Practicing Piano with a Metronome

You know that little ticking device sitting by the piano? It’s a very valuable practice tool known as a metronome.

The purpose of a metronome is as important as it is simple: to keep the steady beat of a musical piece so you, the performer, can maintain a sense of tempo.

Practicing piano with a metronome can be difficult at first. No lie. I know this because I remember the difficulty I had when I first started out playing piano. I also know this because of my experience teaching beginning piano students.

In this article, I’m going to share a few tips and techniques that will make learning how to practice piano with a metronome easier.

Setting the Speed

The first step in using a metronome is to set its speed. Some method books indicate the metronome settings for each piece (e.g., 80 beats per minute, or bpm). In this case, all you have to do is dial the number into the metronome.

However, if you are a beginning student, you may need to slow the metronome down the first few times you play a piece.

If you want to play at a piece’s normal tempo but your sheet music doesn’t indicate metronome speed, you can usually find it with a little trial and error — and a wristwatch or clock with a second hand. All you have to remember is that 60 beats per minute is equivalent to 1 beat per second (and 120 beats per minute is 2 beats per second). Trying to find the tempo of a song can be a fun way to develop an inner sense of timing.

Different kinds of metronomes

There are all kinds of metronomes. Some are mechanical; others are digital. Many have a distinctive pitch (higher or louder) to designate the first beat of a measure; others are monotone, meaning the beats are all uniform. Most digital metronomes allow you to set the tones the way you want them.

Go monotone when you start out.

My first bit of advice to you beginners is to “go monotone” when you first start out using a metronome.

Accentuating the first beat of a measure can be very helpful as you get more comfortable using a metronome. But in the early stages, it’s best if all beats sound the same. Why? Because it will be much easier to get back in sync with the piece’s tempo if (dare I say when) you fall behind or go too fast.

Count before you play.

When you first start practicing a piece of piano music with a metronome, do a count-off — before hitting the keys.

Suppose a song is in three-quarter time (three beats in each measure with a quarter note getting one beat). Sit at the piano with the metronome running, but don’t start playing yet. Count aloud:

1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3, 1-2-3

When you’re ready — when you feel your counting is in sync with the beating of the metronome — start playing the song on the piano along with the metronome.

If your playing falls behind the metronome, don’t worry; it’s normal. Just slow down the metronome a few clicks, and start again: first by counting aloud without playing.

The metronome is your friend.

Now let’s suppose you can play most of a piece in perfect timing along with the metronome but one section gives you problems. This is where the metronome comes in very handy. It has pointed out an area of difficulty! Now you can slow down the metronome a few beats and practice the problem section. As you get better with the problem section, speed up the metronome gradually. Before you know it, you’ll be playing the entire piece at the goal tempo!

Do you always have to practice with a metronome?

It depends.

Whenever you’re practicing scales, I recommend you practice with a metronome. After all, the goal of scale practice is evenness at specific speeds (and increasing the speed over time). There’s nothing like a metronome to help you get there.

The same is true for etudes (technical studies) and most technique exercises, like Hanon’s The Virtuoso Pianist or Czerny’s The School of Velocity. The discipline imposed by the beat of the metronome can only help you here.

Preparing for a recital or repertoire piece is a different story. Since you will not be playing along with a metronome during your performance, you should not rehearse these pieces exclusively with a metronome, especially as the time for the performance draws near.

The style or genre of the piece you’re practicing might determine whether or not you practice with a metronome. For example, Bach pieces and pop songs require a stronger sense of even rhythm — a good reason to practice them with a metronome. On the other hand, a romantic piece by Chopin, for example, will require natural, frequent tempo variations. For such pieces, relying too much on a metronome could distort the natural phrase movement.

Results from Using the Metronome

Yes, it’s true: when you first start practicing piano with a metronome, it can be hard.

But with proper and steady practice, you will find that pieces you practice with a metronome are smoother throughout. They will have an internal push. In time, practicing with a metronome will become second nature, and it will help you develop an internal sense of timing, training you to move your hands easily and freely at the tempo of the piece.

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