About a metronome

I originally meant to write this as a reply to a comment Richie Beirach wrote on my blog. But as I started writing, I realized that this could be the springboard for something much more important.

I wrote a blog post last week suggesting that of all the tools we jazz players have at our disposal, any of them can be used in the wrong way for the wrong purpose. Using a socket wrench to bang a wood screw into a steel beam is a whole bunch of perfectly good but misused tools.

I purposefully included the metronome as an example of one of those musical tools and offered what I believe are some good uses and not-so-good uses for a metronome. Richie, in the first comment of that post, replied that I was dead wrong and that there are NO good uses for a metronome. Read the post along with Richie's comment to understand the points that we each made.

Richie and I have a strong mutual respect for each other's willingness to speak his mind. And we do have the occasional argument over something that we both think is important.

But Richie's and my disagreement over this minor topic reminded me of how opposed today's culture has become to free, open, and civil discussions of different positions on almost any topic.

I look around and ask myself, why aren't we eager to have conversations and disagreements from the various sides of any worthwhile issue in order to discover the truth? The more important the issue the more eager we should be to weigh all sides, not just nibble around the edges at small and subtle differences of basically the same position. I have a friend who calls this, arguing over two sides of the same bent coin.

Sanctions and inflation concept. Bent Russian ruble on dark wooden background.

A Fairy Tale

Let me tell you a story, and you try to pretend that it has nothing to do with current events.

Ten-year-old Biff Anderson began learning to play the piano, eager to someday play jazz. Biff's mom bought him a metronome app that Biff's teacher told her was necessary for Biff's musical development.

Being a very smart and enterprising young boy, Biff searched the internet on how to best use his shiny new metronome. He found 27,895,617 results on the topic.

Everything he read claimed that a metronome will improve his sense of time. Practice with it constantly, they all advised, adding, "The more time you spend playing with your metronome, the better musician you are guaranteed to become."

But then Biff came across a comment to a post on a jazz instruction blog.

The comment was written by a very famous jazz musician named Buddy Sharps who wrote that there is no good use for a metronome. "Throw it away", he demanded.

"Any use of the metronome creates a false sense of security and the illusion that the metronome's time is the real-time flow. But it's not. No machine can ever simulate or encourage human time.

Any practice with a metronome will bombard the player with a robotic time that will embed itself into their unconscious musical minds.

The metronome does much more harm than good. It is not useful for developing good time and any possible good that it could do for anything else is enormously overshadowed by the huge amount of damage it has done and is doing to musicians using it.

Throw away your metronome!"

Biff was confused. He forwarded the comment to his teacher who assured Biff that this musician was dead wrong, but his teacher didn't seem to have a good rebuttal to any of Mr. Sharps' points. Biff couldn't find anyone who did.

Biff's confusion turned into anger one day, stating that he refused to practice until he knew whether to use the metronome or not. "I'M ON STRIKE", he yelled.

His mother became very upset. After all, she paid good money for that metronome and said nothing would stand in the way of her big plans for her son to someday play Carnegie Hall.

Biff's mom sent a stern email to the leading music educational association and they assured her that if Biff was truly serious about playing with perfect time, the metronome she bought was crucial to her son's future as a musician, regardless of Mr. Sharps reckless opinions to the contrary.

Soon thereafter, the association published a story on the many benefits of the metronome and went further, warning that anyone who publically questions the utility of a metronome will be considered an anti-metronomist and shall not be listened to, adding, "These people probably don't even believe in scales."

As a result of writing that one comment, Buddy Sharps found himself in trouble. Word of his contrarian views on this worshiped time-keeping tool got around, and quietly his next five gigs were suddenly canceled. None of his calls asking for answers were returned.

Two weeks later, a junior US Senator read about this controversy and quietly placed a rider within an upcoming infrastructure bill that gave tax credits to all metronome manufacturers and app publishers. Surely, he thought, that will stimulate metronome use and snuff out the anti-mets, as they had become coined.

But the metronome stimulus didn't work. People weren't buying more metronomes. They must be confused. Could they possibly be buying fewer? In the public interest, publication of any retail metronome sales figures was temporarily suspended for six months by Executive Order.

In the annual meeting of the Music Players Guild Collective, a concern was raised that the anti-mets may be influencing the practice habits of young impressionable musicians. Computer models had concluded that 17 years into the future, without robust metronome use, the time variance of the average jazz musician will be off by as much as -21%.

bigstock-Business-people-in-a-board-roo-209994802

Two other computer models projected a time variance of -129% and +5% but the Collective's subcommittee felt that -21% could more easily be conveyed to the public. They then voted unanimously that any data contrary to the agreed-upon official findings will be considered biased, confusing, and therefore, not to be published.

Each of the big social media platforms amended their terms of service. One of their new provisions stated that because metronomes were now considered a public good, posts "conveying an opinion contrary to the social promotion of metronomes will be labeled deceptive and therefore, removed with the offending personal account or group being indefinitely suspended from the platform."

A remarkable story was picked up by several of the top morning TV shows telling of a young girl whose life was saved by hearing a metronome clicking. As the story was told, as soon as she left her bedroom to turn off the metronome at the living room piano, a fierce lighting strike hit and demolished her entire room. Each version of this story concluded that Metronomes Save Lives. Even though no home address was provided nor were any sources named, several movie studios showed interest in producing the girl's story.

Seeing this as an imminent crisis for the arts, Congress passed a law stating that every musician over the age of 8 and-a-half must possess a metronome within 40 inches whenever practicing a state-sanctioned instrument. There was some confusion over the penalty for non-compliance, but that was left up to the states. In a press conference, the President hinted that Federal Arts Funding may be withheld from those states making a "reckless" decision. His press secretary assured all concerned citizens that the President was keeping all options on the table at this time.

de Vinci quote

Now before you jump to the conclusion that you know my political views, you don't. In fact, you might be quite surprised by them.

Anyway, I'm NOT making a political statement as much as I am challenging the prevailing current orthodoxy that promotes the shutting down of views that run contrary to popular consensus. When did it become wrong to question something or disagree?  Who's deciding what can be said and published and what can't?

Since when did truth become determined by authority instead of being arrived at rationally through the dialog of opposing views and the examination of facts?

Our current culture brands you with some sort of 'ist' and disavows you from respectable society and conversation when you hold a view that is contrary to the one that has been officially sanctioned. You are considered dangerous. In the name of the public good, contrary positions are now silenced because they are deemed 'offensive' and counter to some higher authority's arbitrary dictate of the greater good.

Do you believe this authoritarian trend is disturbing and threatening to each of us? Galileo, do you have any thoughts on this? Copernicus, please chime in. The dozen or so 17th-century men and women hung as witches? Six million jews? 20 million Russians?

Yeah, this is just about a metronome.

 

32 Comments

  1. Larry Cantwell on August 4, 2021 at 1:53 pm

    I’ve been playing the guitar lines for Contusion by Stevie Wonder. It is a fusion song with some tricky atonal lines. The metronome speed is 130. I play without the metronome and then turn it on to see where I stand. The whole point of a metronome is that it is a tool to be abandoned so that you can go and play with great musicians( especially drummers). Did not Charlie Parker say to practice scales and then forget that …. so that you can go out and play? To be honest I think this is being overthought.
    As for the dangers of today’s political correctness, is not the greater danger posed by those who work day and night to make sure that we are unable to know what is true? We seem to be
    stuck in that grey area similar to Pontius Pilate who asked Jesus “What is truth?” We are living in the danger zone these days and it is painfully obvious that we have to find the answer to that question.

    • Tom Wells on August 11, 2021 at 11:24 pm

      “We are living in the danger zone these days and it is painfully obvious that we have to find the answer to that question.”
      WELL stated!

  2. Former subscriber on August 4, 2021 at 12:27 am

    I’m not sure what particular axe you are grinding here. Are you anti-government? Anti-science? Something something ‘cancel culture’? Are you just trolling?

    You can say every issue has two sides, but not every issue has two equivalent sides, and there’s a not-so-fine line between “just asking questions” and actively spreading disinformation.

    Congrats on being clever, I guess.

    P.S. Thank you Jane Woodside for your comments above, I completely agree.

    • Michael Lake on August 4, 2021 at 8:08 am

      Well, please look at my reply to Thomas Smith and please be careful with the word ‘disinformation’. That’s a pregnant term that can lead down a slippery slope to lockstep beliefs. I’m neither trolling nor trying to be clever. Just raising an issue that I think the world needs to be much more aware of. I used the benign topic of a metronome to avoid polarizing the conversation with a specific hotbed issue.

    • Kelly+Saunders+Fontes on August 4, 2021 at 9:20 am

      Whomever that was with the ax grinding question missed the whole point. It was simply a metaphorical story commenting on the stigma of debating subjects which can challenge popular belief. In other words learn to” think for yourself” and find your truth from “direct experience” or proven data, don’t believe what you hear or read because it “feels” right.

      • Michael Lake on August 4, 2021 at 9:21 am

        Yes, thank you!

  3. Rodney Brim on August 3, 2021 at 8:44 pm

    Hi Mike, Here’s one approach to using a metronome that I don’t see mentioned and helps strain my brain and focus on staying in the groove all at the same time. I play the metronome 1/2 speed that I’m practicing, so in effect the metronome only clicks on 2 and 4. If you are only used to having a metronome click on every beat, you’ll find it a (good) challenge.

    As for the story, loved it, thought it was spot on. And yes I see some comments building a case for why you can’t hear both sides of any story. I guess many people assume there is only one side or facet to a story or any other option we consider. I think they said the same thing to Galileo.

  4. Matt on August 3, 2021 at 5:38 pm

    I wonder about truth. Is it an individual concept or a group concept? Who, or what, is truth determined by? Is time passing? Can it be delineated? Is the delineation of time a personal persuit or should one allow someone else to tell them how to “spend” their time? Is telling people not to use a metronome the same as dictating how one should spend their time?

  5. Jan on August 3, 2021 at 4:47 pm

    Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of the Music that makes us Happy. Thank you Michael, for speaking out. May we not let the politicians silence and divide us.

  6. ian Dodds on August 3, 2021 at 4:12 pm

    Great advice for the intelligent advanced young musician. I’m a piano teacher who has kids who can’t count four beats, no idea about pulse. I tell them the metronome is the stabilisers one your first bike or the inflated aid when you learnt to swim.

  7. William Ayres on August 3, 2021 at 1:59 pm

    My metronome has a flashing light option. I would pick a tempo, then start the metronome to start playing the song. I would ignore the flashing light and just play for a few minutes, then take a glance to see if I’m still in the ballpark. As a runner, I don’t stare at the watch for each second to see if I’m running the proper number of steps per minute. I may or may not check a mile time when the watch beeps. It provides some information. I use these two examples because my running gave me confidence in my time for jazz. I would run quarter mile repeats and could nail the time but didn’t have any confidence in my jazz time. That changed as soon as I thought about it. It’s about pulse and movement. Get it in your body and feel it.

  8. Jane Woodside on August 3, 2021 at 1:53 pm

    A metronome is simply one tool which most find useful in one way or another. As is a tuner. What isn’t up for debate is whether you should be on time and in tune. And my use of a metronome certainly won’t interfere with your favored method of keeping the beat. Your analogy is not only false but dangerous. No one is having gigs canceled for their views but their vaccinated status needs to be disclosed. At a venue near me an unvaccinated band played to a mixed unmasked crowd which resulted in 20 positive cases, several hospitalizations, and the band leaders’ mea culpa 10 days later and commitment to get himself vaccinated. Now venues are requiring proof of vaccination. This isn’t authoritarianism or a imposition of opinion-it’s a public health measure. Using your platform to encourage effective musical practice is one thing but using your platform to confuse an issue which can result in real suffering, more shutdowns and possibly death seems quite thoughtless.

    • Charles C on August 4, 2021 at 3:21 pm

      I agree with the opening part of Michael’s essay: the need for open, civil, responsible discussion of current issues, across political lines. But on a more specific issue, I agree with Jane. More than 600,000 people have died of Covid in the U.S. alone, and the Delta variant is a super-spreader. Protecting each other from this virus and defeating Covid so that we can fully reopen society should not be a political issue and should certainly not be a place for hoaxes. We knew how to work together to defeat authoritarian tyranny, when we lost 450,000 American lives. We acted together, with self-sacrifice and collective patriotism. Covid has and will cost many more lives, and it is not authoritarian to take the measures needed to defeat this deadly enemy. This is not the right hill for anyone to die on over political beliefs, or to cause anyone else’s death.

      • Michael Lake on August 4, 2021 at 3:39 pm

        Charles, what makes you think this is just about COVID? Please read my reply to Thomas Smith.

        And how did you make the leap from my post on promoting independent thought to ‘COVID is a hoax’? If I aligned my opinion to a fringe idea that is contrary to tons of world-wide evidence, I’m pretty inconsistent with my basic premise, aren’t I!!!!?

  9. Derek Williams on August 3, 2021 at 12:28 pm

    I avoided using a metronome for about 40 years, using either nothing or a drum track. I perform semi-pro so am reasonably good. Eventually, early this year I bought a second hand metronome to give it a go having read so many recommendations. I recorded myself playing heads over the metronome and was surprised at how out I was. It’s a bit the same as using a chromatic tuner to check sax intonation. Without any checking method, how do you know how accurate you are?
    I guess the anti-met advice is aimed at a level above this where you know how accurate you are and wish to vary the time feel for artistic effect. Probably that is good, but the majority of players will not get to that level.
    I would also say that like any practice method, endless repetition of the same thing produces diminishing results. As you improve you need to practice new things that will develop your playing in new ways. This will apply to metronome use too.

  10. George Kormendi on August 3, 2021 at 11:45 am

    Nice way to broach this topic, Michael (and very timely reference to national trends coming from all sides)!

    Here’s an approach that, once fully fleshed out (stay with it till the end of the video to see how), reminds me of something Richie said he used to do with musician friends (clapping at the beginning of a series of bars, gradually increasing the number of felt bars between claps). Maybe Richie would appreciate a little bit of practice with a metronome in this way too! … or maybe not. In any case, I dig it, though it is very challenging and I find that I need to approach this sort of practice with patience and plenty of compassion for my own limitations.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IAaI5SwGx9c

    • Thomas m Smith on August 3, 2021 at 2:22 pm

      Who is shutting down views that are contrary to popular consensus? Please explain. If you mean that media outlets do not provide a forum for nazis or fascists, I think that some research will enlighten you that whoever owns the media controls the content. This is how the world is.
      Tom Smith

      • Michael Lake on August 3, 2021 at 5:23 pm

        I was very careful in writing this to not mention specific examples so as not to turn my blog into a political food fight. The topic I raised has nothing to do with Nazis or fascists.

        If you truly don’t see the single-sided bias of ideas in our culture and in the corporate media, take a look at Science. Because the majority of science has become increasingly and almost exclusively funded by the Federal Government, only ideas accepted by the current political regime are getting funded. Consider nutrition, climate, health, geology, and energy to start.

        A good question to ask is, are well-researched ideas that are contrary to what Washington promotes getting funded? Now, you could fairly ask, why is Washington funding science, but that is a separate issue. The universities are getting much of their science funding from the State. The question to answer is: has a bubble been created that puts money only into research that reaches a pre-ordained conclusion aligned with popular political views?

        Will that promote or limit the diversity of ideas? Aren’t you much more comfortable getting a doctor’s second or even third opinion, especially on something crucial! I rarely make the best choice when I consider just one option. The further removed my expertise is from the subject matter in question, the more I need good experts and want to see some honest intelligent argument back and forth.

        I deliberately mentioned Galileo in my post because history is repeating itself. Please don’t take my word for it. Take a look for yourself. You may be surprised by what you find.

        • Thomas m Smith on August 4, 2021 at 5:48 am

          Mike,
          My point was the world has always been this way. As you said see Galileo.

          • Michael Lake on August 4, 2021 at 7:59 am

            Thomas, the world has evolved. We enjoyed a brief period of time when debate was encouraged in the 18th, 19th, and some of the 20th Century. There was a time when Universities were a hotbed of diverse opinion and the culture welcomed debate. Now, any opinion outside of the accepted doctrine will lower your grade or even fail you. And, not only for students who pay good money to learn about the world, but for professors whose career often depends on publishing. But that publishing must fall within the accepted parameters of approved academic (and cultural) conclusions. Dig a bit into this and you will discover that scientific papers are becoming watered down because their conclusions are pre-ordained to match the thesis agreed to by the very people or interests funding it. It’s very difficult to get paid these days to research a topic that turns into a discovery counter to the original thesis for which your benefactors paid you.

            And it’s not good enough to say, “The science is settled on this.” When is the science ever settled? We once settled the science on Eugenics, a volcano as the source of dinosaur extinction, 9 planets in the solar system, Global Cooling, gravity is slowing down the expansion of the universe, on and on and on. When someone tells you the science is settled, dig into their motivations. Most likely, you will find out that that “settled science” conforms nicely to the prevailing political and cultural beliefs.

            My point about Galileo is that history is repeating itself, rather than, this is the way it’s always been so it’s okay.



  11. Patrick Deslandes on August 3, 2021 at 9:24 am

    As a Bass Player using a metronome has been very useful to practice various tempos & sub divisions. But I personally prefer Live drum tracks & records (Which I have an extensive library of both) to gain more of a real live feel & sense of swing & timing.

  12. David Pinto on August 3, 2021 at 9:09 am

    Jazz/fusion bassist Jeff Berlin is an ardent anti-metronome voice. His opinions on the matter have in the past been somewhat dogmatic, though he seems to have toned it down in recent years. The issue I have with his (and others) position is that there are claims about the effect of a metronome on the brain and thus musical performance that, as far as I know, have not been studied. Do we REALLY know what long-term exposure to click does to a person’s sense of meter? Notice I dont say “sense of time”, because meter and time are different. Feeling a groove or pocket is not the same as having a sense of meter, ie not rushing or slowing down. Also, Jeff Berlins’s exhortations on the matter are always nebulous. He never really explains in any detail why he has his position or how he came to his conclusions, other than he is an expert who had much training in the classical idiom (on violin), and that HE has good time, thus a metronome is not necessary. Finally, the metronome can be used to teach things like compound meter (playing 3 over 4). That is, not teach “time”per se, but a mechanical idea of where a beat falls in complex meters.

  13. Lance on August 3, 2021 at 8:35 am

    For those who’ve seen Loki (Disney+) – we know about the Time Variance Authority, aka TVA, including looping….is there such a thing as time? 🙂

  14. Jim Vivian on August 3, 2021 at 8:22 am

    I know a guy who had lessons with two world class bass players (who will remain nameless….but both have long standing associations with Richie) within a matter of weeks. One said “don’t practice with a metronome, practice with records…..you’ll get the feel from records”. The other said “don’t practice with records, use a metronome……why learn someone else’s bad time!”. Being a huge admirer of both these guys, is it odd that I don’t see any conflict? Both views are necessary for different purposes.

  15. Mike on August 3, 2021 at 8:13 am

    Great commentary and spot on. Thanks for writing this.

  16. Bruce Dudley on August 3, 2021 at 7:48 am

    Michael, you are a fine storyteller, engaging the reader in prose with meaning much like a seasoned jazz musician does with a “solo” improvisation, which resonates both in tradition and historical relevance as well as opinions, tastes and philosophies. If I may, use of a metronome should be administered under the guidance of a qualified timekeeper. Side effects may include: frustration, dizziness, repetitive action syndrome, better “time”, improved rhythmic accuracy, and myriad other truths. Weening off one click unit at a time is highly useful to further development of accurate and consistent timekeeping. Do not use with in-ear speakers and by all means avoid the ever present dangers of the ubiquitous virus known as the “click track.” To date, there is no known vaccine for this variant strain of the metronome beyond self-isolation.

    • Michael Lake on August 3, 2021 at 8:35 am

      From the best information I have found to date (it does seem to be changing), a mask is innefective within earshot of the click.

  17. Cam Millar on August 3, 2021 at 7:36 am

    Good read and essay. Some of the best musicians I’ve ever known or heard swear by using the metronome for some aspects of practicing, whether it be jazz or classical or whatever music they play. Some don’t. Some people get mad at others for tapping their toes or feet while they play. Some people don’t like it when other musicians might move or ‘sway’ with the music while they’re playing. There are many ‘roads to Rome’. It’s the end result of the music that counts! (no pun intended.) If a metronome was good enough for Beethoven to compose with and practice with, then it’s good enough for me.

  18. Neil Ripsch on August 3, 2021 at 7:33 am

    Michael:

    This is an exact analogy of our current American crisis – and unfortunately – politicians are leading this demise in our culture. The degree of acceleration is alarming. I honestly feel we are headed into a political mindset closer to China than a free America. Through indoctrination of our children, to censorship in media platforms, to ultra-biased major news networks, a few are attempting to infiltrate the masses with their side of the story, period. I’m not buying it.

    Metronome or not, it’s my decision, as should life in the United States.

    Thank you for your musical and intellectual insights. They are appreciated.

    Neil

    • John Kimes Joachim on August 3, 2021 at 8:07 am

      Funny, I’ve always believed a metronome is an effective tool to supplement one’s foundation of rhythm as one PRACTICES his or her horn.

      If that cannot be accepted, any stab at empathy toward others arising from playing (and again, PRACTICE) will be insufficiently marginal.

      • richie beirach on August 4, 2021 at 1:14 pm

        John, I just want to say that supplementing one’s foundation of rhythm with a metronome is counterintuitive!! The foundation of rhythm gets improved and developed by playing live music with people, not a metronome. The metronome is not reflective of human time. It is perfect metric generated time. If you practice with a metronome and then think you are getting closer to developing great time, you are mistaken because when you stop playing with the metronome and then go to play with skilled players you will find that the kind of time good live players create is flexible and NOT metronomic. Plus, you will be left feeling confused and SOUNDING STIFF, because all of your practicing has involved lining up with a MACHINE’S VERSION OF TIME so your ingrained stiff and inflexible sense of time will forever hamper your attempts at really swinging, grooving, and enjoying playing with people. Sorry to be so blunt but this is something I’ve seen all throughout my teaching career. My advice is to throw away your metronome! ITS POISON!! YOU DO NOT NEED IT!!

        Best wishes

  19. John Huntsman on August 3, 2021 at 7:24 am

    Well said, Michael. Thank you.

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