It’s a Matter of Time: An Ode to my Metronome

Musicians and metronomes go hand in hand, but most musicians hate using their metronomes. Some hate them so much that they refuse to use them, largely because they can’t handle the fact that they have such poor senses of time that they can’t tolerate the constant reinforcement that they have this shortcoming in their art.   A solid sense of time is invaluable in the performance of music, regardless of genre, and is a must have for any musician who wants to perform, particularly with others. Our relationships with metronomes all start with a certain amount of hatred, but with time we learn to love them for their reliable feedback and undeniable assistance in self-improvement.

My metronome is an old Seiko Quartz ticker. It is about the size of a pack of cigarettes, has a dial for adjusting the time, a light for silent running if you like, an earphone jack if you still want sound but not from its speaker, and a setting to generate an A 440 pitch for tuning. It was the last metronome I bought for actual use as such and has traveled all over the place with me. I paid $100 for it back in 1984 and is still ticking away today, 30 years later. Not a bad investment. At the time I was using mechanical metronomes, which I like but always seemed to all too quickly develop problems, whether it was a seemingly uneven beat or a different sound for the tock, tock, tock; when it swung one way it was deeper pitched than the other which bothered me. It’s not too surprising that they were burning out on me because they were always being transported from one place to another and were in use for at least four hours a day, every day; slightly less in the summers when I was back at my parents’ house.

I almost got arrested for it at Cleveland Hopkins Airport. I had been practicing and had to go drop someone off for a flight. A friend asked me to her because I could drive a stick shift, which is what her truck had. I tucked my metronome in my jacket pocket, took my guitar back to my room and then headed over to her place to drive her to the airport. At that time unticketed folks could accompany travelers, or meet them, at their gates as long as they went through the metal detectors. I went through, forgetting about my little electronic device and set off the alarm.

I remembered that I had my metronome in my pocket and when I pulled it out the security folks all stepped away from me, and asked me suspiciously what that thing was. I was still in my young smart assed days, and stopped just short of saying, “it’s a thing that goes tick, tick, tick.” I fortunately read their stress levels and realized that they were seriously concerned and if I joked about it I was going to end up not getting home for a while. I told them what it was, what I used it for, and showed them how it worked. At that time my explanation was sufficient and we were off to the gate. Today, I probably would have been in lock down while the feds ran background checks on me, and my precious metronome would have been destroyed by a bomb squad. How times have changed!

I was separated from my metronome for the three and a half years I was in the military, but otherwise it has traveled with me all over the country, year after year, residing in desk drawers, on shelves, and even in my underwear drawer at one point. It seems to run forever on a nine volt battery and has taken its share of tumbles from tables and out of my hands, even glancing off and denting guitar tops along the way at times. It is loyal and always performs its duties with timely perfection, despite the physical abuse it has suffered, and the occasional verbal abuse from its owner when working through a tricky spot in a piece.

I still use my metronome, particularly while working on scales and exercises. It is an invaluable tool that can be relied upon to always tell me the truth, regardless of what I want to hear. It provides me with a sense of security in my sense of time, at least musically, and the time spent with it has paid dividend after dividend in live performances, both solo and in the various ensembles, bands and groups I’ve played with. So, be kind to your metronome and love it for what it is, what it does, and what it tells you. The time you spend with it, pays off in kind.

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2 thoughts on “It’s a Matter of Time: An Ode to my Metronome

  1. I’ve only just started practicing with my metronome. I had tried initially, but couldn’t keep up with it, even at slow speeds. I then saw videos from Jeff Berlin where he really railed against using them because of the idea that they force an artificial sense of time. He went on to show examples of people clapping/tapping to music and explaining natural human rhythms and showed how people who listened to samba or something similar could simply pick up the beat, even if they hadn’t heard a song before. Well, some of his advice later was to learn a piece, learn the notes, first, and then when you have that down, to begin practicing it with a metronome. I’ve only just started to do that, with scales, chords and some other small things, and I found that again, even at slow speeds, I make a lot of mistakes. This is actually what made me realize that I learn slower than I did when I was younger. And I noticed that w/o the added stress of keeping up, I make less mistakes, but its because there’s no pressure. The metronome has an interesting effect of forcing you to anticipate what you’re going to play next, as opposed to what I was doing which was playing a note and holding it so that I could hear it really ring and get into my head.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have a lot of respect for Jeff Berlin, but in order for music to work, and work well, particularly in a band or ensemble situation, the musicians must have a solid sense of time. Everyone needs to dedicate time to practicing both with and without the ticker in order to get a solid sense of time. This doesn’t mean that time absolutely has to be a rigid, inflexible, lockstep thing. In fact it should not be, but rhythm is one of the primary foundations of music. Without a solid sense of time musical rhythm and pulse break down and things tend to fall apart.

      Liked by 1 person

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