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Tempo and Rhythm

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Intro - What is a steady tempo?

You often hear musicians talk about the need to keep a steady tempo. One may be criticised because one can't keep in time or to a steady tempo. But what is a steady tempo? Should one really keep to a steady tempo, and if so why? How can one learn to do it, and can a metronome help?

If you listen to the rhythms of natural sounds, there are very few really steady rhythms. That's something that came in with clocks, and mechanical devices, and you can tell how rare it is in nature because of the difficulty early people had constructing accurate mechanical clocks.

Only the apparent motion of the sun and moon are really steady - and even they have variations, especially over geological and astronomical time scales. For a long time the sundial or water clock were the most accurate clocks available.

Perhaps the most steady rhythms in normal life are things like the rhythm of walking (marching especially), and running and the heart beat. But even those are nowhere near as steady as the ticks of a clock or a metronome with a steady tick. Even marchers in a brass band don't march like robots, there's a difference, though it's rather subtle to pin down what it is.

Try paying attention to the rhythms you use when you walk or march. You need to have done a fair bit of metronome practice with a steady beat probably to notice this - but when you walk or march at a steady pace, you still don't quite measure every pace to exactly the same time interval. You speed up and slow down very slightly from each step to the next. Maybe you tend to take a slightly longer time over the stride with one foot than the other, and move just a bit faster with the other foot for instance.

Also over several strides you find each stride varies slightly. So some strides with the same foot are just a bit faster - not enough to get out of time with anyone else if marching (your companions all do the same thing anyway), just enough to give that little bit of variation that makes it feel easier, and more organic.

To do every pace exactly the same in all respects like a robot might be quite tiring in fact. Maybe the reason we do this is partly to let the muscles work in very slightly different ways for each stride, to reduce fatigue? Just a thought.

You also vary tempo over longer periods, e.g. slower to go up a hill, or if you are thinking about something, or are tired or relaxed, faster if you realise you are getting late, or going down hill, or feel lively and full of energy - and so on.

Why is it so hard for beginners to play at the same tempo as a metronome?

One may think, the ideal of a steady tempo is to be able to play in time with a metronome and play every note on the beat every time. But when you try it, you may find that it's not as easy as you expected.

Some beginners may give up, because it is so hard! The metronome may seem to keep going faster and slower. Though you know that a metronome beat must be steady, somehow it seems to vary when you play along with it. One way to cope is to play along with it approximately, and just not bother to hit the beats exactly. But if you do that, it is a little sad since one of the things a metronome is really good for is as a way to learn to hit beats exactly. See [how_to_stay_in_time.htm How to stay in time].

Yet it's (comparatively) easy to sing or play with other musicians - well some other musicians anyway. What's going on?

So again, what is a steady tempo?

This may lead one to wonder if in a way the beginner is right. Does a metronome really play a steady tempo as musicians understand it?

It depends on the style of music. Many songs nowadays which use a fixed almost clockwork beat at least for the bar, sometimes playing over pre-recorded tracks that loop exactly so with literally no variation at all from bar to bar, though usually with variation within the bar. So those do follow metronome like tempi at least for the bar itself. But that's a modern invention.

What about musicians who play folk music, classical music and many other types of music that don't have this fixed background steady beat?

What you find is that even when the tempo is what you would call "rock steady", the musicians don't really play every beat exactly the same length, or every bar. The beats vary within the bar, and so do the bars too.

Is the metronome like steady tempo exact to the microsecond a modern invention?

It's hard to say for sure since we've had metronomes and mechanical clocks for longer than we've had recorded sound. But I think it is fairly safe to assume that before the modern invention of looping backing tracks, and the invention of clocks and metronomes, then all music would be like this, with this natural subtle variation from bar to bar, as you get with folk music, classical music and other traditional music.

Even with music where the ideal expressed by the musicians themselves is to play every bar exactly the same, what feels to a human as a rock steady tempo may still have subtle tempo variations. It's impossible to say for sure. But with rhythms in nature all varying in subtle ways like this, if you take away the clock and metronome - and the mechanical rhythms of industrial civilisations - where would you get the inspiration to play all the bars truly exactly the same? You'd never have heard anything like it anywhere. So even when your ideal is to play all the bars exactly the same, the chance is that there would be some variation from bar to bar.

Typical variation from bar to bar

Often the bars in a tune sung or played will follow a pattern a bit like this: At tempo (first bar) Slightly faster (second bar) back to tempo (third bar) slower than the original tempo (fourth bar), then repeat.

It's not a fixed pattern however, you don't have to play every four bars in the same way or anything like that. It is much more of an organic thing than that. You get "waves" of subtle tempo changes, with the bars getting faster and slower just by small amounts.

The variation from bar to bar is very subtle, more something you feel than something you time

There I mean - e.g. if the tempo is 60 beats per minute, maybe you speed up to 62 for the second bar, then back to 60, then 58 then repeat. So the tempo overall is a steady 60 beats. But the bars vary just a tiny minute amount in timing. It is so subtle, it is more like something you have to feel rather than do by timing.

This variation - which one might think makes it harder to play with other musicians - actually seems to make it easier to play along with the music and to feel the beat.

It feels more lively, you can feel the rhythm to the music more. It sets your feet tapping and your body moving, this lively slight variation in the bars and beats. When did you last find the ticks of a clock set your feet tapping?

It is such a small variation you won't hear it unless you listen very carefully. But you feel it even if you don't hear it as such, and so perhaps it may be partly why many musicians find it hard to play along with a metronome - though the variation of beat within the bar is probably a larger factor there than the variation from bar to bar. Anyway, whatever, this seems to be what many musicians understand in practice (in their playing) by a steady tempo - a rhythm that varies subtly from bar to bar, as much as is needed to give the music life and motion and rhythm, but is steady over longer time scales.

Your "steady tempo" needs to flow to fit in with the feel of the music. So how should one practice to achieve this?

The thing is, what makes it feel like a steady tempo is that the rhythm has to flow with the music, you want the rhythm to match the feel of the music. It goes slightly faster for one bar because that's what the music does naturally, and not because it is easier to play. Also not faster because it is difficult and you are rushing.

If the tempo slows down to fit in more notes, or speeds up because you find the next section easier to play and take the opportunity to you play faster to catch up with the beat again - then it won't feel like a steady tempo.

Skip notes

So, especially as a beginner, if there are too many notes for you to play, one thing you can do is to skip notes rather than slow down when you hit a fast passage during metronome practice - or even for an entire tune or piece. You can play every other note in the tune at that point in the piece - or just play the first note of each beat or even of the measure until you get the feel of the timing for the piece. Like - sketching out the skeleton of the tune and then later on you put on the details of the phrasing and ornaments.

Repeat just the difficult passage - AT TEMPO

Or just repeat the difficult passage - the tricky bar only - several times at tempo until you can play the notes.

Many beginners play a piece through until they hit the difficult bit, then stumble through it rather more slowly, then try to keep going all the way to the end. This is a natural way to practice, but it is a slow way to improve your skills playing at tempo, because most of the time you are playing things you already know how to do.

Then the tricky bits, you play more slowly - but on many instruments you need subtly different techniques, with slightly different hand positions, movements of the fingers etc to play a piece slowly, so practicing a passage many times slowly actually can sometimes make it harder to play it accurately and with a steady rhythm at tempo.

So here is something else to try. Instead play your piece once through, and locate the tricky passages you need to focus on (which may vary from day to day). Then go back to them and play each tricky passages through several times AT OR ABOVE THE DESIRED TEMPO until you are able to play it at tempo.

If this is too hard for you , try shorter passages, just one bar, or half a bar, or just practice a single beat, or make up little scale / arpeggio exercises based on the difficult section.

You should be able to make a short enough fragment to practise above tempo - unless the whole thing is beyond your capability or you are doing speed drills to increase your maximum playing tempo.

When you choose the short section to work on - it is also good to include the first few notes of the next phrase or some such, so that you get used to the continuity of the piece.

Something that seems to help is to play just the tricky passage several times AT TEMPO - then PLAY IT ONE LAST TIME AT A SLOWER TEMPO before you go on to practice the next section. Somehow that seems to help one to play it smoothly without glitches.

There are lots of other ways of practicing with a metronome. Many musicians practice a piece at a slow tempo and gradually speed it up, a little at a time (say by 4 BPM at a time), though that needs care since you probably use different hand movements and muscle coordination for the piece at tempo so if you spend most of your time learning it at a very slow tempo then you will need to do some relearning when you play it at tempo.

For some more tips you may not have thought of, see this page Piano Practicing Principles and Techniques (many of the points apply to other instruments).

This is for the part of your practice session when you focus on rhythm, getting all the notes right and so on. Often for the second half of the practice session, a musician will focus on playing expressively, or just letting go into the music to enjoy it. You then stop worrying about the difficult passages, and get back in touch with your enjoyment of the playing. You don't want the tricky sections to slow you down when you do this, so skip notes if necessary or skip entire bars if you have to and just listen to the notes in your mind (if you can), for the bits you haven't quite mastered yet.

Anyway whatever you do, perhaps it's something like that. This is just a pointer towards some ways of practice that one may not have come across before, which are well worth integrating into ones practice routine, whatever it is.

Listen to the music in your mind just before you play it

Also it helps a lot to hear the notes in your mind before you play them. Not everyone can do this right away, even for tunes that you play frequently. But, after you play a tune, immediately after you play it, you may well find that you can play it back in your memory - just the last few notes at least. Try it and see if you can (just a few seconds after you have played the tune). It's like an echo. Exactly in pitch and in time, exactly as you heard it, sounds just like the notes played on the instrument itself.

So, first see if you can do that - after you play a tune, can you remember the last phrase you played and play it back in your mind immediately afterwards? If so, see if you can do it the other way around - hear the tune just before you play it, and play it to yourself in that way as you'd like to play it. Then get in the way of listening to the music first, then play to fit the rhythm of the tune you hear in your mind, rather than to fit what your hands or instrument can do. Since this play back in the mind isn't limited by the technicalities of what you can do physically in any way - this can be a good way to get into the habit of fitting your playing to the rhythm and feel of the tune rather than distorting the rhythm of the tune to fit your capabilities.

BTW once you can play a piece back like that in your mind on your own instrument, a fun thing to try is to play it back on other instruments. What would it sound on a trumpet, violin or tuba? What about glockenspiel? Can you play it back in your mind in all those ways as well? You may surprise yourself when you do this :-).

Then, if you are able to do that, can you play a tune back in your mind, and also its accompaniment? Or just one note of accompaniment at the start of the bar? Or, can you do that immediately after you have heard a piece with two or more notes played at once, can you hear the tune and its accompaniment simultaneously in your mind? Try that for a theme tune where the accompaniment is an important part of what gives it its "feel". If you can do that, see if you can play it back imagining them on different instruments from the ones you heard?

One can begin to understand how some experienced composers are able to play back entire pieces in their mind in this way (or look at a score and hear the notes in their mind), with all the notes on all the instruments, and how some can even just listen to a piece once, then play it back in their minds and transcribe every note from memory. It's a long way from being able to play back a few notes immediately after you hear them on your own instrument, then on other instruments - and being able to play back an entire symphony with all the instruments played simultaneously. But it is essentially just more of the same sort of thing, so you can begin to understand experientially why such feats are possible for some composers. Just a hint of it I mean.

(In case anyone wonders, please don't think I can do such things myself. I'm a beginner as a musician and composer, very much so. In some ways that helps one to see the difficulties beginners face, which for more experienced musicians are things they mastered and forgot long ago).

If you can't play at tempo no matter what you do, try something easier

Or if that doesn't work, the piece is probably a little too hard for you just now. So, choose something a little easier, within you capabilities. Or maybe you find that the original piece can also work at a slower tempo.

Variation within the bar - practice with the metronome using swing, and lilt as well as steady beats to get more versatility in your rhythmic vocabulary

Within the bar you get even more variation. Apart from the likes of swing, you normally get a fair amount of variation in the timing of individual beats in live music, and you get at least subtle variations in timings of individual beats within the bar in all genres of music even the ones with the fixed bar beat timings based on repeating backing tracks.

Nowadays we can easily generate the music mechanically e.g. in music notation software, without all this natural human variation. If you do that, you may notice that somehow it is lacking in life and seems "mechanical". It's not so bad if you just have the mechanical repeating bar beat. But do the same with the beats within the bar and the music loses a lot of its life, is no longer so lively in its feeling. It's like the difference between the pace of a robot or mechanical device walking or dancing, and the pace of a human walking or dancing.

So - when practicing with a metronome - ideally you want to be able to vary the tempo subtly from bar to bar and also vary the beat within the bar. Then ideally again, you practice both ways - with a very steady beat so that you can do it whenever you want to - and with a more organic subtly varying beat and varying bar. Play the same piece in both ways, and with many different ways of varying the beat and the bar. Doing this helps you play in time, at a "steady tempo", on the beat, and may help to add to your subtle rhythmic vocabulary too.

This is something you can explore in [metronome-download.htm Bounce Metronome Pro] with its Lilt, swing and lilt bars features.

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Gradual changes of tempo

This again is something we all do naturally, your heart beat or your pace will vary gradually over a period of time. Even when you break into a run, normally it takes a few strides to go from walking pace to running pace. So in music too, if you need to change tempo - sometimes the composer asks you to make a sudden change of tempo - but quite often, you are expected to change tempo gradually over several bars, or at least over a few beats. In some styles of music you get very slow and gradual tempo changes building up possibly over many minutes or even hours as in some Indian music.

So if you want to have a good rhythmic vocabulary, it's important to be able to vary from one tempo to another gradually, in a natural way, as well as to do sudden tempo changes.

Again this is something you can explore in [metronome-download.htm Bounce Metronome Pro] with its Changing Tempo feature.

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Get Bounce Metronome Pro

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 - and has many special features to help with your metronome practise.

I also maintain a 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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