How to use a metronome for piano practice

A metronome is an incredibly useful tool that I believe all pianists can benefit from using in their practice. Its’ benefits are countless, but primarily if you are struggling with technical facility or timing, this is where you’ll get the most benefit out of a metronome. However, metronomes are often misused by piano students, who think they are simply a way to learn how to play as fast as possible. In this article, we are going to go through exactly what a metronome is, and how to use a metronome for piano practice in an effective and efficient manner.


What is a metronome and how does it work?

A metronome is a device that produces a click at a regular interval, as set by the user. This interval is set using a metric called “beats per minute,” or BPM. This means, as it says, that whatever you set the metronome at, this is how many times it will click in one minute. The point of this is that the metronome provides a regular beat or pulse, which musicians can synchronise their playing to.

A metronome works by the use of a pendulum rod, with a weight on the end. Should you wish to increase the tempo, you move the weight further down the rod, and the pendulum swings faster. A mechanism inside the metronome produces each click. Most metronomes are powered by a clockwork winding mechanism, and do not require external power or batteries.

Given the popularity of smartphones nowadays, metronome apps are very common, and it’s possible that you already have one of these. They work in the same way; providing a steady pulse with which you can follow along while you’re playing. I don’t like metronome apps, and I strongly recommend my students buy a proper metronome, for reasons I will explain later in this article. However, if you’re in a bind, they’ll do. Just don’t pay for one; there are plenty of free ad supported apps available for Android and iPhone.

 

What is the point of a metronome?

The whole point of using a metronome is to provide a steady pulse, which you can play along with. It’s 100% a practice tool, and you shouldn’t need it to play along with when you’re giving a performance. When you go to see your teacher to play your pieces, you shouldn’t need to use the metronome. You should use it as you’re practicing at a slower tempo to ensure that your piano playing is in time, and the pulse is not erratic.

A metronome will not help you play fast. It will only help you play in time. This is incredibly important in the beginning stages of playing the piano. As you get more advanced, there are different problems that you will encounter while using a metronome that might mean that you need to wean yourself off using it, but as you start to learn the piano and progress through the grades, a metronome is an invaluable tool that you must learn how to use properly.


In my experience of being a teacher for many years, the absolute most important thing that regular metronome practice does is to develop a student’s internal sense of pulse. Often students come to me without any real idea of the concept of playing in time. Regular metronome practice ensures that most students can very quickly overcome this. Coupled with this, when used correctly, the metronome can also help students learn complicated rhythmic patterns in their music, providing they are taught subdivision of beats, but that is an article for another day.

 

How do you practice using a metronome?

So, as I’ve said, the metronome is primarily useful for two things. Learning complex rhythms, and for playing in time. However there is a third thing it can help you with; playing up to tempo. I’m going to go into each of these in brief detail, with a view to expanding each of these concepts into a separate article sometime in the future.

For learning complex rhythms

Metronome practice is one of the best ways to get to grips with incredibly complex rhythmic patterns that may not be immediately obvious or easy to play. The simplest way to use a metronome in order to achieve this is through a concept called subdivision. I don’t want to get too detailed here because I intend to do a whole article on subdivision and learning complex rhythms, but here’s a basic outline.

Firstly, you need to figure out the rhythm by clapping the beat and speaking the rhythm. Clap slowly and fit your speech around the beat. Your teacher can explain the rhythm to you if you’re still unsure, or you can use a recording to teach yourself the rhythm.

Once you’ve got it, go back to the piano, set the metronome to a slow speed, and try to imitate what you did before, only now the metronome is keeping the beat instead of your clapping, and you try to play the rhythm on the piano instead of speaking it. Keep going until you’ve got it slowly, and gradually increase the speed as you become more proficient and confident with playing the rhythm.

This is an exceptionally useful strategy; even though I, as an advanced pianist, don’t have too much trouble with rhythms any more, when I come across complicated groups of 5, 7 or 9, this technique is very helpful.

As an aside, there are some useful words you can use when speaking the rhythm. These might sound ridiculous, but trust me, they are useful (trying to count individual rhythmic groups as numbers is extremely hard, and if you have a particular unusual word with the right number of syllables that you can use when you come across a certain rhythmic group, it becomes a lot easier.

Groups of 3 = Com-pu-ter

Groups of 4 = Bi-o-lo-gy

Groups of 5 = Dal-la-picc-o-la

Groups of 6 = Vlad-i-mir Hor-o-witz

Groups of 7 = Mi-cro-bi-o-log-ic-al

Hopefully you can see how this works. It’s a useful concept, and if you can get used to practicing it with a metronome, you’ll have no trouble with complex rhythms.

Playing in time

This one is kind of self-explanatory. Set the metronome to a particular speed; these are your beats. Some metronomes have a setting where they will make a different sound on the first beat of the bar; this will allow you to easily differentiate between playing in 3 or 4 when you are a beginner. When you move onto more advanced music, such as playing in more complex time signatures, you should be able to count by yourself and shouldn’t need this, but it’s useful while you’re learning.

It’s important to remember that the metronome is a practice tool that should be used to help you. It is not a competition to see how fast you can play. Of course, the goal should be able to get to performance tempo with the help of a metronome, but it does not matter how slowly you need to start off. Start practicing as slow as you need to, and gradually increase the speed as you are comfortable. Do not listen to those who tell you that you need to begin practicing at a certain speed. Start at the speed that is right for you, and increase as you improve.

 

Playing up to tempo

This is where advanced students will find the most benefit to using a metronome. If you are struggling to play a certain passage or piece up to adequate tempo, using the metronome to gradually increase the speed as you master a slower tempo. The increase in speed is so gradual that you hardly notice it, and before you know it, you’re playing at the tempo you never thought you could.

The problem with this approach is that most people try to increase the speed too soon. The idea behind this concept is that you start off at an extremely slow speed, and try to master every movement. Every placement of your hands, every time you play a note, you must be playing so slowly that you are consciously aware of everything you are doing so that if you make a mistake, you can correct it. I’m also not just talking about wrong notes here. You need to analyse your every move to ensure that even if your hand placement is slightly off on one note, or on a chord, you are able to identify and correct it, even if it does not lead to wrong notes at a slow tempo.

When you are able to do this, gradually increase the speed a few beats per minute, and do it all over again. It’s critical that there are absolutely NO mistakes. If you let any mistakes slip through and don’t correct them before moving on, this technique won’t work.

 

Does playing with a metronome help?

Absolutely, if you use it right as I’ve described above. However, there are definitely ways that overuse of a metronome will negatively impact your playing. As I’ve said before, a metronome is a practice tool. It’s not designed to be used during performance, and nor should you use it as a performance tool. This means that when your piece is up to performance tempo, you shouldn’t use the metronome for anything other than spot checking certain passages.


If you decide to play along with your metronome all the time, you risk your performance becoming mechanical and unmusical. Nobody wants to listen to someone playing exactly in time; you will sound like a robot. When you have mastered the technical aspects of a piece, then it becomes time to play the music, rather than just the notes. There are some out there that believe that even if you are playing musically, or even if you are using rubato, you should still be able to play along with a metronome, the idea being that any time you “steal” when you use rubato, you “give back” at some other point. I don’t subscribe to this theory; whether you do is up to you, but it’s not something that I’m going to go into here.

To conclude, use your metronome wisely. It will help you if used properly. Don’t abuse it; learn to play music and not just notes. Your metronome is a practice tool and not a performance tool.

If you need some more help with playing the piano, you might consider a digital piano with light up keys. Check out my article on whether I think you should buy one.


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