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.

3 thoughts on “Composing with the Metronome

  1. jchang4

    I find that some contemporary composers think of tempo far too abstractly. As a performer, telling me that the quarter note equals so-and-so amount tells me very little. But something like “Allegro” tells me so much more, and I would argue is a far more accurate way of describing what you’re going for. Because tempo has to have a motivation. Why am I playing this fast? Am I happy? Am I ecstatic? Am I horribly depressed? Humanistic tempo indications are far more meaningful, and I think serve the music far better than any sterile number of beats per minute can. But if the music that you write is not meant to have an affect, if it’s just this abstract or machinistic gesture that only works at such-and-such number of beats per minute, then more power to you.

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  2. mclaren

    You mentioned that There are plenty of ideas that work very well at 100 but not very well at all played at 108, for whatever reason.

    No mystery about why. At moderate tempi the gestalt laws of perception apply: the law of Prenanz, the law of good continuation, and so on. This explains why we hear an ascending group of notes as a single line rather than as disconnected individual pitches. Since cognitive neuroscience has shown that mammalian pitch detection is hardwired into Brodmann’s Area 19, the well known “visual theater” of the brain, we would expect the gestalt laws of perception familiar from visual illusions to apply to music.

    The gestalt laws of perception also explain why total serialism sounds disjoint and incoherent: the contour of total serial melodies is typically so jagged that the human ear/brain system never has a chance to integrate the pitches into anything like a single perceptual line.

    As you slow down or speed up the tempo, however, the gestalt laws of perception lose their hold over what we hear. At rapid tempi the listener tends only to hear high and low notes, the inflexion points in the melodic curve, which leads to a psychoacoustic illusion of which many composers have taken advantage.

    At very slow tempi, the gestalt laws of perception largely disintegrate and we no longer hear a melodic line. Robert Ashley has written about this to describe what he calls “non-timeline music.” At extremely slow tempi the conventional sense of structure of Western music disappears entirely, replaced by much longer-term structures involving arcs of phrasing and overall shifts in tone-colour. Morton Feldman’s later music (like String Quartet No. 2) and pieces like Tom Johnson’s An Hour For Piano and Maria de Alvear’s En Amor Duro and LaMonte Young’s drone pieces like The Melodic Version of the Dream of the High-Tension Stepdown Transformer take advantage of this psychoacoustic property of the human ear/brain system.

    Playing with a regularly speeding up or slowing down metronome offers new frontiers for composers. Conlon Nancarrow explored counterpoint using simultaneous accelerating and decelerating melodic lines playing against one another, but much remains to be done here. Countless undiscovered island universes of 21st century music beckon now that tempo as a compositional tool has exploded conventional compositional techniques in a musical Big Bang.

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