The Metronome In Your Head

By Jim D’Ville

In the Fall 2019 issue of Ukulele, Grammy award-winning musician Cathy Fink presents a wonderful lesson extolling the virtues of incorporating a metronome into one’s daily practice regimen. She’s right! The metronome is the one true musical friend that will never lie to you about whether or not you are playing in time. But amazingly we all have a built-in metronome in our head. Here’s how I learned to use mine.

I had purchased a Homespun Music Instruction video lesson on metronome use. Paul Mehling, the founder of the Hot Club of San Francisco, a gypsy jazz outfit, taught the lesson. I was immediately intrigued by how Paul introduced the metronome as an organic entity and not some mechanical rhythm robot. He began the lesson by mentioning how the average human heartbeat comes in at about 72 beats per minute (bpm). He said we could bond with the metronome by using it to gauge our personal walking tempo. The first exercise was to internalize the beats per minute of one’s natural walking speed. 


Fortunately, I was spending the summer right across US 101 and miles of isolated beach on the central Oregon coast—a perfect training ground for my metronome walking experiment. Most every day I would make the three miles walk along the flat beach into the village of Yachats. So one day, I duct-taped an electronic metronome on the shoulder strap of my backpack, near my left ear. The click on my metronome was quite loud, so I was able to hear it over the crashing Pacific surf. As I began my walk into town that first day of the experiment, I continued to adjust the tempo of my metronome until I found my comfortable and natural gait. It was 108 bpm or in the language of tempo markings, moderato. It is not a strolling tempo. I knew that I had always been a fast walker, and the metronome had now confirmed it.

My walks to town and back became much more focused with my metronome happily clicking away each step— left, right, left, right. For fun, I might switch to waltz time (3/4) or slip into a jig (6/8). If I wanted to get to town faster, I cranked the metronome up to 120 bpm. One day, towards the end of the summer, I was finishing my 108 bpm walk. A man passed me on the short trail that leads from the beach and into town. As he passed, he quickly turned and cried out “120!” I stopped, turned back to him, and barked over the clicking of my metronome, “No, 108!” These type of situations pique my curiosity. I had to know why he had guessed what my beats-per-minute were. So, I asked.

It turns out he is a high school music teacher vacationing on the Oregon coast. “Do you want to know how to put 120 in your head?” he asked. “Of course, I do!” I couldn’t help but be thrilled with the beauty of life and what was happening at that particular moment. Here I was, out for my walk on an ordinary day on an isolated Oregon beach and out of nowhere, a man shows up and offers me a way to turn my mind into a metronome! “Think The Stars & Stripes Forever,” he said. I did, and immediately I was marching into town with John Philip Sousa playing in my mind at 120 bpm with my electronic metronome turned off.