Music & Entertainment

Music 101: What Is a Metronome in Music? Learn How to Use a Metronome in 4 Steps

Written by MasterClass

Jun 20, 2019 • 4 min read

A great instrumentalist can perform a piece of music at a wide variety of tempos. To truly control her instrument, she must be able to play a passage just as compellingly at rapid speed as she might at a languid speed, and vice versa. For centuries, musicians have practiced playing at a variety of tempos by using a device known as a metronome.

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What Is a Metronome?

A metronome is a device that produces a click at a regular interval of time. You can set how fast you would like it to go based on beats per second. Mechanical metronomes, which have been around for several centuries, have a pendulum that swings back and forth. You can also use an electronic metronome or even a metronome app on your phone.

Metronomes have been used for many centuries, but in 1815, the German inventor Johann Maelzel patented it specifically as a tool for musicians. Metronomes have been broadly used by musicians ever since.

What Are the Functions of a Metronome?

A metronome can help you keep a consistent tempo so that you don’t inadvertently speed up or slow down. It provides a steady click marking a musical interval. What that interval is will be up to the player, but options include:

  • Quarter notes. When most players use metronomes, they set them such that one click equals one-quarter note. So in 4/4 meter (the most common time signature), each metronome click equals one quarter-note and four clicks equal a full measure. In 5/4 time, five clicks would equal a full measure.
  • Eighth notes. Some players choose to make their metronome clicks represent eighth notes. This is particularly common when eighth notes are themselves part of the time signature, such as 6/8 time or 9/8 time.
  • Dotted quarter notes. Certain time signatures are easily subdivided into dotted quarter notes, most notably 3/8, 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8. For instance, two dotted quarter notes equal a complete measure of 6/8. So when using a metronome in 6/8 time, some players opt for six clicks (where each click is an eighth note) and some opt for two clicks (where each click is a dotted quarter note).

How Is a Metronome Used in Music?

A metronome is used in two primary ways by musicians.

  1. As a practice tool to make sure you are playing at a steady tempo.
  2. As a recording tool to make sure a performance is metrically precise. Metronomes used for recording are often called a “click track.” They are extremely popular in the recording of film scores, where the music must sync to individual frames of film. They’re also popular in pop recordings where there will be lots of overdubbing. The process of overdubbing is fairly easy when the tempo is locked to a metronome; it can be extremely difficult when it is not.

There’s no need for modern metronomes to only sound like a click. If you’re using a digital device, you can make any recorded sound play along at a steady tempo, thus serving as your metronome. Many digital metronomes expressly feature this option.

Learn How to Use a Metronome in 4 Steps

Learning to use a metronome correctly is easy.

  1. Select a metronome. This can be a classic mechanical device, a handheld electronic metronome, or just an app on your phone.
  2. Select the units of measure (quarter notes, eighth notes, etc.) that you want each metronome click to represent.
  3. Start with a metronome marking that allows you to play all of the right notes and the right rhythms.
  4. Once you are playing a piece with complete precision at a certain tempo, gradually increase the speed. This can be a long-term project, whereby you increase the speed by one notch of the metronome each day until you have worked up to your goal tempo.

An important extra step when using a metronome with sheet music: Mark your beats in the printed music. When using a metronome, it’s important to understand the rhythms that you’re playing as well as their correct placement in terms of the beat.

Take the beginning of the Adagio of Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G-minor, which has complex rhythms, as an example? Do you know where every beat falls?

Adagio of Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G-minor

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You need to know, otherwise, you’ll wind up playing long and short notes without any real pulse to the music. As practice, mark where each beat in the music falls. In this case, you’ll subdivide the measure by eighth notes. Here’s how the first two measures of this piece would look:

Adagio of Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G-minor marked up

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Once you understand exactly where all those beats align with the rhythms, then you can practice the music with a metronome. Once you’ve practiced with the metronome and learned the rhythms by heart, then you can feel the “inner pulse” of the music.

Why It’s Important To Use a Metronome to Practice Slowly

Practicing slowly is crucial, especially when you are learning a new piece.

  • When practicing a particular passage, slow it down enough so that you’re able to play everything correctly (no wrong notes, no out-of-tune notes, no fumbling with the bow).
  • Keep your rhythms proportional as you slow down the music.
  • Don’t practice the easy parts fast and the difficult parts slow; instead keep everything the same tempo. That way, when you speed it back up, the rhythms will be correct and well-ingrained.
  • Give your brain ample time to soak in new information. You can’t hurry good practice.

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