The Metronome Placebo

Everyone is different. That is to say, some like it a little faster than others and some like it a little slower. It’s all subjective. There is and will never ever be a “right” (as in correct) or “wrong” tempo because it’s totally up to you.

Now, with that said, as a drummer I find it best to find a tempo that the singer is comfortable with. If the song is too fast he or she may not be able to keep up. (Remember, singers are human and they have to breathe.) Usually you can find where the singer wants it just before the song starts by watching how they tap their foot. (Try it. It works 90% of the time.) Also, when there’s a singer in the band, I usually let them count off the tune just to be safe. The tempo the singer in your band is comfortable with is about as close to a “correct” tempo as there will ever be.

I had an experience with this issue, recently, that I would like to share with you. A fine group of four attorneys in the city had formed a classic-rock cover band. (Keep in mind, these guys are lawyers and not professional musicians.) They just wanted to have some fun with their expensive, high-end instruments down in the basement on the weekends. However, they had been asked to play a few “functions” and needed a drummer. (This is where I come in.) They hire me to play the drums on their gigs. At the first rehearsal one of the guitar players (and pretty much the MD) just couldn’t get comfortable with my feel for some reason. Fast forward to the next rehearsal a week later; the “MD” had been listening to and studying the studio recordings of the songs we were playing all week and had written down the BPM (beats per minute) for each of them. Right off the bat he explains this to me, hands me the list of songs (each with their respective BPM), and a metronome. He even had the metronome set to the “correct” tempo for the first song we were to rehearse. (I think it was about 100BPM or so.) Anyway, I count the tune off with the metronome and everybody falls in just right. However, about two seconds into it we are nowhere near the metronome, BUT after the song the “MD” looks at me and says, “perfect!”

I always play “with” the band. Since no human is perfect, tempo is what us professional musicians refer to as “elastic.” When performed live a song will always naturally speed up and slow down to some degree. The only way to get everyone synced to “metronomic-time” is to have everyone in the band playing with exactly the same “click” in their headphones. Otherwise, somebody is inevitably going to speed up or slow down and if you’re the only one playing to the click, and everyone else is playing with the band; if you try and “fight” the band back to the click, it’s going to sound like a big mess.

The point I’m trying to make here is that this particular “MD” was of the mindset that the studio version of a recording is the “correct” tempo for a song. This is not at all the case. This guy just felt better having handed me a metronome and some notes…

Try this experiment if you disagree. Listen to the studio version of your favorite song. Now go see that artist in concert or youtube a live version of that song. I bet the live version is a lot faster or even completely different (like an acoustic version or something.) Once you’ve heard two different versions of the same tune, come back and tell me which one is “right.” How do you know? (I will disagree with you just to make the point that it’s subjective. You like one version, I like the other. There you go. We’re both wrong.)

To keep the elasticity of tempo at a minimum, I highly recommend practicing with a metronome. Start slowly and build up speed gradually. Here’s a great little article on practicing with a metronome. Please check it out.

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