Playing Metronomically vs. Musically

Q: I have a hard time not sounding stiff when focusing on my time. Any suggestions?

A: I’ve been noticing this phenomenon lately, especially with students who are working on various cello suites. There’s a tendency to try and play the piece metronomically as opposed to musically. Remember that, while we are expected to have good time, we are also expected to play musically and that means that phrases have to breathe a bit!

Try this…

Take any piece of music that you are playing and take note of how you are tapping your foot. Are you tapping on every beat? Every other beat?

See how you play the piece if you tap only at the beginning of every phrase. Get yourself thinking about emphasizing every phrase (whether it’s a melodic phrase, every two or four bars, or a rhythmic phrase).

This may better apply to classical music than jazz, but I believe even trying to be conscious of our emphasis and phrase length will help greatly.

How are you breathing? Try to breathe in time to the music and with special regard to the phrases you are playing.

Giving a line shape with dynamics can help, too. Try overdoing it at first but starting a phrase slowly and building both in speed and in intensity as you play the phrase. You can hear the shape of it now. Just make sure to use it in a musical way and one that makes sense with what you are playing.

You might also find that it helps to sing along with yourself. Play the way you’d want a singer to sing the line. I bet this helps.

Have fun and always remember to listen to what you are playing and try to be as musical as possible! While music is science and math in one regard, it is always meant to be music first and foremost. Record yourself and critique your musicality and then really examine what you could work in order to be more musical.

Have a question for Damian Erskine? Send it to [email protected]. Check out Damian’s instructional books, Right Hand Drive and The Improviser’s Path.

Get daily bass updates.

Get the latest news, videos, lessons, and more in your inbox every morning.

Share your thoughts

  1. Very intelligent post on the real difference between these two. I have seen too much negativity toward the metronome. Musicians should be able to use one to better their sense of time while retaining room for the music to breathe without losing or upsetting the pulse.

    I thought I was all alone. :)


  2. Rod

    I’ve ran into that problem in a Nashville studio that I was recording at.They were using a Pro-Tools system,And everyone was required to listen to some form of click track.I like the Hi-Hat sounds the best.But I wasn’t really trying to play exactly on the beat all the time.It felt better to play the tracks “musically”,or the “breathe factor”. The 1st engineer kept trying to line every little bass riff exactly in time.It was taking the “feel” out.When the 2nd engineer,(and thankfully the head engineer),got there,he made sure that didn’t happen anymore.He said it sounded better,and not so mechanical,to let the bass tracks to “breathe”.I prefer to just let the music flow.My timing is not impeccable,But I will say that it’s too shabby.The trick is to find musicians with the feel of music you have.When you do,……..that’s when music is truly made.

  3. Just Ian

    There are numerous exercises one can do to break up time and create different feels. Talk to Kai Eckhardt about that stuff, he’s got GREAT lessons. The singing thing is interesting as a study, but then you train yourself to breathe as you phrase, and you’ll find yourself holding your breath and rushing, or breathing out and dragging. Inhaling is a whole mess unto itself if you try to breathe and play together. If you learn to phrase out and beyond your breathing, or (better yet) independent of it, you’ll acquire a skill only circular breathers even come close to.

    Instead, try breathing naturally playing a simple 4-bar passage at a variety of tempos. Try to keep your breathing relaxed. It’s best if you can record yourself, and try to hear if your playing changes in meter as you breathe. For example, try playing straight 16ths, exhaling on the down-beat of 1. Listen closely to your own dynamics and see if you can spot your breathing. Try it at different tempos. See if your breathing changes pace as you play faster or slower. If you can hear your breathing in your playing, try to get it out of it and smooth your playing out. You can always put the accenting back into playing, but unlearning the involuntary accents that breathing often adds is a task.

    I know a lot of players try to emulate other instruments to alter their perspectives on melodic and rhythmic approach, especially toward soloing, but it’s also important to understand the bass as… a bass, and usually that’s best done BEFORE trying to emulate something else.

    The metronome is your god, regardless of what Jeff Berlin says. You have to learn what playing in time is before you can loosen it up correctly. I don’t mean just learning to play with the click, I mean playing around the click effectively, learning to swing so that the click comes down on just the 4, or playing in say 4/4, but cycling the click so that it comes every fifth beat, then step that up a notch and get the click to come every ninth 8th note, then play 16ths, then triplet swing 8ths so that the pulse still comes every ninth 8th note. The get really slick, and drop the middle 8th.

    There are a TON of ways you can expand on that, especially by moving or removing notes in the phrases. The point is that by breaking up where the click is and having it cycle on points other than just The 1, it forces you to build a VERY strong internal clock that you can then play with in terms of pushing and pulling. That’s not the same as drifting or breathing. Breathing and drifting are mostly involuntary actions.

    A lot of players actually end up playing a lot of notes in the attempt to keep themselves in time. Not just bassists, lots of players. With a solid internal clock, you learn to be a lot more fearless of silence and sustained notes.

    I’m not saying you shouldn’t try the singing thing at all, but you can’t really break the rules of timing until you actually know them. Otherwise, you just sound like every other schmoe who thought they were breaking the rules by not learning them first. As for stiff players, most of them are just folks without enough knowledge and confidence in their timing to effectively loosen up their feels without losing sight of the tempo.

    Food for thought,


    • Just Ian

      I should add that those timing exercises are a starting point to learning better control of your time, not a means to an end in expressive and interesting phrasing. Musically speaking, well pronounced nonsense is still just that. However, no matter how inspiring your words/notes, if they are mumbled and huffed out, few will even take the time to understand, let alone enjoy them. Good luck!

    • John Vinter

      A lot of good points there Ian.

  4. John Vinter

    If the metronome is not your best friend in the hole wide world – make it! ;-)

    Not to be rude, but:
    If you are not able to make your bassline groove while playing along a metronome, that keeps time (and doesn’t lie) – how do you think you’re able to make your bassline groove while playing with good musicians (who keeps time steady)?

    As Damian gives severel examples of – the key to playing in time and groving, is consciousness – being aware of where you rhytmically place your bass notes compared to the snare drum, the guitar, the hi-hat – if they all “hit” at the exact same time, there is no groove (a machine could play that) – the groove raise as the different instruments in the rhythm section “finds its place proportionally”

    Explaining exactly what makes the right groove is impossible. You can tell whats wrong when its not swinging/grooving – but WHEN it does, there is nothing left to say but: “Yes – there it is!” ;-)

    Just relax – and listen!

    All the best.

    • I agree completely. I find the biggest problem is players with bad time, not players with no “musicality”.

      It’s okay if you’re a bit robotic when you’re starting out. That’s expected. Over time you will develop your sense of style and feel. It would be so much better if you develop those in time.