Using a Metronome to Practice? Five reasons you Should (Sometimes) Lose Your Metronome
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Let’s start off this article by getting this out of the way. You should practice with a metronome. No matter your instrument. There’s no better way to improve your sense of time. That perfection of time, punctuated by an endless stream of clicks at any tempo you desire, will sharpen your time and ability to lock in with it. It’s one of the first tools you use as you take up an instrument and one you certainly continue to use no matter how many years you continue to play.
But musical rhythm is clearly more than absolute perfect time. When we speak of concepts like “groove” and “rhythm” we aren’t thinking of robotic precision by any means. What we are talking about is the interpretation of musical time. So, we have to understand that musical time is much more than a precise, mechanical, and absolute concept.
When we talk about “rhythm” what we are essentially discussing is how musicians interpret and perform musical time. And, how this time is expressed—be it with the mechanical precision of a metronome or through human understanding and intuition—has long been the defining element of how and why we respond to music. Our ability as musicians or even just casual listeners to recognize distinct patterns in the expression of time and all of its variations is paramount to our response. Without an understanding of musical time, we cannot fully understand music.
With all of that said, are there times when you should turn the metronome off and develop your time another way, a more musical and challenging way than using a metronome to practice?
We’d like to think there is.
Here are five reasons you should (sometimes) put your metronome aside and play with a real drummer instead.
Ding … Click … click … click … Ding … Can You Say Monotonous?
It’s mechanical. It’s lifeless. It’s monotonous. Many would argue that playing only to a metronome can take out some of the fun we should be feeling while practicing. Its entire purpose is to be predictably perfect, exact and accurate right down to the millisecond subdividing a given tempo. The endless string of clicks, ticks, beeps, or clangs can, at times, seem far from musical.
Yes, a metronome tells time. But, it doesn’t tell a story. And, if there is one thing, history has shown us again and again is that people love stories.
Can a metronome get annoying? Particularly the digital ones built into many modern DAWs? Without question. While you can in certain programs customize the metronome’s sounds, it is far from the dynamic and thrilling sensation of hearing a live, natural set of drums being struck purposefully and powerfully. People respond to drums, in a way that is primal. The boom and thud of the kick, the crack and snap of the snare, the sizzle and attack of the cymbals. It evokes a response from the listener in a way a robotic ding or click could never do.
And, what happens when there’s little or no emotional response? No visceral response? We tend to lose interest. It becomes another artificial constraint that neither inspires nor motivates—it merely dictates. It’s unnaturally perfect and, over time, becomes less interesting and (dare we say it?) even boring.
People, and especially musicians, prefer the natural, the organic, the imperfect. We are drawn to the slight imperfections the world around us so beautifully arranges. Without the allure of the imperfect, our boredom will eventually lead to avoidance.
Not something you want to do if you want to continue refining your time and your sense of space between the subdivided notes.
It Don’t Mean a thing if it ‘Ain’t Got That Swing’
Ah, that space between straight eighths and swung eighths.
Ask any number of musicians what “swing” means to them and you will get just as many answers. But, most would agree that swing is something we feel rather than logically deduce. It’s that rhythmic feel that sits between the notes, a consistent deviation that is pleasing to hear and experience but difficult to achieve by any analog or digital metronome.
Need an example of how swing is musically applied?
Helen Humes – “You’re Driving Me Crazy” Jazz Example
Now, clearly, jazz is all about having that swing, but you’ll also run into this feel in fusion, blues, and rock as well.
One common example of this concept of swing is when eighth-notes sit in that space of being played as straight eights and triplet eighths. And, what usually dictates this is tempo. While a slower tempo song will highlight a more established and recognizable triplet feel, this changes (in many cases, HAS to change because of the physical limitations of the drummer) as the tempo increases. What inevitably happens is that the spacing between triplets becomes shorter. This decrease in spacing gives the listener a sense that the eight-notes have become “tighter” or, as many would call it, “straighter.”
Let’s have a look a how Ringo Starr so beautifully straddles this line between “straight and swung.”
The Beatles’ “Help”
Another great example of Ringo blurring the line between straight and swung eighths. Though not the only drummer to ever do this, he’s by far the most known for doing if only because of the overhwleming popularity of The Beatles’ musical catalogue.
The Beatles’ “Act Naturally”
It’s not surprising that Ringo vacillated between straight and swung eighth-note feels being the product of the earliest rock n roll records not to mention jazz and big band.
While Ringo clearly places the bass drum to indicate a straight feel, you hear how he gives the hihats a slight lilt, a shuffle that varies between tight and loose based on the section of the song. Listen carefully throughout the song as Ringo grooves are nearly straight eighths, while in other sections he tends to loosen it up a bit to imply more of a shuffle feel.
Let’s not forget “shuffle” rhythms when thinking of how this incredibly small amount of spacing can affect how we perceive the time as well. This triplet rhythm, prevalent in blues and blues-rock, can be varied infinitely, always at the individual interpretation and preference of the drummer and musicians. Like a rhythmic fingerprint, musicians express vastly different ideas of how much swing is the “right” amount of swing given the demands of a different musical composition or genre.
We’ll be blunt here. You’re not going to get that kind of swing feel and vibe from any metronome or metronome app, no matter how much they claim you can turn off the “swing” or “humanize” value!
Whether the style is funk, reggae, ska, blues, rock, RnB, or soul, no one hears or plays the “in-between” sub-divisions the same. If you’re looking to find or even refine your own personal groove, you need to experience how others have done the same.
No matter how sophisticated metronomes have become in the digital age, no machine has yet to replicate the beauty of the musical human mind. In the end, practicing with a drum track or drum loop is all about finding that Infinitely Personal Pocket.
It’s up to you to discover it.
Understand how Drummers Think
If you’ve ever listened to programmed drums, you’ll quickly realize that some of the sequenced parts are physically impossible for a human drummer to play. Drummers won’t play parts they are physically incapable of playing. Ask any drummer about learning Stewart Copeland’s parts until they realize a number his more complex parts on the band’s later works were actually performed by multi-tracking rather than the one live pass he was typically performing on the band’s earlier recordings.
Drummers understand rhythm, in part, by what they are physically able to play. Have you notice in modern metal music, for example, how drum parts have become increasingly complex and challenging (or, as some would say, insane) once virtual drum instruments like Superior Drums became a part of the scene? You now have guitarists programming parts that require six limbs instead of four and at tempos that are incredibly, if not impossible to achieve.
Thankfully, however, drummers are a resilient bunch and more than capably took on the challenge, developing new playing techniques and even training regimens to somehow recreate the parts on an actual acoustic drum kit. Drummers are indeed a special group of people.
But, we digress.
Drummers understand time by how they are able to express it. While you can certainly crank up your metronome to a 300 bpm clip, you’re not going to find many drummers capable or even willing to keep up. The physical limitations of a human drummer must and will be respected. Instead of trying to match the limitless and perhaps inhuman demands of a mechanical click, you might find practice time better spent practicing along with a live drummer who knows what they’re doing, both in a musical and physical sense.
Let’s face it. Rhythms change at different tempos. Not all drum beats work at different tempos. Musically-speaking, some drum beats that sound great at one tempo sound absolutely awful when played at a radically different one. Drummers understand this. A drummer’s musically has been shaped by playing countless gigs and recording sessions. Use that experience to help you. It’s as simple as that.
Feeling the space by feeling the Time
We’ve discussed in the swing section how much lies in-between the subdivisions of swung and straight eighth-notes and how in this space exists an entire musical universe of groove. The way in which drummers and other musicians interpret these spaces in time is what we all tend to define as “feel.” And, it is precisely what is “in-between” that makes all the difference when it comes to groove and swing.
But, another critically important element of “feel” is tempo. Tempo dictates so much of how we perceive music and is, in fact, a defining element of the creation of music.
There are countless examples of how a tempo change can influence the mood, feel, and even style of music. While a metronome’s click can be changed indiscriminately from slow to fast or fast to slow, what is missing is musical context. Certain styles of music feel “right” at certain tempos. The speed generally dictates what is musically appropriate and what is not.
Don’t believe that? Try playing a 6/8 feel at 150 bpm and tell us that feels “right.” In fact, most musical genres are defined by some common tempo ranges. With that in mind, let’s look at some ‘typical’ tempo values for a number of different styles of music.
Typical Tempos of Musical Styles
Here are some “typical” or expected tempo ranges for different musical genres. Not surprisingly, you’ll notice in the list below that 120 bpm is the most “common” tempo for modern, popular music. 120 bpm is a mathematical multiple of 60 bpm, a tempo that is around us everywhere in the form of a clock ticking. This may account for its familiarity and its prevalence is many forms of music. Likewise, the average adult heart rate lies between 60 to 100 beats per minute – see how many styles falls within this range and how many do not. You may find that relaxing or soothing musical styles are within that range whereas intense and energizing music stretches well beyond the upper limit of that range.
We understand that this list can be argued endlessly, but it’s the best we can determine based on how a drummer might initially understand these genres, at least in terms of what would be expected as ‘appropriate’ for the genre.
- Dance: 118-125 bpm
- Drum and Bass: 160-180 bpm
- Dubstep: approx. 70 bpm (or, depending how you count it: 140 bpm)
- Film Soundtracks and Scores: 80-140
- Funk 90-110 bpm
- Hip-hop: 85-100 bpm
- House (deep, electro, progressive): 115-135 bpm
- Jazz: 80-140 bpm
- Metal: 60-300 bpm (depends if you’re a doom metal fan or enjoy more of the extreme metal styles)
- Pop: 110-125 bpm
- Reggae: 80-110 bpm
- R&B: 90-140 bpm
- Rock: 110-140 bpm (though ballads and “soft rock can be much lower, even down to 60-70 bpm)
- Punk: 160-200+ bpm
- Salsa: 160 – 220 bpm
- Samba: 95-105 bpm
- Techno: 120-160 bpm
- Trance: 130-145 bpm
- Waltz 80- 90 bpm
You’ll notice that some styles have greater leeway for tempo variances than others. Some are tightly defined by tempo, while others not so much. Clearly, these are not hard and fast rules as all rules are broken from time to time. But, typically, genres will fall into certain tempo ranges for a number of reasons like audience/listener expectations but not least of which is that musically these are the tempos that seem to work best for different musical styles.
For more on the connection between tempo and its relationship to the human body, we’d suggest reading reading the following two published studies: “Optimal Tempo for Groove: Its Relation to Directions of Body Movement and Japanese nori” and “Effects of music tempos on blood pressure, heart rate, and skin conductance after physical exertion”.
For sake of illustration, let’s dig into a musical example rather than just dig through beats-per-minutes values and tempo ranges. Take a listen to how much tempo can change everything when it comes to how we experience and feel music with these examples from Metallica’s iconic “Black Album”:
Metallica “Sad but True” Demo – Faster Tempo
Metallica “Sad but True” Final Album Track
The final album tempo is at 90 bpm while the demo version clocks in at around 102 bpm. Though, the tempo of the demo is a bit all over the place (big surprise given its Lars and it’s a demo, right?). Lars counts off much quicker as he launches into the initial opening riffs but settles it back down some for the first verse grooves).
The change in tempo from the original demo to the final product found on this multi-platinum album makes all the difference. It’s a good thing Lars and James took producer’s Bob Rock’s advice and took the bpm down a few notches before final tracking was done for the album.
Playing with a drummer is, in fact, sharing and reacting to an interpretation of time. By listening to what the drummer is doing to interpret time as well as honing your listening skills for detecting and recognizing the dynamic interplay between all of the drumkit voices, you’ll sharpen your understanding of music.
By playing along with different styles, your understanding of rhythm is obviously going to benefit. A metronome’s click doesn’t have a style. But, by using drum loops, you can grab a reggae loop, a Brazilian groove or a jazz drums recording with brushes. Each will present a new and different musical sensibility.
Let’s continue this concept of how a live drum track will push your musicality in ways that are difficult, if not entirely impossible, with a metronome.
Playing along with an Afro-Cuban rhythm is conceptually removed from many western-based rhythmic patterns. Sure, there’s a tempo and time is still essentially time. But, how different genres interpret and subdivide the time, how accents are stressed differently in music from around the world, can really open up your mind and ears as to how musical time should be interpreted and ultimately performed. concept.
Try playing along with a click @ 77 bpm and then play along with a reggae groove at 77 bpm. See what happens to your playing.
Click at 77 bpm
Bob Marley: “Get Up Stand Up” at 77 bpm
We’d guess you’d play something entirely different in these vastly different contexts. Did the length of the measure change? Did the space between the quarter notes change? No.
But, what did change was how the time was musically interpreted and expressed in a completely distinct way. And, who do you think is behind that?
Learn more here in the article “Music and Metronomes Differentially Impact Motor Timing…”
As we stated in the beginning of this article, using a metronome can be an incredibly valuable tool in your efforts to become a better musician. And, we would never suggest that you NOT play with one. It remains an absolutely essential tool for all musicians to have and, more important, use. What it can do in terms of refining your timing and overall sense of rhythm is not something we would ever refute. After all, we’re drummers and we spend so much of our practice time working with a metronome so we can communicate good time to the music we are in charge of serving!
But, one of the first things you’ll learn drumming to a click is how to create and stay in the “pocket” in a way that gives a human feel to what is decidedly not humanly possible, that is, perfect time. While the best studio drummers can lock in tight with a given tempo, they are paid to make it comes alive, feel natural, and make it feel human.
And, it is precisely that humanity that playing along with live drum loops or drum tracks can provide.
There’s a reason they call drummers “time-keepers.” So, next time you sit down to practice, consider reaching for a live drummer instead of the metronome. You might be surprised what it does for your playing and overall musicality.
Get all the live, human-played drum tracks you need for practice here. You’re already here, so have a look around.
Enjoy the grooves!