The Beat Goes On

I've started taking piano lessons from my mother-in-law and I'm looking forward to improving my piano-tickling skills. But she told me something interesting, and that is to NOT use a metronome. Being a bass player and a part of the rhythm section in numerous bands over the past 8 years, I found it strange that I should practice without some kind of beat. I enjoy music without a rhythm section and without a beat, don't get me wrong. I just found it interesting that she made it a point not to use the metronome.

And I also found it interesting that there is so much controversy over using a metronome. I won't bore you with what I've found, just Google "metronome" for yourself. There seems to be a lot of people out there, both past and present, that really hate the metronome. Why? What's the big deal with something that gives you a beat?

I think a musician's view of the metronome must be colored by the type of music they play. Classical music does have a beat, but composers and classical musicians like to play with the beat and tempo of a song to add drama to the music. A tempo is usually specified at the start of a classical piece to reference the tempo the composer had in mind for the piece. But the conductor or players of the piece may slow down or speed up the piece to meet their artistic interpretation. They may even choose to change the tempo slightly during the performance for dramatic effect. Thus, a metronome is only a tempo reference.

However, if the musician plays in a more rhythm instrument based style of music (jazz, rock, pop, hip-hop, etc.), the metronome can be a valuable tool for developing a good sense of the beat. This is especially true for drummers, bass players, rhythm guitarists, and other musicians intimately involved with keeping the beat of the music. And having a developed sense of the beat is essential if a musician is to play with a rhythm section, whose primary job is to keep (and embellish) the beat of the music. Truth is, very few musicians out there have a perfect sense of the beat and are able to keep the tempo constant. But if a musician can develop their rhythmic sense to a high level, then they will be able to follow any beat or rhythmic change in the music.

I had a professor in college who taught jazz history and music theory. This professor was also a composer and a saxophone player who was classically trained, but loved jazz. He was a very good musician and knew all kinds of theory, but whenever we listened to jazz, he would sometimes lose the beat. Why? I think playing with a rhythm section wasn't part of his musical training, so he wasn't use to keeping a constant awareness of where the beat was.

At the same time, I've heard musicians playing solos that were perfectly in the beat, which turned out to be truly boring. Why? Sometimes a person can be trapped by the beat and lose all sense of rhythmic drama by keeping a constant beat. You could say they played too "metronomically". And I think this is why some musicians have a fear of the metronome: they're afraid of being trapped into playing with the beat.

For me, the metronome is just a tool and, if used correctly, it can be a very fun tool to use. Someone can develop a good sense of jazz swing by using the metronome to tap on beats 2 and 4. You can develop a good sense of funk by having the metronome tap 1 and 3. You can use the metronome to substitute for a drummer during practice and, who knows, you might develop a better sense of the beat than a drummer. Then you'll be in the same place as those who hate the metronome: playing with the beat.

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