Metronome speed settings
Metronome speeds are often given for pieces in tablature and regular music notation.
What do these speeds mean? Well, on a traditional wind-up metronome you will see a range of speeds up to 208 beats per minute (bpm). Just set your metronome to the speed given for the tablature and play along with the beat.
Here is a lick from The Arkansas Traveler, complete with metronome speed:
In this case the quarter-note (crotchet) speed is 120 beats per minute. There are two quarter-notes (crotchets) to the bar, as the lick is notated in 2/4 time. When you are playing the lick with your metronome set at 120 bpm there will therefore be two metronome beats/clicks per bar.
If you already play in a band you will know that the bass, which effectively acts as the band's metronome, usually plays two beats to the bar. If you practise at home with a metronome you are essentially listening for this timekeeping beat set by the bass.
A technical point
Confusion can arise because tablature/notation playback programs like MusEdit and TablEdit often use very high metronome settings, sometimes over 300 bpm. This is way off your metronome scale! Simply divide the figure by two to get the correct setting for your domestic metronome.
For example you might be told to play a fiddle tune at 240 beats per minute. Dividing this by two gives you a pretty standard figure of 120 bpm (allegro).
The reason for the inflated metronome speed entered in tab programs is that the program always measures the quarter-note (crotchet) speed. This is within the normal range found on a metronome if a fiddle tune, say, is notated in 2/4 time, as in the above example. However in practice tab writers usually find it more convenient to use 4/4 time. Here is the same lick from The Arkansas Traveler, played at the same speed, but notated in 4/4 time.
The quarter-note (crotchet) speed has now doubled to 240 bpm. This is because in 4/4 time there are four (not two) quarter-notes to the bar. However, you should still set your own metronome to 120 bpm, which is now the half-note (minim) beat (two half-notes to the bar).
If you are now totally confused, my sincere apologies! You may find it helpful to listen to the above examples in MusEdit playback. Click to download the 4/4 example of The Arkansas Traveler (bpm = 240 quarter notes per minute) and the 2/4 example (bpm = 120 quarter-notes per minute). They should sound exactly the same.
BTW, if you are unfamiliar with MusEdit playback, please see more details on my tablature page.
I nearly always write bluegrass tabs in 4/4 time, and give metronome speeds in half-note (minim) beats per minute. An exception is waltz notation, which uses 3 quarter-notes (crotchets) per bar; the metronome speed is given in quarter-note (crotchet) beats. For all my tabs the metronome setting means: "Set your metronome at this speed."
Calculating metronome speeds
If you are learning a piece of music from a recording it can help to know how fast it is being played on the record. You will need a digital stopwatch and a calculator to work out the speed accurately. Here's how.
Beats per minute = (B/T) x 60 where B = number of beats timed and T = time in seconds
In practice you will get figures like this:
Time for 32 beats = 14.23 seconds, therefore beats per minute = (32/14.23) x 60 = 134.92621. OK, lets call it 135 bpm!
To be super-accurate you can do a double check by timing the same section again and see how much variation you get. Don't forget that if you are timing, say, 32 beats you should start your watch on the beat of one and stop it on the beat of thirty-three (not thirty-two) to allow for the full time period for 32 beats.
You will find some variation in timing between different sections of a recording. This will usually amount to only a few beats per minute, though the greatest variation I have come across is in Flatt and Scruggs' Mercury recording of Salty Dog, with a range of 121 to 128 bpm. As I recall they seem to slow down a bit on the vocals, and Scruggs' banjo breaks bring it back up to speed.
I hope that this page has given you some understanding of the meaning of metronome speeds and how to calculate them. Now go to the speed and timing page for ideas on how to use the metronome when you practise.