The Metronome: Tempo's Best Friend
Updated: Feb 10
We all need friends to help us along at times. Lend a hand. Expertise. Guidance. Or even keep us on track! Thankfully, for musicians, the metronome is a great companion to tempo.
Last time, in the post, “Excuse Me, Have You Got The Time … Signature” we discovered different note values, which raised the question:
“How long or fast is a quarter note? How short is an eighth note?”
The simple answer is … as long, fast or slow as you want it to be!
Okay, perhaps a little oversimplified, but not much. It’s all related to tempo. How long or fast a quarter note or any note value is depends on how fast your tempo is.
Remember in the post, “Rhythm, Beat and Tempo: What’s the Difference?” we learned that the beat in music is a steady pulse, like a heartbeat – evenly spaced, regular and keeps on ticking. Tempo is simply the speed of that steady pulse. When we exert ourselves, our heart rate speeds up, but it is still steady or consistent. It’s not wildly erratic, or shouldn’t be. It’s the same in music.
In simple time signatures that use a quarter note as its base note value, such as 2/4, 3/4, or 4/4 time, the quarter note gets counted as one beat.
So, 4/4 time, which, as we learned last time, has four quarter notes per measure, would be counted like this:
And let’s say our tempo for the above was 60 – this is how it would appear at the top of a music score:
The quarter-note symbol indicates that the quarter note gets counted as one beat, and “60” tells us how many beats per minute.
Since the quarter notes gets one beat, 60 quarter notes could be played in one minute (60 seconds), even though the song might not be that long. If our tempo is 80, there will be 80 beats per minute, or 80 quarter notes could be played in the space of 60 seconds and so on. As long as your beat is consistent, it can be as fast or as slow as you desire or as suits the music.
Metronomes are great devices that produce an audible pulse and can help us adjust our tempo to a variety of speeds. The one featured below is a wind-up one, but they also come in digital versions.
Composers are often very specific about the tempo at which their piece is best played. Flip through any book of piano repertoire and you will encounter many recommended tempos. While most of us could count 60 seconds fairly accurately or evenly, speeding up or slowing down that count to a particular rate requires a little guidance for most of us. By setting the tempo of the metronome to a specific speed, you can adjust the counting speed of your beat accordingly. You can clap along with the metronome, count out loud or play repeated notes or a pentascale (5-note scale) in time with the metronome. You can then try playing a section of the music piece to that tempo. Once you have adjusted to that speed and it becomes natural to you, you’ll able to play the piece without the metronome. And, you can check it against the metronome anytime to make sure you’re still on track.
How long is an eighth note? While that still depends on the tempo, it also depends on the time signature.
Again, if the piece is in 2/4, 3/4, or 4/4 time, the speed of your eighth note is directly related to the tempo of your quarter note, since, as we also learned last time, two evenly-spaced eighth notes are played in the space of one quarter note.
However, if the time signature uses the eighth note as its base note value, such as in 3/8 time, then the eighth note gets counted as one beat. You might find something like this at the top of a music score in 3/8 time:
The eighth-note symbol tells us that it gets one beat, and “80” indicates the tempo.
So, there will be 80 beats per minute, and since the eighth note gets counted as one beat, there would be 80 eighth notes in the space of 60 seconds. Again, the metronome can help us play evenly at that speed.
So, the base note value of any simple time signature gets one beat, and our tempo is based on that, whether it be a quarter note, eighth note, sixteenth note or half-note. As we saw last time, compound time signatures are a little more complex, with groupings of notes, such as the two groups of three eighth notes in 6/8 time; in this case, each group gets counted as one beat, and we have to squeeze in 3 eighth notes in the space of one beat.
Of course, it can be a little tricky at first trying to evenly squeeze two or more notes into the space of a larger note value, but several counting systems have been devised over the course of time to help simplify that! One of the most common counting systems uses numbers and syllables. For example, counting eighth notes into quarter notes:
(“&” is pronounced “and”, just as you would expect!)
Another method, called Kodaly, uses particular syllables for different note values. With this method, ta (pronounced TAW) represents a quarter note, and ti-ti (pronounced tee-tee) represents 2 eighth notes:
If you say that out loud, your eighth notes will be evenly spaced. Now, repeatedly strike any piano key in time with speaking it out loud, and you will be playing it correctly according to the rhythm! Set a speed for yourself on the metronome and continue counting and striking the key, and now you’re playing it correctly at a specified tempo! Speed it up or slow it down using the metronome and you, too, just might find your newest musical friend in the metronome.
Until next time …