Practicing Well, Part III: Using a metronome.

Posted by DannyFratina, 12.03.2012 There have been 3 comment(s)

If you don’t use a metronome then I am sorry to say you have been practicing inefficiently this entire time. The good news is that It’s never too late to start using one!

Having a metronome in your room is like having a drill sergeant next to you who is constantly telling you when you are right or wrong, except the drill sergeant is a robot, it's never wrong, and it never gives up or needs water or sleep or love (although drill sergeants don’t really need love while on the job, I guess, but you get the idea).

You may have decided you don’t like it. Maybe you don’t use one now because you were uncomfortable with it in the past. And indeed, it does take some getting used to. However, answer this question: have you ever, or do you ever foresee yourself playing with any kind of ensemble of any size or style (from garage bands to symphony orchestras), or playing in a studio with any of these bands? If your answer contains even a hint of a ‘yes’, then you need to start using a metronome today! Don't play another note without it! Every time you practice something without a metronome, you are wasting your time. And your time is precious, so don't waste it.

The reason why the metronome works so well is that it forces our brain to make notes about our mistakes under pressure. Without the met., you can go through any piece of music at your own pace, even if you generally have good time, but the click is relentless and precise, so every mistake you make is much more clear. Maybe not to you, but to your brain, which has some room in the back that you don't keep track of where your brain-coach guy makes notes of your mistakes and processes them for you, during practice time, after practice time, while you sleep even! Without the met., that brain-coach guy isn't able to accurately tell when a mistake happens, so you don't learn nearly as quickly.

Specifically, there is an area of your brain called the motor cortex and another area called the cerebellum; the motor cortex deals with physical memory like working on a scale pattern, and the cerebellum deals with physical coordination and error detection. When you practice, your brain is actually growing as you learn new things and weakening in other areas containing “wrong” information. In the case of this article the ‘wrong’ information would be bad timing, which is ultimately the inability to correctly execute a passage.

The two processes are separate though, so when you try to learn new things, you also have to be efficient enough to wipe out the old incorrect way of playing it. This is where the metronome steps in to save the day. Even if it’s tough at first, working with a metronome locks in what you are working on, simultaneously growing the “correct” information and erasing the “incorrect” information. Without it, you just barely capture the correct info but mostly leave in the incorrect info. With the stress and pressure of the metronome relentlessly keeping time, you have no choice but to learn something as perfectly as you can. You are aiming high. Keep in mind that even if you don’t hit your mark, the process of using the metronome will have helped you to learn your piece much more accurately than if you hadn’t. And the great thing about our brains is that even if it doesn’t “click” right away (pun intended because why not), your brain keeps processing the information after you finish the exercise, after you put the horn down, and even while you are sleeping (sleep, by the way, is absolutely one of the most important times of your life for your brain to take information and process it correctly, but that is for another article).

One final metronome benefit is that just by having some sound involved you are stimulating your auditory cortex, another part of your brain that is actually connected to the ol’ motor cortex. This reinforces your physical actions and the collaboration between the two parts of your brain ensure that a metronome works wonders on multiple levels.

More information can be found here. (PDF)

Don’t wait any longer! The time has come to be the incredible musician you are! So face your fears, feed your brain, and use a metronome!


See also:

Practicing Well, Part I: Burning out and setting new goals

Practicing Well, Part II: Warming Up

Practicing Well, Part IV: Keeping a practice journal

Practicing Well, Part V: The 2-hour / 15-minute strategy

This post was posted in Notes from the Arranger and was tagged with Practicing

3 Responses to Practicing Well, Part III: Using a metronome.

  • Reid says:

    Also see Wayne Krantz on use of the metronome:

    Take away is to also record yourself. The most painful but most useful way of getting better.

    Posted on 01.10.2013 at 2:01 PM

  • Great article :) I'm always harping on my students (and myself) to play with a metronome, in fact I believe it's one of the most important practice habits you can build.

    Posted on 01.10.2013 at 3:17 PM

  • Danny says:

    I totally agree that recording yourself is a really excellent way to make progress. A lot of musicians (especially younger musicians) don't truly know what they sound like, the same way that we don't know what our speaking voice sounds like until we hear it. I hate the way I sound in recordings, but if I was working on acting, having that experience would be crucial for me to get any better.

    And Wayne Krantz has great stuff to say for sure. I like what he says about how simply having a metronome on is not enough to build time.

    Thanks! I have students who finally take the plunge and start working with the met, but some of them get frustrated when it makes playing tunes not so fun anymore. The ones who stick with it at that point find that even in a few months time they have made great progress. The students I teach who are big metronome people are distinctly better musicians than their non-met peers, in my opinion.

    Posted on 01.10.2013 at 5:27 PM