Creative Timing Practice

Lockdown Sucks, But Your Rhythm Doesn't Have To....

We're all missing things in lockdown/isolation, but not being able to play music with your friends, bandmates and teachers is going to leave a rhythm shaped hole in your musical development. Lag times over Skype aren’t quite going to cut it either, which is where your trusty metronome comes in.

How to use your metronome creatively. 

A metronome is just a tool like a hammer or a walking stick - it’s up to you what you do with it. There are plenty of fancy metronomes and metronome apps, and while spending more money might get you some interesting features, you can’t buy good rhythm - only practise can do that!

Every exercise in this post can be achieved with any metronome, including google’s free metronome tool

Let’s get started!

Beginner Mode - Backbeat

Feeling the backbeat is one of the best things you can do for your rhythm. The backbeat can be found on beats 2 and 4 (of 4/4 timing). If you listen to funk, RnB, bluegrass, hip-hop or jazz you’ve definitely heard the backbeat before. 

Set your metronome to 120Bpm and try singing along to the first line of Twinkle below, clapping only on beats 2 and 4 (marked with an X).


Example 1: Twinkle Twinkle


     Now here’s where the metronome game comes in. Set your metronome to 60Bpm. Now you have to imagine the metronome is only clicking on the backbeat. It’s up to you to place beat 1 and 3 between the clicks.

    Example 2: Grandma's Spatula


      You’ll know when it’s working, because playing in the groove feels good! The great thing about this exercise is that you are no longer being bossed around by your metronome. Instead you work together with your metronome to get deeper into the groove.

      Now try playing some music you’ve been working on with your teacher (that is in 4/4 timing) with the metronome clicking the back-beat. Don't forget to put the metronome on half the speed that your sheet music says, because it’s only giving you half as many clicks.

      Medium Mode: Part 1 - The ‘Universal’ Rhythm.

      The universal rhythm is everywhere! If you’ve listened to Irish, Balkan, Indian, Jazz, Latin, Rock, Funk, Rap or just about anything else you’ll have heard it. It’s almost impossible to escape, especially in pop music. Justin Beiber’s “Sorry”, Coldplay’s “Clocks and Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You” all use the universal rhythm to great effect. 

      Set your metronome to 80. Just like in the beginner exercise, your metronome is playing the backbeat (beats 2 and 4). It’s up to you to find beat 1 and 3 between the clicks and you’re going to play/clap the universal rhythm.

      Example 3: Universal Rhythm W/Backbeat

      Medium Mode: Part 2

      Now set your metronome to 40. You are still going to play/clap at the same speed but now your metronome is only going to tell you where beat 4 is. This one is a lot harder because your metronome is only giving you half the information, you have to be in charge of the other 3 beats.

      When you get comfortable with this new beat, try adding the universal rhythm. 

      TIP: Beat 4 will always line up with the last clap in the bar.

      Example 4: Universal Rhythm, Beat 4

      This is tough stuff. It might take you a long time to master it. But once you do, you can move onto some more syncopated music. Try clapping or playing the rhythm to “Uptown Funk” or “Seven Nation Army” against your metronome like so:


      Example 5: Seven Nation Army

      Example 6: Uptown Funk

      You can use your metronome in this way with almost anything! Try it against your Suzuki violin exercises, your guitar warm ups or the scales you play on your trumpet, clarinet or flute. If you think practising scales is boring, then you’re not being creative with your metronome!

      Hard Mode: Part 1

      If you’ve been playing for a long time you’ve probably used exercises like these before. If you really want something to challenge you, let your metronome tell you only where beat 4+ is.

      Example 7: Beat 4+

      Hard Mode: Part 2

      This great exercise comes from electric bass legend Victor Wooten. Set your metronome to 40. Now count to 5 between each click. Once you feel comfortable with this, count at the same speed, but only to 4. When you get it in time the click will sound on beat 1 in bar 1, beat 2 in bar 2 and so on. Listen to my recording of the fiddle tune Whiskey Before Breakfast below.

      Example 8: Whiskey Before Breakfast

      Now try playing something you are very comfortable with that mainly consists of crotchets or quavers. Your metronome is giving you so little information now that your internal rhythm really has to step up if you’re going to stay in that groove. 

      But when you do get it it feels so good!


      1. As always, record yourself when you think you’ve got it and listen back. You might find you weren’t quite as deep in the groove as you thought you were…
      2. Have you got a crowded house? Maybe you’ve noticed your family is a little more stressed than normal these days, so if you don’t want to add to that by clapping near them all day, use headphones. You don’t need to clap loudly, just in time. 
      3. These exercises are really difficult, especially if you’ve never done them before. Please don’t think you need to do all of them everyday. I personally find 20 minutes of rhythm practise puts me in such a good mood before I start practising my scales and arpeggios. But be careful, because they are addictive! You might find yourself drumming in all your spare time.
      4. Do you need more rhythm? Reach out to a drummer/percussionist online. Ask them about their favourite grooves.
      5. Finally, the point of these exercises is not to become a human metronome. They are to help you become intimate with the spaces in between the beats. Speeding up and slowing down is still a really important part of music, just like how classical violin soloists sometimes play sharp or flat so they stand out from the rest of the orchestra. In the same way, you can still play ahead or behind the beat, you’ll just be more in control of it when you do!

      By now, you might have realised that you’re going to need the isolation period to be longer before you master these exercises. 

      Good luck.

      Michael O'Donnell



      Michael O’Donnell is a violin player and multi-instrumentalist who has played professionally for hip-hop groups, country bands, jazz trios and classical orchestras and even puppet shows. Michael has over a decade of experience teaching and running workshops for players of all ages, styles and skill levels.

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