A Metronome Practice Strategy for Musicians Who Hate Metronomes

Most musicians have been encouraged to practice with a metronome at some point. I certainly was, more than once.

But I never liked practicing with a metronome. It was boring and annoying. Maybe it would have been different if instead of going beep or click, it went quack, but regardless, I dreaded the metronome and secretly tried to disable more than one in my youth.

But then I recently stumbled across a handful of studies which found that golfers, soccer, and tennis players benefit from practicing with a metronome. Which made me go wha…???

Better rhythm and timing = more precise execution?

Anecdotally, there are many golfers who say that the timing and rhythm of one’s golf swing is an important predictor of accuracy and consistency. That if you can get a nice rhythm down, you can hit the ball better.

Which makes sense in music too. Because an inconsistent, herky jerky shift is probably not going to be very accurate or reliable.

But there wasn’t much research looking into whether this was really true or not.

So, a pair of Swedish researchers recruited 26 golfers1 to test it out.

The first step, was to test all the golfers on a) their golfing ability, and b) their sense of rhythm and timing.

The golf test

The golf test involved hitting 60 shots in a golfing simulator, using three different clubs2 And yes, “golfing simulator” sounds pretty unrealistic, but the one they used is actually a pretty good simulation of the real thing. It’s basically a little hitting area, with a screen, projector, and bunch of sensors, that lets you see a fairway and hole, use a real club, and hit a real ball. When you hit the ball, the sensors pick up the speed and direction of the ball, and project it onto the screen so you can watch the virtual version of the ball fly off into the distance and land where it would have if you were on a real course. Not exactly the same, but accuracy-wise, it’s about 99% there.

The researchers measured the distance between the ball’s final resting spot and the hole as well as the club head speed of each swing, so they could see how much variation there was from one swing to the next. Because in theory, the more consistent the swing speed, the more consistent their shots are likely to be.

The rhythm test

Then, came the rhythm test. This was done using a system called the Interactive Metronome. It’s a combination of sensors and a software system that measures how accurately you can tap out rhythms with your hands and feet. Think Dance Dance Revolution but with hands too, and you’ve got the idea (that link is worth clicking on, by the way – it starts getting pretty insane about half-way through).

The test involves 14 different tasks, ranging from clapping your hands together to tapping a footpad, that must be synchronized perfectly (well, within 15ms) of a metronome click. The system measures how early or late you were to the hundredth of a millisecond, so you have to be incredibly precise.

Rhythm training vs. technique training

Then everyone was randomly split into two groups, and went through four weeks of training.

The rhythm group had three 45-50 min rhythm training sessions per week, where they practiced clapping their hands while standing on a balance board, hitting sensors on the wall (patty-cake style), clapping their hands behind their back, and more, all to a range of metronomic beats (e.g. 45, 54, 66, and 78bpm). They got immediate feedback in the form of specific tones in their headphones if they missed a beat, as well as red/yellow/green colored lights on a screen (like this).

The control group practiced their golf swings with a swing training device called the “Explanar Trainer,” twice a week for 20 minutes over the course of the same four weeks. Their training had nothing to do with rhythm, and was oriented more towards reinforcing the right form and technique of their swing.

Four weeks later…

After their training was complete, the golfers repeated the golf shot test and the rhythm test to see what had changed.

As expected, the rhythm group’s sense of timing improved – both in terms of accuracy and consistency.

And remarkably, so did their golfing performance. As a whole, the rhythm group improved from an average distance-from-hole score of 13.1 meters during the initial test to 10.5 meters (a 19% improvement) on the second test. The control group didn’t improve much at all, going from a distance-from-hole score of 12.5 meters in the first test to 13.1 meters on the second test.

The golfers’ swing speeds reflected this improvement (or lack thereof) in accuracy and consistency too. Compared to the first test, the rhythm group’s swings fell within a much narrower range of speeds (i.e. more consistent) than the control group’s swings, which were just as erratic as they were on the initial test.

Takeaways

All in all, it appears that improving your timing and sense of rhythm away from the instrument can improve your accuracy and consistency on the instrument. And we’re not talking about rhythmic accuracy, but technical accuracy – as in playing in tune, and hitting all the right notes.

Which made me think of eurythmics. No, not the band , but the rhythm/movement approach developed by Émile Jaques-Dalcroze (no idea how representative this video is, but I love how into it these guys are). I never took any such classes growing up, so I know very little about this kind of training. But I remember speaking with a sport psychologist many years ago, who had sent one of his golfers (a top-5 ranked PGA pro at the time) to work with a eurythmics teacher in an effort to hone the rhythm of his swing. Given that, and studies like the one above, perhaps eurythmics could be a helpful addition to more musicians’ training.

In the meantime (though this might be over-extending the findings a bit), I think this also suggests that there could be benefit in practicing the timing accuracy (not just pitch accuracy) of our shifts with a metronome – for instance, by using a metronome with the Yost shifting exercises that I loved so much did as a kid. After all, I’ve seen videos of golfers practicing their swings with a metronome, so maybe musicians would benefit from the same approach, working to give difficult shifts a memorable rhythm of their own, thereby improving the precision and consistency of pitch.

It’s possible that you will never become a raving metronome enthusiast, but next time a shift is threatening to get the better of you, try make shifting in rhythm a game. See how good you can get at nailing that shift at 50bpm, and 63, and 79 (or whatever makes sense). Perhaps this could be the trick that helps to get you unstuck?

Footnotes

  1. All were between the ages of 20 and 37, with an average handicap of 13.
  2. A pitching wedge, 4 iron, and 7 iron, in case you were curious.

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Comments

17 Responses

  1. Any idea on why the control group was assigned about 3 times less practice time? Isn’t this bias-ing the result? I mean, yes, practicing rhythm obviously improved the golf performance of the rhythm group. However, the conclusion how much better it was to practice rhythm vs golf skills is probably wrong.

    1. Good question, Milen. It’s not clear why the control group’s practice schedule was set up as it was. Perhaps this is the recommended protocol for the swing training device, though that’s just a guess. It’s good to keep this discrepancy in the back of our minds, but I think the results are still pretty fair, in that we’re really comparing apples and oranges. The rhythm group did metronome training and no golf-related skills training at all, while the control group’s training was completely centered around golf skills and performance.

      If I had seen just these two elements of the study compared, I would have assumed that the group which actually practiced their swing would do way better than the group which didn’t touch a golf club at all, but just clapped their hands and tapped their toes a bunch of times.

  2. I’m not at all surprised by the findings in the study you cited. As I teach the Alexander Technique to musicians, I’m regularly reminded that virtually every problem with coordination and skill that a musician has, is by design, a problem with rhythm. More specifically, it’s a problem with the accuracy of the “perception of time” as the skilled activity is being carried out. As the perception of time improves, so does the overall coordination of the musician (entire body/mind), which supports the specific motor activity involved in executing the skill itself. So working on improving time outside of practicing the instrument will certainly help with this, as the study suggests.

    I also believe there is another important reason to regularly practice playing music with a metronome: Because the metronome is an “external source” of time, as opposed to the musician’s internal “imagination” of what the time is, it tends to balance the internal and external components of attention (I’m referring here to some of the motor learning studies done by Gabriele Wulf that you cited in one of your previous posts). And because another obstacle to accessing our optimal coordination and skill is an overly internal focus of attention (trying to micromanage the physical details of carrying out an activity), hearing the time “out there in the room” can gently and effectively draw a musician away from this internal hyperfocus and toward a more balanced quality of attention . As always thanks for a well-written post about a very important topic!

  3. I play guitar and my current teacher’s main focus in my lessons is my timing. He’d rather see me play something totally incorrectly otherwise, but in time, than the opposite. I actually don’t mind playing with a metronome. In studio recording musicians are often expected to play along with a click track. Thanks to modern recording technology a recording engineer can look at the wave forms of the click trick track on a computer screen with the musician’s performance lined up right underneath it and compare the two tracks for timing. If the musician is out of time even a fraction, they’ll know.

  4. When I took music theory in the 70’s we were given access to something called a Tap Master. It was a device that played back various recordings (different tempos, rhythmic feel) and you were supposed to tap on the beat. I didn’t spend much time on it, but over the years wanted to try it more systematically. I think the early digital revolution put an end to it.

    Now days there are “rhythm trainer” app that let you try and accurately tap the rhythms showing on the screen (you hear the basic beat). I use one called Read Rhythm. This sounds a lot less effective than hands and feet approach.

    Do you have any information on the effectiveness of Tap Master or its digital followers?

  5. Hey Noa

    This post seems to be more of a ‘here’s proof you should use practice with a metronome’, while the title made me think it would cover how to integrate metronome practice as a musician. Have you got any information on best metronome exercises?

  6. Is it a surprise to any musician that rhythm anywhere is rhythm everywhere? We really can’t do anything until we can do it in rhythm. But is a metronome the same as body rhythm? I doubt it. And, any teacher can tell you about people diligently practicing with the metronome and doing it all wrong. Wrong rhythmically, wrong technically, wrong musically. A dangerous thing, that metronome, not invented to keep the beat but to establish tempo. And then turn it off.

  7. Hi, Noa! Sam Snead talked about swinging your clubs to the tempo of a favorite waltz- and he had one of the best swings in the history of the Tour. I never thought about bringing my metronome to the range, though! I’ll give it a shot and let you know how it works.

  8. I tended to avoid the metronome growing up too. I never turned it on until I had basically learned a piece. I was always surprised by how quickly the music I was working on would get better once I used a metronome. Now that I’m teaching I try to emphasize playing with the metronome quite a bit.

    I had no idea this type of practice was used in a non musical setting. Very interesting.

  9. Wow this guy actually makes sense and he is right I hate practicing with a metronome cus like he said it’s boring so I understand now I guess the importance of practicing with one

  10. I like this approach, thanks! 🙂 I also really hate playing with the metronome directly…. Music played like this sounds super dull and boring. But it’s necessary to practice anyways.

  11. This was an interesting read!

    I never thought about rhythm and timing being applied to something that is not musical, such as a successful golf swing. But after reading this, I understand the importance of good rhythm even more. It does not just help with feeling the pulse while performing, but also with accuracy as well.

    With the golf rhythmic tests, I was hoping to read about golfers practicing their swings while using a metronome. But I suppose simply practicing rhythmic exercises was enough to improve their golf swing.

  12. Golfers make up only 13 +% of the population, while reading people make up about 85%. This is those with whom it was necessary to do experiments on reading the test with a metronome. I worked in the theater and saw. that the actors use the metronome for monologues.
    Has anyone ever heard Richard Burton’s “To Be or Not to Be” with a metronome? 78 BPM

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