Although this post may seem quite basic, there are musicians at every level of skill  – even some professionals  –  who really need this information. Wandering tempos are a real problem for many. We may or may not be aware when we’re wandering, we may think we can’t do anything about it, or we may think it doesn’t matter. But it does. Not keeping a steady tempo or rhythm is a concern because it becomes everyone else’s problem; your listeners will be annoyed, and those who play with you will be challenged. It’s unfair to put people through that.

There are so many musicians who could be really good if only they would learn the skill of keeping a consistent beat. I ask you to read on, even though I’m about to mention the dreaded word: metronome. When someone mentions metronomes, many musicians cringe. “Mine speeds up and slows down,” is a common comment. (Of course, it’s really the player doing that.) Rather than wondering if you’re one of those players, get a metronome and put some focus on this skill. You can’t know what you’re missing if you’re missing it!

If you already have a good sense of rhythm, playing in time with a metronome will be no sweat. If your rhythm/beat/tempo sense is not developed, you’ll find the process challenging, and that’s your indication that you need work. Important work. It will be well worth the effort, and you’ll thank yourself a million times in the future. Learning to play with a metronome can feel annoying at first, but keeping time with it will come if you’re patient, and it will become one of the best tools you have for enhancing your music.

Three basic rules for metronome use:

  1. the best metronomes are those that click, not beep. If it beeps you can have a hard time hearing it over your own music.
  2. if you have a mechanical (rather than an electronic) one, be sure to set it on a level surface or it will sound more like “lub-dub” than an even beat, and won’t be at all helpful.
  3. when you first use a metronome, be sure to set it on a constant beat rather than a rhythm or time signature setting where certain beats are accented.

What’s the difference between a beat, a tempo and a rhythm? (I’ve written about this in the past, but it’s worth repeating.) The beat is the count, as in an even “one-two-three-four” (unaccented 4/4 time). The rhythm is which beats are accentuated, and whether it’s syncopated, and so on.  Such as the typical “one-two-THREE-four” of rock music, or “one-TWO-three-FOUR” of a Scottish Strathspey. With some rhythms you play only certain beats while other beats are silent, i.e : “one (and two) and three (and four)”). Tempo is how fast or slow a beat or a rhythm is. Being able to keep a steady beat, a consistent tempo, and recognizable a rhythm are skills that go hand in hand.

By the way, contrary to popular opinion, a metronome won’t make your music sound stilted. That only happens if you don’t count properly, or if you put no feeling into your music  –  either of which can be done without a metronome just as easily. Once you get accustomed to keeping a steady beat and consistent tempo, you’ll find it actually enhances the possibility of musical expression. (Don’t make the mistake of thinking expression comes from making the tempo fluid; although that occasionally is an effective option, “occasional” is an important concept here!)

Many musicians who learn from music notation, if they’ve never listened to the piece on a recording or live by an expressive player, never develop the ability to play the piece musically or expressively.  Have a version of each tune you learn in your head (be able to hum it and “hear” the arrangement) before you become drawn into just playing the rote notes. Keep in mind that in many notated pieces, and subtle nuances of timing are expected to be added by the player.

To use a metronome well, start by setting it to a very slow tempo, and learn to play your piece at that speed. When you master it, bring up the tempo a few bpm’s (beats per minute). Be sure to really master the piece at each new tempo before making it faster. Eventually you’ll get it up to the tempo you’re aiming for. This exercise will feel awfully elementary to advanced musicians, but I assure you it is immensely valuable.

Our aim is to play well, right? Playing well is so much more important than playing fast, or even playing “up to tempo”. Playing fast isn’t an indication of good musicianship.  A good musician who plays fast also plays accurately. No music is fun to hear when it’s sloppy. Always playing up to tempo is not the best way to learn a piece well. Given the choice between having your listeners able to appreciate every note, or having them wonder what you meant to play, which would you rather do?

Once you know a tune well, also beware of habitually playing it faster than it was composed to be. One of the most common phrases in your vocabulary should be “Slow down!” You’ll find, when you play a bit slower, that you actually know the tune better than you think, and can play it more accurately.  In fact, “too fast” is any tempo at which you can’t play with total accuracy and finesse, no matter what the intended tempo may be.

A little focus and a little patience will go a long way and make you a better musician. It will also make your listeners and music partners much happier!