I was practicing keyboard one day with a metronome - the click-sounding machinery that’s been collecting dust on my shelf since purchase (I jest. I use software counterpart such as Bounce Metronome, so it doesn’t really collect dust when I never open it) - when lethargy struck. You know, the desire to withdraw from the current activity when it’s becoming repetitive and dull, or the urge to dawdle away upon facing difficult tasks. It normally results in hours of amusement watching educational entertainment videos on Youtube, but not this time - not yet at least.
The compulsion to procrastinate surfaced with some creativity this time. Rather than putting down my instrument, I was too lethargic to change the tempo of the metronome. Why? I’m not too sure, perhaps to reduce the time spent dialing the metronome for different materials - all major seventh chord inversions in 12 keys for example with some very familiar and some not so much. It was better than nothing, but it also meant that the rest of the practice session had to run under the default tempo of the metronome across the room, 60 BPM.
Yep, 60 BPM.
Don’t get me wrong, 60 BPM is a good tempo to start with, especially for a beginner like me, slower tempo allows me to focus on physical behavior of the body rather than the musical demand of the exercise. But referring to a static tempo over the entire practice session does not allow me to measure the effectiveness and efficiency of the exercise, since the only way to confirm growth of technique is to play at higher speed with the same effort. So I need to have a faster tempo reference.
Reference! That word clicked. I realized that I can use the metronome as a hint of the tempo, rather than a notification of beat positions. So I started experimenting. The experimentation evolved into a system, which I will explain below with its rationale and graphical demonstration.
SYSTEMATIC APPROACH TO USING THE METRONOME
Let’s review from the basics. The metronome is simply a machinery that generates (percussive) sounds periodically, used to give the user a reference of a fixed time interval, much like a clock with adjustable ticking speed. However, there is no rule whatsoever to specify where a click has to land. Therefore by altering the placement of the click, or the starting position of the music/exercise, we can discover new ways to use the metronome as a reference of time.
With that in mind, I have found several ways to apply this idea of metronomic displacement, sorted by difficulty to comprehend and to execute. In a way, we can consider them as “levels”, as in mission difficulties, in arcade or action games. So just for the fun of it, let me give each level a descriptive name as well.
Level 1 - The Training Facility
This is the most natural way to use the metronome. Each click from the metronome is the beat, and the BPM is the tempo of the metronome. Simple as that.
This is where we start, and it’s totally valid. Having a click on each beat confirm our assumption of the timing, keeping us from rushing or slowing down like a rein. For fast or rhythmically complex passages like The Black Page, we can even assign the metronome to click at the lowest level of subdivision of the music (or one level above) and verify our rhythmic accuracy by checking whether the played note lands on the click. So feel free to come back to the training facility when you fail to assimilate and play a musical passage with ease, and do drills with one click every one or two notes.
However, don’t expect to acquire a better sense of timing by having the metronome doing all your work. To improve temporal musicianship, you have to internalize the beats, and use the metronome only as a mean to verify.
Level 2 - The 24 Shift
After we become familiar with the basic usage of the metronome, let’s move out of the “green land” and start facing the real world. The real world is tough. No one is there to keep the time for you. Everyone looks after their own internal time, and if they get lost or caught up in rhythmic illusions, they get crossed off the list.
Enough analogies. After being able to track the beats when having the metronome click on every one of them, setup your metronome to half of the current tempo, and take the clicks as the even beats, like the snares in rock genre or the high-hats in jazz. This means that there’s no click on the strong beats of one and three, and you are the one to find them.
As a more graphical demonstration, you will be thinking like this:
This click pattern correlates with how we clap to music in 4/4, on the backbeats 2 and 4 (thus the name of this level). And yes, you should clap backbeats in 4/4.
Now this doesn’t guarantee that you get accurate and steady timing in your phrase playing, and it definitely doesn’t help you with nailing complex rhythmic patterns. We need something else to practice precision.
Level 3 - Wrong Place to Be at
Ever jammed with one of those drummers who doesn’t speed up while playing? A rare encounter, unfortunately. But if you do have, then congratulations, you know how comfortable it is to jam or perform with them. Fortunately, their ability to keep a steady beat doesn’t come innate - usually - but is a result from their practicing methods.
One of those method align with our previous discussion. Displacement - shifting the sequence so that each click land on a subdivision displacement of the beat rather than the beat itself. For example, if you were working on sixteenth notes or its derivatives, practice having the clicks land on each of the sixteenth note displacement, like this:
If you are a jazz musician, you might have predicted this…yeah you have that extra difficulty - your clicks are swing-ed.
Level 4 - Less is More
Now this level really examines your steadiness. You might have realized from the previous ones that the more ambiguous the reference is, the more you have to rely on your internal clock. So in this level, we are reducing the occurrence of the click.
Rather than having a click for every beat, cut the tempo in half so it appears every two beats.
Or Three beats:
And so on.
You can extend the pattern however long you want, but do realize most metronomes only goes down to 40 BPM, so you may have to quicken up the actual tempo when you get to this point.
Level 5 - Unequal Match
For the previous levels, no matter how challenging it gets, we were still using the metronome to indicate the tempo of the practice. Our metronome was clicking to tell us where the beat is, although it might not land on the beat.
This level is a distinctive beast.
The metronome is no longer clicking the tempo or subdivisions, instead, you are responsible for calculating the new tempo yourself. Yeah, calculate. I know, us musicians can only count up to four, so I’ll give you a cheat-sheet to work with after the explanation.
So how does it really work? How do we know what tempo to play in when the metronome is clicking in a different one? Well, we can start with a simple math concept taught back in the elementary school - ratios.
Let’s get back to sixteenth notes for a moment. Start by counting the sixteenth subdivision, but add an emphasis to the beat, so you are counting “one e & a two e & a”. Now try this, shift the emphasis forward by one subdivision iterating each beat, meaning that you are emphasizing every third subdivision. Graphically, it looks like this:
Focus on the emphasized syllables and gradually weakens the pronunciation of the other ones without losing the timing accuracy against the metronome. You can clap on the emphasized syllables to further distinguish them from the originals. Soon the accents will become more prominent, and that becomes your new BPM, again with the metronome clicking the original, old beats interlaced against the new ones.
Congratulations, you are now playing two rhythms with different time base, or polyrhythm in musical terms. In this case, a three (subdivisions) against four (subdivisions), used quite often in popular music. So what other polyrhythms out there can we experiment with?
We can come up with random numbers and see what they sound like, but I like to lay things out systematically. The idea is that we can divide a beat into any number of divisions or tuplets, and play with the combination of the new subdivision. Fewer subdivisions makes playing easier, while more subdivisions gives you more control over the increment of the tempo.
The formula for the new tempo is: original tempo times the tuplet number divided by the number of combination note. But of course that’s too much to think about, and really we don’t need to know the exact tempo number while practicing…So, as I promised, here’s a graph I made listing all the possible combinations above the original tempo using common ratios up to octuplet.
For reference, our last example with three against four is marked as 3/4 BPM80
![Tempo ratio graph @ 60 BPM](/img/content/Tempo Ratios/tempo_ratios.png)
And here’s RCJacH’s tempo ratio graph on Desmos.
Decide on the number and the difficulty of the polyrhythms you want to use in your practice session, you can start with your original tempo and then accelerate according to the graph above. Now go through the previous levels with this new hidden tempo as your reference, starting from the training ground.
From here and on, it’s your call. You can “redo” different levels to practice different aspect of your temporal musicianship, going through all of them in sequence for a “speed run”, or even expand this system with whatever other ideas that you can come up with. My practice session ended a long time ago, but I just came up with a great way to apply polyrhythm for metric modulations, so I’m off to spend some time making more unfinished beats and compositions. Happy musicing.