Timing is everything. It’s an old cliche, but it works… for romance, comedy, public transport, just about everything. To a musician, it’s like oxygen – we cannot function without it. Even just one missed beat can grate the ears or throw an entire orchestra out of sync. Similarly, it’s impossible to play our handpans without a good grasp of tempo. But what if we have the same sense of timing as grandpa on the dance floor, or we’re trying to master a complex piece or compose a tune with an unusual time signature?
Enter the humble metronome: a simple yet genius pendulum device that has helped musicians to work with time since the beginning of, well, time. The first of its kind was actually invented 1,200 years ago by Andalusian musician and polymath Abbas ibn Firnas, and subsequently fine-tuned and patented in the 19th century by Johann Maelzel, a colleague of Beethoven.
The metronome brings useful structure to our handpan playing, our learning and our creativity. I’m a big fan. Here are my top six reasons why you should be too.
1. It helps you to focus on the beat.
Don’t get me wrong, we wouldn’t have so many amazing jazz, funk, soul and folk classics without the offbeat. Freestyling adds a richness, emotion and an extra layer when we play by ourselves. It’s interesting to experiment with timing, slow things down, break for a moment or suddenly pick up the pace. But being on the beat is vital when playing with others. For handpan beginners, for those who have never played percussion before or aren’t used to time signatures, or for those who naturally struggle with rhythm, it’s the perfect way to provide boundaries. For the intermediate and advanced levels, it can be a brilliant anchor for playing, or switching between, more complex tempos.
2. It provides a crucial framework when you compose
Let’s face it, there’s little more satisfying than a tight rhythm, a groove you can dance to, a tune you can hum along to. This is where the metronome is particularly brilliant. It sets the pulse for us musicians when we compose and notate. It tells us where things should be and leads us there. It’s no surprise that the word comes from the Greek μέτρον (métron, ‘measure’) and νέμω (némo, ‘I lead’). But rather than being restrictive, it frees us up to fill in the spaces between the beats. It is a gentle guide, not a dictator.
3. It saves time and cost when recording
If you’re thinking about recording a tune or even an album, you can save a lot of energy and money in the studio with this trusty time-keeper. When playing with experienced session musicians who have razor-sharp timing, the metronome gives you confidence beforehand and can even help to bring everyone together on the day. That well-used line: ‘Ok guys, let’s do it again, from the top’ becomes ‘One shot!’
4. It lets you make videos on a budget.
You want to film yourself playing the handpan (to share with us on the MTH Facebook pages, of course) but you don’t have the money for several cameras? Cue the metronome: It will give you perfect timing to do different takes from different angles so you can blend each clip to the final film.
5. It’s a therapeutic way to practice.
That familiar ‘tock, tock’ can relax you like a baby being rocked in a cradle 😀
6. It isn’t just for handpans
Everything you learn about timing from a metronome can be applied to any instrument you play, or every other instrument you might compose for.
Ultimately, that little, unassuming device can truly help all levels. So what are you waiting for? Tick, tock, get yourself a clock! Go old school with a real metronome or try one of the recommended Apps below.
For more timing talk, watch this space for an upcoming course on MasterTheHandpan.com. I’m collaborating again with Laurent Sureau, wizard of music theory, to give you guys a better understanding of time signatures. If you’re baffled by those tricky little tempos like 5/4 and 11/8, this will be a life-saver!
Here are the most popular metronome apps, suggested by my lovely students
- Price: Between 0-2.65$
- Languages (10): English, French, German, Korean, Japanese, Italian, Portuguese, Simplified Chinese, Spanish, Traditional Chinese
- Download : iOS - Free iOS Tempo Lite - Android
The Metronome by Soundbrenner
- Price: Free
- Languages (11): English, French, German, Italian Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian, Simplified Chinese, Spanish, Traditional Chinese
- Download : iOS - Android
The Metronome Plus
- Price: Free (also includes a chromatic tuner)
- Languages (14): Russian, French, English, Dutch, Portuguese, Turkish, German, Korean, Italian, Danish, Polish, Chinese, Japanese and Spanish.
- Download : iOS - Currently not available on Android
Pro Metronome by Emulab
- Price: Free
- Languages (4): English, German, Simplified Chinese, Traditional Chinese
- Download: iOS - Android
Not an App, but if you want to be really cool, get yourself this vibrating wristband so your body becomes the metronome.
Awesome! (Available from $99, seesoundbrenner.com/shop)