Sunday, October 02, 2011

The great Jeff Berlin metronome controversy

This has been floating around for some time. His observations are mostly good, but I don't happen to agree with his conclusion. Watch the video, and I'll give a few thoughts about it:

His major points seem to be:

1. Learning new things is not and should not be done in time. 

Discarding the rhythmic element- as he is basically suggesting- is one way of learning new music. I don't believe it's the only way. I follow the jazz musician's view that rhythm is primary and the notes are secondary- "get the rhythm and the notes will follow" is the philosophy. I've developed some strategies for taking things not quite out of time which I'll be sharing soon. At any rate, in African-influenced musics (e.g. American music) the rhythm is the thing- lose that and you've lost the fundamental idea.

He seems to be arguing against the idea of learning new material with a metronome from the very beginning, which I certainly wouldn't recommend either. I'm sure there are some bad teachers who do that- in fact I kind of get the feeling this is just an infight with some adjunct faculty at MI (or with MI students' teachers back in Iowa).

2.  "Latin" and rock musicians "never" used metronomes.

This is such a sweeping generalization (he explicitly states that he's referring to the entire continent of South America and the Caribbean) that there is no need to refute it, is there? Metronomes have been around for some time- they're not high technology unheard of in the Afro-Latin world. Certainly the well-known musics of that sphere have metronomic, pulse-oriented time. This also leads one to wonder just what the difference is between playing with a metronome vs. just another musician who has better time than you. You're still following an external source.

It's also worth noting many rock musicians were not able to cut it on their own records, hence the extremely active careers of studio musicians like Hal Blaine, Gary Chester, Earl "the metronome" Palmer, and many more.

3.  Not all time is metronomic.

  Certainly classical musicians must have a very flexible concept of rhythm to play that music correctly and to follow a conductor- European music tends to follow more vocalistic rather than pulse-oriented time. Competent musical education addresses that.

4.  Good time comes from knowing music, from knowing parts.

That's the conclusion of his demonstrations with his camera operator. It's an important point, but I don't understand why it is supposed to exclude the metronome. One thing that he did demonstrate with the "Mission Impossible in 6" thing is that, contrary to what he implies, understanding rhythm does not start and end with knowing parts. 

5.  Accomplished musicians can use a metronome to "remind" them (in his example) not to rush.

He doesn't say what he believes is an acceptable level of accomplishment for metronome use- his examples are of a beginner learning a totally new piece of music- who he says should not use a metronome- and a world-class musician, for whom it's an acceptable tool. Where's the cutoff?

I really think this is a matter of sloppy communication and maybe a little sloppy thinking, combined with (I'm guessing) a combative personality. Berlin is a great electric bassist and a smart person, but a lot of smart, accomplished people have crackpot ideas. This is not even particularly crackpot; his premises are basically sound, he's just locked himself into a conclusion that I don't believe they support, and which happens to bother a lot of people. If you can ignore his more dogmatic assertions, what he says is worth thinking about.


Unknown said...


I think that your observations are right on. He has good ideas, but ends up reaching a really inflexible, dogmatic position. Sometimes things are not black and white, you nailed it. Why not just say, "in the following situations metronomes are not useful"?

Anonymous said...

What a topic! I agree with you guys and with Mr Berlin too. May be Berlin need more arguments, academical ones. But I agree. I knew a lot of musician who play with click and they can't play on time without the metronome. They can't. Metronome is only useful when it clicks on every measure (not on all the pulses). The real challenge is to feel the note/figure duration with out pushings from outside. You can do it with click only on one pulse. Of course, low tempos better. Regards and sorry for my english, I'm from far away.

Unknown said...

he's totally right.It's the same concept as making music to a grid in a DAW. It sucks the life and feel out of it. I have tried playing with a click track many times, and the result is more sterile. When I play without one, it gives a constantly changing impression to the subconscious, and keeps it interesting. Even speeding up and slowing down noticeably sounds better than constant tempo.

If you have multiple instruments who are locked in with each other, it does not make music any better to have a rigid tempo, in fact the contrary. It feels more tight when the tempo is fluctuating and everyone comes back to the downbeat.

The metronome is a product of OCD basically.