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How to keep exact time

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Intro

When you first start to use a metronome you may well find it hard to stay in time with it. As a pro you can play in time with the metronome - but still you may find it a somewhat dull experience. You know that it is useful for refining your sense of a steady tempo - or for speed drills - but that may be all there is to your metronome practise..

Actually though, you can use it as a stimulating challenge, and an excellent opportunity to learn to refine your timing and synchronisation - not just with a metronome, but with other musicians as well.

This way of practising keeps your mind alert, and your metronome practise sessions vibrant. That's because you can continually challenge yourself to hear the timing more exactly and to merge with the beat more closely - or to play fractionally ahead or behind the beat more precisely.

These tips are from the help for the Bounce Metronome Pro, a software metronome with bounce visuals to help you keep in time much as a conductor does with his baton.

If you need a refresher on rhythms first, then go to Refresher on Beats, Bars and Rhythm

On the Beat?

How exactly do you play on the beat?

You may think you can already play on the beat. But if you think about it, do you play exactly to a tenth of a second - or to a hundredth of a second - or to a fraction of a millisecond? (What about exact to a microsecond, thousandth of a millisecond - that's way beyond any human capabilities).

You can never be exactly on the beat - so if you think you are, it doesn't mean there are no discrepancies. It just means that you can't hear them.

The rest of this page is about how to play more exactly in time, and how you can always continue to learn to listen more exactly to your timing and synchronisation. Then once you are able to do that, you can also learn to play consistently ahead or behind the beat as well, whenever you want to.

But first, a bit of background.

The problem, ragged beats

If you listen to amateur musicians, although they may be keeping a steady tempo and good time, you often find that the rhythm still feels a little "ragged".

Listen to professional players, and you find every beat is often very crisp, all the instruments together. To someone who just listens for enjoyment, the music sounds maybe smoother, or cleaner, when played by professionals.

BTW not saying that the amateur music is less enjoyable! It has its charm too :-).

Yet, the professionals aren't exactly in time either

Anyway - listen carefully to the professionals again, much more carefully, to the individual beats. Though the performance sounds so polished, you may find that they don't come in quite exactly together.

The lead instrumentalist may be a bit ahead (for an exciting driving kind of a feel) or fractionally behind the beat (when more laid back perhaps). Often the drums come in a bit early on every beat by a few milliseconds (for a bit of extra edge).

But when they do that too, the professionals are more consistent in it which is why it still sounds polished and crisp.

You need a balance between exact timing and keeping the warmth of your rhythms and the "human touch"

Even professionals don't play each beat or bar in exactly the same way. When programmers try to achieve the same effect in software they may need to introduce little variations in the timing from one bar to the next to try to give it a bit of human like variety. That's part of what gives a real time performance its charm perhaps, and why sometimes even the most amateur playing, even with all its raggedness, may yet still be so heartening and charming and enjoyable and full of life and spirit.

For instance, a mother singing a lullaby to her child, may in her particular way be more musical than any great conductor or orchestra or performer playing to an audience of thousands or millions even. (Think about it :-) ).

Indeed it's something the pros mention that they have to watch out for - that you may find you lose the spirit and enjoyment of actually playing. That's something which you so need, to have anything to give to your audience, and it's something amateurs may often seem to have without trying.

So you need a balance. You can almost certainly learn to play more exactly on the beat than you do at present, as anyone can get a little better at it, no matter how good you are. But don't try so very hard to play exactly on the beat for every beat that you lose the pleasure in playing or it would be a bit sad :-). And it is a matter of learning so that you are able to play an exactly synchronised beat when you want to, but at the same time, to keep the variety in your performance so that you go ahead or behind the beat sometimes and vary the timing from measure to measure as well, and do that in an natural, and also professional and polilshed way.

BTW interesting link here on this subject: Microtiming Studies (from thesis by Vijay Iyar at Berkeley university).

Visual Support - with a Conducting Metronome

So - how can you learn to play exactly on the beat (or ahead or behind it by the same amount for every beat)?

You may well find that it helps to add visual support so you can see where you are and anticipate the next beat. That's where conducting can help.

Depending on the conducting style, a conductor may beat the rhythm somewhat like this:

This is for a rhythm in 4/4.


To help pay attention to the timing - it may help to beat a drum or similar instrument - something percussive with a sharp and easy to hear attack to the note. Or clap or tap something if you don't have a percussion instrument to hand.

Try to clap or tap at the exact moment the baton hits the beat. How closely in time can you get?

BTW many conductors of orchestras actually conduct well ahead of the beat. This lets them communicate how they want each beat played before the player hits the note. Players still synchronise with the moment of the beat, with a delay. (Conductors of choirs may be more likely to conduct on the beat.)

However, for metronome practice and learning to hit the beat exactly you may find it easier to play as suggested here, at the exact moment of the visual beat rather than with a delay.

Vanishing metronome ticks - or merge sweet spot

I go into all this in more detail in the next page, the Vanishing Click.

Many musicians when they practise with a metronome play only approximately in time with it.

Indeed, because you hear a metronome more easily when you play slightly ahead or behind the click - it is easy to get into the bad habit of always playing slightly out of time with your metronome. That does help in a way - because when slightly out of time, you don't need to listen to the metronome so carefully, so can pay more attention to your exercise or your music.

But for this sort of exercise, you need to hit the click exactly, on every beat. The usual more approximate way of playing with a metronome is absolutely no good at all.

The key to this exercise is to listen really carefully to yourself and to the metronome. It's best to do this with simple exercises or pieces you know very well, at least to start with, so all your attention is on your timing rather than on the music.

Burying the Click - try to play so that your notes merge with the metronome tick

When you are really close to the tick, and only out by a tiny fraction, you may not know if you are ahead or behind the beat. So that's probably not going to be precise enough for this merging exercise, we are talking about something more subtle here.

But you know it's not quite on the beat because your note doesn't quite "merge" with the metronome.

Look out for a sweet spot - or the metronome may seem to skip a tick

What happens when you hit the beat exactly may depend on your instrument, how you listen to the music, and so on. Here are some things to look out for:

  • The metronome may skip a beat (apparently). You may even wonder if it has stopped working (most likely for loud and percussive instruments like piano, drum, etc).
  • You may hear the metronome, but it sounds less distinct
  • You get a "sweet spot" where your sound is merged with the metronome, to make a new sound from the two combined together
  • It sounds as if you and the metronome make the note together, as if you are playing the metronome tick as well as your own instrument.

What happens exactly doesn't matter - the main thing is to get used to what it sounds like when you are exactly in time with the tick. Then you know what it is you have to try to achieve.

Merging visually

You can also try merging visually. The idea here is tto play so that it feels as if the splash is caused by your note. This may work well too, depends on how sensitive you are to visual / sound coordination.

This is something that changes as you practise more in this way

This is something you become more sensitive to as you continue to practice in this way. The metronome tick may no longer vanish when you listen more carefully. Or, what originally sounded like merging may sound more ragged as you hone your sense of being exactly on the beat.

So for instance, maybe originally the sounds merged when you were within a hundredth of a second. But later on after a lot of practise, maybe a hundredth of a second begins to sound like quite a large gap, and you need to be within a couple of milliseconds of the tick before the sounds merge.

Percussionists play instruments with a short and loud "attack" and also have to support the rhythm of the band or orchestra quite often, and with repeated practise they may hone their sensitivity to timing to an extraordinary degree. A professional percussionist may be able to detect a raggedness of just a millisecond or two.

Most of us don't need to be as exactly on the beat as that. If it sounds like merging to you - that's your best shot at it and all you need to do even if maybe someone could measure some very tiny time discrepancy still. The rest will come gradually with practise if it's needed.

For more about this see Vanishing Click

What is the aim of the exercise?

The idea is to become very familiar with what it feels like to be exactly on the beat. Not just now and again, but for every beat of every bar, to play so exactly on the beat that the merge sweet spot happens every time, on every beat (whenever you want it to).

Once you can do that, your beats within each bar will get steadier, because each beat is exactly where you want it to go to within a few milliseconds - so you will be easier for other musicians to play along with as well.

You don't need to play on the beat in the actual music you play. Many of your notes may be fractionally early or late, because that's what "feels right".

But it's good to have the ability to play exactly on the beat whenever that's what you want to do. It will steady your rhythm and give you more options. It should also make it easier for other musicians to play with you.

Conundrum

Conundrum - when you are exactly on the beat you can't hear the metronome clearly and the sound may vanish

As we just saw, if your instrument is loud, then the metronome tick vanishes when you are exactly on the beat, and even with a quiet instrument it may be less distinct.

It is easy enough to hit the click exactly once. But then how do you continue to keep in time with it on every beat when you can no longer hear the metronome clearly?

One way to deal with this - visual metronome

That's one of the ways Bounce Metronome can help, by showing the beat visually to help you play in time with it. Then you can play to merge with the metronome tick not just occasionally but on every beat (when you want to).

See also - The Vanishing Metronome Click - Burying the Click.

Playing ahead or behind the beat

Another useful exercise is to play consistently ahead or behind the beat on every beat. Try to play, say, ahead of every beat - but as close to the beat as you can get. This is an easier exercise in some ways because you can hear the metronome more clearly. But still quite a challenge, as you get closer to the beat.

So - the idea is, you get closer and closer to the merge point - as close as you can get - but don't quite merge. How close can you get, and still hear that you are ahead of the beat?

When you get very close to the beat, you may hear that you haven't quite merged, but be unsure if you are ahead or behind the beat. But as you continue to practise, you will still hear whether you are ahead or behind even when you almost hit the beat exactly.

The idea here is - helps to refine your sense of timing - and also it is useful to be able to play consistently ahead or behind the beat as well.

Keeping exact time in rhythms with uneven beats - or with varying tempo

This exercise isn't just for musicians who play music with a steady pulse to it. You need the ability to play more exactly on the beat even with rhythms with swing, or during gradual tempo changes - or when you have bars that vary in timing in a subtle way (very common in lively music).

In these subtle rhythms too, all the musicians need to be togetheror to vary tempo together in time.

So - that's another area where Bounce Metronome's special capabilities can help you.

Swing

Practice sometimes with swing to prevent your timing from getting too "robotic"

Too much practice with a metronome could make your timing too "metronomic" - clock-like or robotic. But it is of course very important to be able to keep to a steady overall tempo.

So try to achieve the same merging and exact timing with the metronome set to swing or a lilt, vary the amount, and play in different ways in the same session.

It's an idea to try swing rhythms like this even if not part of your normal musical vocabulary. This may help counteract this tendency, make your rhythm more flexible - and perhaps even introduce new rhythmic ideas. By practising swing you can learn to vary the beat in a way that also helps with subtler lilt effects.

Also with the lilt bars too

You can also try the lilt bars too, this stops your measures from becoming too "robotic" too - just as there is groove and variation within a measure, so also there is variation in the timing of the measures too, in larger scale patterns. You hear this in all lively music played without a click track. For more about that see Tempo and Rhythm.

Playing exactly in time with a metronome is a special challenge for music with swing or a gentle lilt

With a normal metronome, this merging may be particularly difficult to achieve, or impossible, if the music you want to practice has swing, such as Jazz or Scottish or Irish dance music. For more about this see Swung notes.

The problem is, the rhythm you want to play is different from the rhythm the metronome plays. There is no way to get the rhythms to fit each other exactly on every beat of a metronome no matter what tempo you set it to.

So that's one of the places where the Swing and other features of Bounce Metronome can really help.

Try one of your set pieces in many different ways

A good approach is to take one of your set pieces, and play it sometimes with a steady beat, sometimes with a gentle lilt (which you can also do in Bounce Metronome Pro), and sometimes with a lot of swing. The idea is to try out many different ways of playing the same notes.

You can also tap your own new rhythms and grooves to use (another option in Bounce Metronome Pro) then try to follow those too exactly on the beat, using the metronome.

Of course many of these ways of playing you won't actually use in practise. But with this flexibility in performance - you will then be able to play the same piece with many subtly different timings with ease.

You can get Bounce Metronome Pro for Windows now with your money back guarantee

Do you have a Windows laptop or PC?

You can buy Bounce now with your no quibbles money back guarantee. Buy Bounce Now

Or if you prefer, Download your Free Test Drive of Bounce Metronome Pro Now (with free taster metronome yours to keep)!

It's easy to use - just choose a preset rhythm and click on the dial to set the tempo. It has special features to help with metronome technique such as the exercises on the Vanishing Click page here.

Online Videos and other metronomes

Or you can explore its Video Resources with many videos of various types of rhythm.

I also maintain a big list of other software and on-line metronomes, which you can find here:

A big list of some of the other metronomes available for Windows - and Online Metronomes

About the author of these pages

I'm Robert Walker, the inventor and programmer for Bounce Metronome Pro. These Many Ways to Use a Metronome pages arise out of the research I did for the program, and feedback from users of the software.

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