StudyBassers! One of the most powerful learning tools musicians have is the metronome. But, it's real teaching strength might not be what you think.
First, in case you don't know what a metronome is, it's a device that clicks at a specific time intervals measured in beats-per-minute. So, you may set it at 60 beats-per-minute for one click per second, or 120 would be two clicks each second. Most metronomes let you choose tempos anywhere from 40 to around 200 BPM. If you don't have a metronome, get one. I have a few suggested metronomes, and there's a free online metronome in the tools section of studybass.com.
Why Do Musicians Use Metronomes?
Music teachers often tell their students to practice with a metronome. Why? Most commonly, teachers want students to use metronomes to learn rhythmic things like maintaining a steady pulse or learning how to count rhythms. These are important things to learn, and I think the metronome helps with them. But, the metronome is much more powerful than just being a tool for improving your rhythm. Where the metronome really shines is as a memory aid.
You really want to understand this so you can get the most out of your metronome and practice time.
The Metronome as a Memory Aid
When you use the metronome, its consistent pace puts a little time pressure on you forcing you to think ahead.
When you try to memorize something—a scale, arpeggio, or a song—and you play freely, what happens is you slow down and hesitate when you're unsure of what is next. When you're comfortable with what's next, you speed up. I've literally observed students do this thousands of times.
These hesitations might be long or very short. They may even be imperceptible to you, but they're still there.
Using the metronome will help you overcome these memory hesitations. The metronome paces you and gets your mind actively thinking ahead.
Thinking ahead is an essential part of playing music. Most of the time you are playing one thing while imagining and planning to play what's ahead in the next beat, or bar, or further.
In many of life's activities, having everything memorized is not absolutely critical. For instance, if you don't remember a math formula, you can go look it up. Music, however, is based in time. When you're in the middle of a song, you don't have the luxury of pausing to go look up how to play a B minor 7 flat 5 chord. You need to have that memorized.
A common struggle for musicians is the sheer amount of stuff to memorize. There's so much you need at your fingertips. There are scales, arpeggios, keys, rhythms, complete songs, styles, notes on the fingerboard, the list goes on forever. To be a good musician, you need to have a lot of things stone cold memorized. There's no time for hesitation.
When I ask students to use their metronome, it's more often about developing stronger memories and developing them more quickly than it is about developing rhythm. To me, it's the metronome's most important use.
How to Use Your Metronome for Memory
Let's go through an example of using your metronome as a memory aid.
You can apply this approach to almost any musical learning situation, but let's use a simple example of learning an unfamiliar scale. Let's use the D minor pentatonic scale: D F G A C and D.
What you want to do is start at the slowest pace you need to so that you play all of the correct notes with all of the correct fingers. The goal is to play the notes correctly at a consistent pace no matter how slow.
Turn on your metronome. Start at a very slow tempo.
To use your metronome at a pace slower than its lowest tempo, count multiple clicks in between your notes. So, if you set it to 60 and count two clicks as one beat, [AUDIO] then you're playing at a pace of 30 beats-per-minute. But, hang on, 30 beats-per-minute is way too fast for our new scale. Let's try playing every four clicks to work at a pace of 15 beats-per-minute.
Take your time. You can't start too slowly. If you have time to make a sandwich in between notes, that's OK. The first goal is to get it right. Give yourself plenty of time to think about that next note.
D...click...click...click... F...click...click...click... G...click...click...click... A...click...click...click... C...click...click...click... and so on.
Again, we're not focused on rhythm here. What you're doing is setting a thinking pace: your rate of thought; your rate of recall. You are learning to think ahead to the next note and which finger to use. This isn't an exercise about rhythmic perfection. Just maintain the thinking pace.
When you have it correct at this snail's pace, gradually increase the tempo. Go to 62, then 64, and so on. If it feels too easy, go in larger increments. When you reach 120 on the metronome, go back to 60 and play every two clicks instead of 4. Then work up to 120 again, go back to 60 and play the notes on every click.
If you start making a lot of mistakes, go back. Slow it down.
This was just a simple example. You might not practice something this slowly or gradually. It depends on what you're trying to memorize. But, when you use your metronome this way as a pace setter at whatever speed, you are ironing out those little hesitations.
Because of the consistent click of the metronome, your mind is encouraged to think of the next coming note more quickly. The pressure of that click tells your brain: this is an important memory we always need at hand. Make this a stronger memory.
I see students struggling to memorize things all of the time. I explain this metronome principle to them and when they start using their metronome in this way, they start memorizing things at a much faster rate.
Again, there's so much to memorize in music; it's an essential part of playing well. To grow as a musician, you need to become a master of your memory. Realize that the metronome isn't just a rhythm tool; it's a powerful memory aid.