Monday, March 9, 2009

The Metronome

(She sang to the tune of London Bridge at 8:00 p.m. tonight), "I.. hate the metronome, he hates me, he hates me. I.. hate the metronome! Turn it Off!" Our love/hate relationship with the ticker, Mr. Metronome or as some affectionately refer to it, Dr. Beat, begins early. First we think it might be fun to play with the rascal, only to find out that it doesn't play with us, we are supposed to play with IT! What kind of friend is that? Tonight I called it the bossy friend, who always has to have it his way. The singer referenced above was not interested in having another friend like that.

Shown in the picture are the two I have at the studio right now. The brown pyramid is a traditional mechanical metronome in which the metal pendulum swings left and right, making a tick on each pass. My students start with this ticker. I think it's important to see that there is time between each tick. This is a very visual way to explore time. Metronomes like this adjust from 40 to 208 BPM, Beats Per Minute.

On the left is the black electronic version of the metronome. This is a 9-volt, red light visual and aural display, that can change pitch and loudness. You can no longer "see" the metronome swinging back and forth unless you have a cool one with moving lights. My keyboard has a metronome built in that can change tempo one BPM at a time, but most metronomes increase 2, 3, or 4 ticks at a time. In my opinion, it has a very tinny sound rather than the nice tick of the mechanical metronome.

Now you can also use your computer; there are many metronomes available free. For example, Certainly the least expensive option.

If you didn't have a metronome handy, you could use your old fashioned watch-it's 60 BPM. You'd have a baseline. One choir director I worked with once took great pride in using his watch to set the beat for the choir.

My students use the metronome for scales and pieces. I've also used it to have them feel the beats within each beat. I set the metronome on 80 for example and they might say, "grape, grape grape" on each tick, then "cherry, cherry, cherry" feeling eighth notes, "strawberry" feeling triplets, or "watermelon", feeling sixteenth notes. By the way, all these flavors happen to be found in Jolly Rancher candy, but I'm not saying we'd ever eat treats while we learn...

I won't tell the young lady above that Bach didn't have a metronome because they weren't invented until the 19th Century. I will continue to have her use whichever one strikes her fancy here. And I will keep giggling and correcting the mispronunciation 'metrodome'. That's the building in Minneapolis where the Vikings lose, I say.


  1. I had no idea there were that many conventions for marking time. We try to make time finite but it is very abstract. At least to me!

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  3. My wife Eberle used to refer to hers as "Madame Metronome." We used it tons when we were rehearsing the silent film scores we composed. Love your line "First we think it might be fun to play with the rascal, only to find out that it doesn't play with us, we are supposed to play with IT!" Also the fruit names for various note patterns. My funniest memory about a student & the dreaded metronome had to do with the fact that hers "must be defective" because it didn't keep time with her.

    Fun post.


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