Jazz Improvisation: To Metronome, Or Not To Metronome?

There are a variety of opinions out there on the value (and the pitfalls) of using a metronome when you practice jazz improvisation. The great pianist, Paul Bley, for example, thought using the metronome was a bad idea, something that limited the natural ebb and flow of real, human time feel. Whereas the great saxophonist and improviser Warne Marsh used it regularly in practice. (Both were absolute masters of time and rhythm.)

I’d like to offer some of my ideas and experiences in using the metronome for practicing improvisation. Specifically, why, when and how I use it.

Let me start by saying what the metronome is not. It is not your time feel. Your time feel is part of your internal creative process.  Your imagination, if you will.

One of the objections that Paul Bley, Mike Longo and many other musicians (all of whom I deeply respect) have voiced about using the metronome is that it can create a false, rather stiff time feel.

And I would agree that if you’re using the metronome as a time feel source, you’re robbing yourself of the opportunity to develop your internally generated time feel, which is crucial to your free self expression.

One of the more controversial topics with respect to the metronome is how to use it when playing a swing feel in 4/4 time. There are many who recommend setting the metronome at the half note to click on beats 2 and 4 (the “backbeat”). The primary reasoning behind this is that it emulates and strengthens the swing feel.

Then there are those who adamantly oppose setting the metronome on beats 2 and 4 when playing a swing feel. They would say that the great jazz players are not thinking in this “back beat” kind of way, but rather, are thinking more about the time in a different, sometimes broader way.

Some are thinking of beats 1 and 3, so as to always know where the time/form really is. Others like the idea of thinking just about the downbeat of “one” in each measure.

And yet others think even more broadly than that (thinking/feeling multiple bars at a time). This, they claim, gives them more freedom with the time and the feel, as well as better control of their ideas. (Im my experience, I completely agree.)

I don’t like the idea of trying to “cultivate” the swing feeling from the metronome (I doubt that you can, actually). I think the best way to do  that is by listening to the music. A lot. Your swing feel (or any other stylistic feel) is developed internally (again, it’s part of your imagination) largely through listening. Listening to (and possibly emulating) the great masters of jazz will do so much more than a metronome could ever do to teach you to swing.

So what is the metronome? It’s an external time source, one that is (although adjustable) completely unresponsive and unyielding. It simply expresses tempo, measured in “beats per measure”. Nothing more.

Contrast the experience of playing with a metronome to that of playing with other musicians. You still have to listen for (and respond to) an outside time source (the other musicians). But the difference is that it is being created from moment to moment  (and you’re part of it). Everybody you’re playing with is putting their “tempo/feel imagination” out there into the collective sonic whole.

If you’re playing with good musicians, there is a sense of give and take between you (the improviser) and the rhythm section (in both tempo and feel).

And even if you’re playing with bad musicians, you still have to deal with how your perception of tempo and feel lines up with theirs.

Either way, you’re in a constant state of balancing the internal (your impulse/imagination) with the external (the collective tempo and feel of the ensemble).

To do this well you must be able to listen and respond effortlessly. That’s where the metronome comes in handy as a practicing tool. The metronome is constantly challenging you to deal with what you generate in your imagination with the reality of its clicks. It doesn’t much matter that the time is rigid. It’s just time. It’s not your swing feel.

Of course, If you don’t like to use a metronome, you can instead use backing tracks (which are very affordable, practical and decent sounding these days).

I do use backing tracks from time to time, but I find myself doing the bulk of my improvisational practice with just the metronome. Why? Because the metronome also challenges me to use my tonal and harmonic imagination that much more.

For example, if I’m improvising over a standard song form, I must imagine and feel the form of the tune, the harmonic colors and contrasts,  voice leading, the melody and more. By using the just the external stimulus of the metronome’s click (no chordal instruments, no bass), I’m having to bring these other thing to life internally. By doing so my imagination becomes richer and freer.

I tend to use the backing tracks after I’ve spent lots of time  on a particular tune with only the metronome. I’m always pleased with how clearly and vividly I can imagine and hear what I’m playing in relationship to the the rest of the “band”. This establishes a kind of confidence that encourages me to play with much more risk and adventure when I play with other musicians.

I use the metronome in a variety of ways, often changing where the click is in relation to the time and form. Here are some of my favorite settings for improvising over standards and other chord based forms:

  • On the first beat of each measure-I probably use this the most. I’ll do this in 4/4 and in odd times as well. It’s a great way to feel time in a broader sense. This is especially helpful at fast tempos (it makes them feel much slower, calmer and clearer).
  • On the first and third beat of each measure-I do this most particularly on tunes or chord changes with which I’m not very familiar. It helps to really solidify the time/harmonic form.
  • On the second, third or fourth beat-I’ll intentionally displace the click in order to challenge my sense of the harmonic form. (I do this after I’m very familiar with a tune or set of changes.)
  • On the upbeats-I think of the click as being not the downbeat, but the upbeat (usually I think of it as the up beat of 1 or the upbeat of 3). This strengthens and clarifies my sense of the downbeat. (Again, this is something I do when I’m very familiar with the form).
  • On the second and fourth beat-Yes, I enjoy the playing with the “hi hat”, too. It’s fun. Plus, practicing way this at very fast tempos insures that I won’t “turn the time around” when playing with a rhythm section (no matter how fast the tempo may be).
  • Playing intentionally in front of or behind the click on any of the above mentioned metronome settings-This isn’t easy to do, but it sure frees up my time feel and rhythmic imagination, as well a clarifying my internal time sense.
  • Without the metronome-And of course, it’s great to play without an external time source. I’ll either play in time (my own perception of time), or rubato. Both are essential to developing my skills as an improviser.

The most fundamental information I want with respect to using the metronome is to always know where the downbeat of beat one is. If I know and can anticipate that clearly, both my time and my feel are solid.

Also, as a rule, the fewer clicks the better. For example, if you can easily improvise over a tune at half note equals 80 (whether clicking beats 2 and 4 or 1 and 3), change the setting to whole note equals 40. And so on. Doing so helps broaden and strengthen your time perception. (I virtually never set the metronome to click on each beat, no matter how slow the tempo is.)

So how much do you (or should you) use your metronome when you’re practicing improvisation? If you find that you struggle to improvise with good, clear time when playing with other musicians, you probably need to spend more time with the metronome.

On the other hand, if you regularly use a metronome (or other time source, like a backing track) when you practice improvisation, see how you do without it. If you find it difficult to play with the same freedom of expression and confidence, then you might consider spending less time with it.

Whichever the case may be, keep in mind what the metronome is, and how you can best use it.


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