the same tapping or playing along with a track, to check your timing is literally 'on track'.

Yet another trick I use is to imagine the metronome is clicking on the & rather than the beats. Or, set it for 36bpm, and imagine the clicks are 2 and 4, for example. That and other similar ideas will give you a greater sense of where you are in the bar.

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  • Similarly, electronic metronomes (or apps these days) can have a "main beat" feature where the main beat is emphasised in some way such as a different tone or louder, eg in 4/4 it would be ONE-two-three-four, which can be very useful for faster tempos.
    – fdomn-m
    Commented Apr 25 at 10:19
  • @fdomn-m - yes, the one I'm using right now has clicks and a flashing light on beat1.
    – Tim
    Commented Apr 25 at 11:08
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To add to other answers, the best tool I've found for tightening up my timing is a delay (echo).

On a synth/keyboard, you can usually set this up in the built-in FX; on a guitar or bass, most multi-FX units include a delay, or you can get dedicated ones.

Set the delay time to the equivalent of 1 beat, ½ beat, or (best of all) 1½ beats, play something, and then try to keep in time with yourself: even slight discrepancies cause a very obvious smearing, but when you lock into time, it's crystal clear.  The instant feedback (ha!) makes it really good for practice.

Obviously, this doesn't suit all pieces or styles of music.  You can of course improvise — the delay adds interest to even the simplest lines.  Or there are many pieces which feature a delay — OTTOMH, some of The Edge's work, or One Of These Days.  (And for keyboard players, there are whole genres of sequencer-driven music to play around with!)

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It's an important clue that you can play more in time when playing quarter notes than when playing longer durations. That means your brain can accurately track the metronome's speed and predict when the next beat happens. And it also means that you've gotten your muscles involved in this skill; the act of playing the quarters helps you stay on tempo.

This offers a clue about how to improve. During these longer notes, pretend you're playing all the quarters. Maybe play whole notes, and on each of the three beats in which you're not actually strumming, just air-strum beside the strings. I'd suggest even getting more involved, moving your whole body to the beat. Once this is accurate, try counting these internal beats accurately without physical movement.

So what you're doing here is "dividing" your long notes. You can double down on this skill by "subdividing" the beat itself. If you can use the metronome's help to divide a four-beat note into four equal parts, then you can play accurate sixteenth notes by accurately imagining the four equal parts within each beat. (But start with eighth notes first.)

Finally, to make all this easier, I suggest using something that's easier to follow than a metronome. Many questions on this site about how to improve metronome skills suggest using a drum loop. You don't have to drop a lot of cash on a nice drum machine; just download a simple license-free loop with a steady rhythm, or use whatever editing software you're familiar with to whip something up, even Garageband on your phone. It can help to add chords, too; the harmonic motion gives you even more cues about when the whole note changes.

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Lots of good advice here! I just want to add:

There's a YouTube channel called Wintergatan, in which the host is attempting to build a real-world mechanical music-playing machine in the spirit of the old Animusic "Pipe Dream" animation.

As he works through this process, he emphasizes in particular the desire for the machine to be able to play "tight" music -- which is to say, music that is as precisely on-beat / on-tempo as possible.

To that end, he has created a pretty sophisticated measuring system, which records the rhythms generated by various subassemblies of the machine-to-be, and measures the standard deviation from ideal timing. (He started out doing the computations manually using Logic and Excel, until one of his Patreon subscribers built a website, tightinator.fun, which does the computation automatically.)

Anyway, the point is that through his experimentation with different mechanisms, he has published a lot of examples of how precise a particular standard deviation sounds, which you can use to determine just how close you'd like to be.

Here is a particular segment I find relevant. In less than a minute, he demonstrates how "off" deviations ranging from 1ms to 400ms sound. To my ear, the deviations start to get noticeable in the 20-30ms range, and start to bother me around 50ms.

Of course, some genres of music are more timing-flexible than others, and to an extent your natural imperfections are part of the art and "warmth" of human-made music. Have you ever listened to a software-generated MIDI file? The timing is always dead-on perfect*, and to my ear it often sounds weird and robotic. If you're playing a march, you probably want to be super-tight. A waltz? Perhaps a bit more wiggle room. Improv jazz? Just turn off the metronome and play what you feel!

* - within the computer's ability, anyway -- which for any non-ancient computer is going to be better than 0.01 millisecond deviation at the very worst.

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    Presumably you're talking specifically about MIDI files which were generated directly by a sequencer or other music software in strict time (or were quantised or otherwise edited to regularise the timing)?  MIDI files can certainly have human-like/loose timing, especially if starting from a human performance.
    – gidds
    Commented Apr 24 at 22:02
  • Yep, software-generated MIDI content. Sorry for the ambiguity. 🙂 (Edited the answer accordingly)
    – JakeRobb
    Commented Apr 25 at 14:39

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