Composing with the Metronome
One area of being a composer that continues to confound me relates to my poor sense of tempi and tempo relationships. I have very little internal sense of pulse, and if asked to clap something approximating 76 BPM I might respond with something anywhere from the low 60s to upwards of 92. Moreover, I frequently have difficulty assigning correct metronome markings and always seem to be somewhat off-mark when those tempo indications are played back. I’m not particularly deficient in rhythm or sense of pulse, so recently I wondered what might happen if I simply reintroduced an awareness of tempi into my composition process.
Whereas normally tempo indications are some of the last things I commit to as I mark up a score, I was curious to see what might happen if I took tempo as a starting point, or even more so as a focal point. Accordingly, I spent all of last week composing against a metronome beat, whether thinking, playing, or entering music.
After several days of such business I’m able to comment on this curious practice. First of all, it goes without saying that composing with metronome immensely increases one’s awareness of tempo (and slight gradations of tempo in particular); and by forcing one to commit to tempi even while playing with the first few notes of a potential musical idea, the resulting generated material invariably tends to come off well at that tempo. Before undergoing this exercise, I was essentially unaware that I tend to compose in an imagined tempo range, a vague limbo that sometimes was too wide a range. There are plenty of ideas that work very well at 100 but not very well at all played at 108, for whatever reason. Once I recall imagining a passage for strings with ricochet bowing but didn’t commit to an exact tempo until having written most of it down. When I discovered that the “proper” tempo really ought to be on the slower end of my imagined tempo range, the ricochet technique no longer worked! I don’t enjoy those types of conundrums so there are all kinds of practical advantages to composing against a metronome as well.
I enjoy exercises of this nature immensely as otherwise my private work habits might very well go on unchecked for decades, whatever diversity of materials resulted from the effort. As composers, we are able to make all kinds of choices about our compositions, but our own choices are severely restricted by our habits, of which we have many. If you really want to change what you write, changing how you write might be one of the surest ways forward.