A Violinist Reimagines the Metronome

September 19, 2021, 4:34 PM · Years of studying music has taught me that there are at least two ways of learning anything. For example, one way of learning vibrato is to observe a good one and imitate it. Another way is to learn it in parts, the first one being to wave your wrist like you’re knocking on a door. Both methods result in the same technique, but a student may only resonate with one of the methods. Teaching music is a fishing expedition. If one method hits a brick wall, try the other twenty. No one learns everything there is to know about vibrato in one revelatory moment. Insight comes with experience and frustration.


There are two schools of thought when it comes to developing rhythm. The fixed beat, as exemplified by the metronome, has a strictness and orthodoxy which makes rhythm cut-and-dried. It lacks the context of playing with phrasing, but it still is an effective tool that we’re lucky to have. The other school is a bit more complicated, but highly more effective. It relies on the ear deciding how a beat is going to play out. For example, playing two eighth notes will be dependent on the pacing of the music. It can vary a great deal from the “absolute” nature of the metronome. To appreciate rhythm that evolves is the path to good ensemble playing.

How Can a Metronome Teach Musical Flexibility?

If a machine could teach the rhythmic gentleness of a melodic phrase, it would be something like this: the clicking sound of the beat would follow the sound of the performer. Imagine Heifetz’s perfect rhythm, finessed by a ritard here or an accelerando there, recreated in a flexible metronomic sequence. Just think of the variety of speeds you would encounter with the master of rubato, Fritz Kreisler.

A gadget that is flexible enough to follow the natural flow of the musician sounds like science fiction. However, there’s a button on many electronic metronomes that allows you to tap in the beat that you’re hearing. This in turn tells you what the marking is. The point of this description is to create a thought experiment that reminds you to listen to your inner singing voice. Let the actual music determine the metronome marking, not the other way around.

Rhythm’s Raw Ingredients

The most valuable thing about the metronome is that it quickly sets up the subdivisions for an ordinary phrase. Being able to spontaneously shift from duples to triplets to sixteenth notes, for example, can be developed with the help of the machine-like beat of a metronome.

Follow these rules of common sense that will produce fluid and even subdivisions:

  1. The metronome’s beats come at you with the driving force of a tennis ball. Anticipate the beat, because it announces its arrival well in advance.
  2. Learn your duples and triplets in simple solos or etudes. Our ears remember the subdivisions in such tunes because music isn’t borne out of complications, but out of beautiful and natural elements of expression.

If you have trouble picking a triplet out of a metronomic beat, you’re not alone. A triplet shouldn’t feel squeezed between two beats. Sing the triplet so it feels comfortable, then let it fit between the magnetic pull of the beats. In the tightly-wound world of metronomic rhythm, eighth-notes should fit as proportionally as a rainbow. Rainbows have always inspired us with their colorful beauty and proportional palette.

Tick-Tock: How Even Beats Become Human Pulse

There is a “valve” in our brains that makes mechanical beats connect to the strongest and most convincing musical current available. If notes and rhythms are learned slowly and patiently, with an ear open for absorption, this miracle occurs. The musical mind in such a scenario is ready for anything, whether it be new dynamics or ebb-and -flow pacing.

Yes, impediments get in the way. Leaving out just one subdivision may cause you to stumble, but the joy of discovering the errant element is worth the time you spend practicing. Patience and curiosity keep us at it. They pull us back to the practice room every day, with the belief that something that can be made so complicated, is actually quite predictable and straightforward.

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September 24, 2021 at 04:57 AM · Joel's inevitable comment.

I am one of those who don't use the metronome as much as I should. For learning timing and rhythmic control I highly recommend playing in a quality non-classical ensemble without a conductor. I have been fortunate to have done that on several occasions. After that training, when playing in orchestras, I am frequently criticized for coming in too early. And I really dislike playing in orchestras that have the habit of being appreciably behind the conductor.

Sub-dividing the beat into duples and triplets can get messy. I suspect that the goal of trying to split the time exactly is a rather modern, western, prejudice. For early music we have the "notes inegales" where the down-bows are slightly longer than the up-bows. The Habanera pattern (triplet-duple), (Saint-Saens, Bizet, Lalo, Yradier) originally comes from Cuba, works better if the triplet is slightly rushed. In the Viennese style of the 3/4 waltz beat 2 arrives slightly early, while across the river in East Europe beat 3 is slightly longer in the 3/4 Hora. The asymmetrical time signatures from Bulgaria can be mystifying until you learn the choreography that goes with it. I have seen/heard tunes from that area that have 8 notes squeezed into a 7/8 meter.

Meanwhile our colleagues, the singers, have a different standard. They should use the natural rhythm of speech. The Recitative sections of early opera are most obvious. Perfectly even syllables will sound like an annoying computer voice. A few of the Mexican Rancheras have 4 syllables in a 3/4 meter. Others have a vocal line completely out of sync with the 3/4 accompaniment. It would probably be impossible to accurately transcribe the timing of a Frank Sinatra or Fred Astaire recording. Published lead sheets of pop songs are only approximately accurate.

September 24, 2021 at 02:01 PM · Joel, thank you for a thorough list of the ways certain music deviates from a strict beat. I’m interested in how the natural flow of music also requires us to sense the rhythmic structure. It’s possible to play well but have trouble identifying or hearing the beat in our head or ear. How you link the counting and the music itself is a skill you’re born with, but it can be learned. Rhythm makes great demands on us, so playing, thinking, and reacting go hand-in-hand.

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