The Metronome is a device that clicks or ticks regularly at the speed it is set to. Like a clock, it divides time into equal units. Sounds harmless, but many music students cringe at hearing that word, and it is a word that unfortunately for them, keeps coming up.
The device was developed in the 19th century. A wooden pyramid -like box had a pendulum that swung mechanically at whatever tempo the user chose. The numbers on the metronome indicated the number of ticks per minute. Set at 60 for instance, the ticks would be at the speed of one per second. 120 would mean two ticks per second. Later on electronic metronomes were invented and nowadays you have numerous free metronome apps. The digital metronomes are more precise than the mechanical ones but the idea is the same: Time is divided into equal , identical units.
Humans have a so called metronome built into them in the form of their heartbeat. A healthy person will have a regular steady heart beat, which is where the regular steady beat comes from in music of all cultures. If the heartbeat goes off track, our life is in danger.
But, and this is the big but, the heart beat is not mechanical. In fact, no heart beat comes on the same time interval as the next one. When we are happy and excited, the heart beats faster. Sad, in a meditative mood or relaxed, and it's slower. While moving from one state to the other, the heart gradually builds the tempo up or down. This is the beat of life. Our emotions keep changing and so does the beat of our bodies.
The metronome offers the beat of a lifeless machine. When playing music to the ticks or clicks of the metronome, you may be improving your playing and making progress on many levels, but you are not playing music. You can only play music when you take the metronome out of your system and listen to the life and breathing of the music.
So why use the metronome at all?
Because although we have our built in rhythmical system, we are not always connected to it. Sometimes it is necessary to have an external, objective beat to get the pulse of the piece straightened out. When coming across technical difficulties in a piece, we are often not aware of our unsteady pace, and the metronome gives us the cruel and merciless truth. With the practice speed controlled by the metronome many technical difficulties can be overcome.
Adjusting to an external rhythm takes some practice. Most people find playing with the metronome quite challenging at first and need a while to learn how to use it.
With too much metronome usage however, your playing becomes mechanical and lifeless. Not enough metronome and it could get out of control with no steady beat.
Like medicine, it's all about the right dosage!
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