Timing Is Everything ...

Does using a metronome take the soul out of music or just the opposite?

This may turn out to be one of those posts where I go on and on about something that is blindingly obvious to everyone but me.

I'm talking about the timing of a musical performance – specifically, does using a metronome/click track during a recording take the soul out of the music, or does it do the reverse, intensifying it by perfection?

First, let's define some terms. Sloppy playing is not the same thing as not playing to a time reference. It takes an enormous amount of control to be intentionally off by just the right amount. Jazz and Pop musicians use this technique all the time to great effect. First you get everyone on their edge of their seats expecting a huge payoff, and then you hang back by just that tiniest, perfect amount. You dangle it out there: you want it, don't you? Oh, yes, you do. Then, WHAM! Here you go, then.

Playing to a metronome is also not the same thing as quantizing a performance or, even worse, aggressively auto-tuning it. Those techniques can literally scrub the life and art right out of the sound. When overused, it forces the tempo or the pitch to line up on a grid like a bunch of toy soldiers zip tied to a box. The human ear can distinguish up to 60,000 beats per minute, and a lot of music is in the range of 60-240 beats per minute. Quantizing can remove all the living, breathing choices a performer can make between one beat and the next, or one pitch and the next. The result is death by algorithm.

And lastly, I don't mean that playing to a metronome means having to stick to just one tempo during the performance. Speeding up and slowing down are absolutely normal parts of music, and these changes in timing have their own notation markings to indicate exactly when to start and stop, by how much to change, how quickly or slowly, and so on.

A metronome is just a reference point. An alignment registration. An agreed-upon set of boundary lines to which all the performers can refer. And in fact, the question about time registration is exactly the same question one could ask of using music notation itself. Does writing out all the parts to a piece take the soul out of a performance, or does it do the reverse, intensifying it by perfection?

OK, Now For The Obvious Bit

The answer is: it depends. It depends on whether the artist has already worked out exactly what they want to say and how they want to say it. So much of good art is removing the noise. Brushing away the parts that don't belong. Truly polishing that gem until it shines.

When there's nothing more that can be removed without making it lesser art, then you can write down every note and perform it with absolute precision. Up to that point, however, when you perform it, you will sense that something can still be done, and you will find yourself fighting against the clock tick, rather than performing off of it.

Take Debussy's Claire de lune as a case in point. I would argue that there is not a note that can be changed in that piece without making it a lesser work. I can replay it nearly note for note in my mind. It's a masterpiece.

And yet, there's just a handful of times I've heard it performed just right, especially with regards to its tempo changes. Too fast – by just a hair! – and it feels rushed. Too rigid and fixed – by just the tiniest bit! – and it comes off lifeless and stiff. Its tempo changes are organic, they have to breathe, like this:

It's a perfect piece of music and it demands to be played perfectly.

But not every piece of music is a masterwork. In fact a very, very few are. And in some genres, even the very idea of a "perfect" piece of music is anathema. The whole ethos of musical improvisation is recognizing that there is no "final word" of what a piece should be, there's always another variation to explore.

I think the reason improvisation works so well in music is because generally only one voice improvises at a time. All the rest of the performers are playing it straight. In a sense, the entire band becomes the accompanist for the solo part. The band is the registration point against which the soloist plays and composes.

A good example of this is Chick Corea's Spain from his album, Light as a Feather. The entire piece switches back and forth from strict note and tempo perfection to highly improvised sections. I especially love the flute solo by Joe Farrell and of course Chick's own solo. Everybody in the band gets a chance to shine in this jazz classic:

There are parts of Spain you can write down. Those are the parts everyone must play note-for-note, otherwise the whole thing would collapse in a heap. But those solos are just as important. Yes, they are probably very close to "finished", but they're also open-ended. I can easily imagine slight variations from one performance to the next. Not so with the note-for-note sections.

My Own Experience of the Effect

I ran into this effect when trying to make a recording of what I thought was a very simple piece of music. It had just three parts: Grand Piano, Fender Rhodes, and Strings. There wasn't any improvisation, and just one tempo throughout the entire piece. Easy-peasy.

But I hadn't decided exactly what each of the parts would be doing when I started recording. At first I played without a click track, and that worked for the first part, but I couldn't play the next part accurately. There was just too many slight variations in phrasing and tempo. I couldn't predict what I was going to do, so my other parts were never really aligned.

So I added a click track, and re-recorded everything. It got worse. Much worse. Nothing was on the beat, everything was off but not artfully, it was off awfully. Complete junk. I was fighting the entire time.

I kept working, however, and discovered that I just needed to make up my mind about what was going to happen in the piece. Like assembling a paper box, once I decided that Tab A fit into Slot B, everything fell into place. Now that I knew exactly what to do, the click track became something I could work off of, not against.

So, there you have it. When you know exactly what you want, you can be completely scripted, because every step in the script takes you closer to the perfect expression of what you wanted. But when you don't know what you want yet – or, when not knowing in advance is the whole point – then being locked down to a reference just sets up a fight between your head and your fingers.

Image Credit: "Metronome 3" by nigel_appleton is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


Sign in or become a Dave Essentials member to join the conversation.
Just enter your email below to get a log in link.