Mechanical metronome

A metronome is any device that produces regular, metrical ticks (beats, clicks) — settable in beats per minute. These ticks represent a fixed, regular aural pulse; some metronomes also include synchronized visual motion (e.g. pendulum-swing). The metronome dates from the early 19th century, where it was patented by Johann Maelzel in 1815 as a tool for musicians, under the title "Instrument/Machine for the Improvement of all Musical Performance, called Metronome".[1]

In the 20th century and especially today the metronome is generally positively regarded in Europe and Western culture. The metronome is used by some musicians for practice in maintaining a consistent tempo with steady regular beats and it can be used by composers, as an approximate way of specifying the tempo.[2]

Yet in stark contrasting with this postivistic view, research on the history of the metronome and its influence on performance practice, reveals criticisms of metronome use, and highlights differences of "performance practice" and cultural perception/values between the current modern European/Western society (which values the metronome), and the same society during previous times (beginning of the 19th century and earlier: classical/romantic/baroque eras etc.).[3][4]

Accordingly, some musicians consider the metronome to be a highly controversial tool in regard to music, with some rejecting the metronome altogether. Some composers considering metronome-tempo-marks to have only little value, or to hinder creative musical interpretation: Johannes Brahms said: "I am of the opinion that metronome marks go for nothing. As far as I know, all composers have, as I, retracted their metronome marks in later years."[5]



The word metronome first appeared in English c.1815 [6] and is Greek in origin:

metron = measure, nomos = regulating


A mechanical wind-up metronome in motion

Galileo Galilei first studied and discovered concepts involving the pendulum in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. In 1696, Etienne Loulié first successfully used an adjustable pendulum in the construction of the first mechanical metronome; however, his design did not produce any sound and did not include an escapement with which to keep the pendulum in motion.[7] In order to get the correct pulse with this kind of visual devices, one need to watch the precise moment where the pendulum is exactly vertical, as the left and right positions are constantly changing due to the decreasing amplitude.

The more familiar mechanical musical chronometer was invented by Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel in Amsterdam in 1814. Through questionable practice,[8] Johann Maelzel, incorporating Winkel's ideas added a scale and called it metronome, started manufacturing the metronome under his own name in 1816: "Maelzel's Metronome". The original text of Maelzel's patent in England (1815) can be downloaded.[1]

Ludwig van Beethoven was the first notable composer to indicate specific metronome markings in his music, in 1817.[7]


Metronomes may be used by musicians when practicing in order to maintain a constant tempo; by adjusting the metronome, facility can be achieved at varying tempi. Even in pieces that do not require a strictly constant tempo (such as in the case of rubato), a metronome "marking" is sometimes given by the composer to give an indication of the general tempo intended, found in the score at the beginning of a piece or movement thereof.

Tempo is almost always measured in beats per minute (BPM); metronomes can be set to variable tempi, usually ranging from 40 to 208 BPM; another marking denoting metronome tempi is M.M., or Mälzel's Metronome.

More specific uses are given below:

  • Learning consistency of tempo and rhythmic beats
  • Practicing technique (during drills: setting the metronome progressively to higher speeds; or during performance: exposing slow-downs due to technical difficulties)
  • Sheetmusic often has metronome-markings, that show the speed at which the work should be played
  • Click tracks: Musicians can separately play the different parts of a word, according to a synchronized click-track (using headphones); and audio-engineers then mix the tracks together, synchronizing the parts at the clicks.
  • Backing tracks are often created with electronic synthesisers and inherently adhere to strict beats

Types of metronomes

Mechanical metronomes

One common type of metronome is the mechanical metronome which uses an adjustable weight on the end of an inverted pendulum rod to control the tempo: The weight is slid up the pendulum rod to decrease tempo, or down to increase tempo. (The mechanism is also known as a double-weighted pendulum. There is a second, fixed weight on the other side of the pendulum pivot, hidden in the metronome case.) The pendulum swings back and forth in tempo, while a mechanism inside the metronome produce a clicking sound with each oscillation.

Electronic metronomes

Electronic metronome, Wittner model

Most modern metronomes are electronic and use a quartz crystal to maintain accuracy, comparable to those used in wristwatches. The simplest electronic metronomes have a dial or buttons to control the tempo; some also produce tuning notes, usually around the range of A440 (440 hertz). Sophisticated metronomes can produce two or more distinct sounds. Tones can differ in pitch, volume, and/or timbre to demarcate downbeats from other beats, as well as compound and complex time signatures. A popular quartz metronome manufacturer is Seiko.

Many electronic musical keyboards have built-in metronome functions.

Software metronomes

Metronomes now exist in software form, either as stand alone applications or often in music sequencing and audio multitrack software packages. In recording studio applications, such as film scoring, a software metronome is often used to generate a click track to synchronize musicians.

Metronome Tracks / Click Tracks

These days with the growing popularity of iPod and other portable mp3 players, musicians now have the option of using mp3 metronome click tracks instead of a regular metronome. Metronome tracks are a lot more flexible in that they can be made by the musician and can use different sounds and samples instead of just the regular metronome beep we have all become accustomed to. It also means musicians no longer have to carry an additional metronome along to lessons or practice sessions. There are a number of free open-source software programs musicians can use to create their own mp3 metronome tracks - Audacity is one example of such a program. [9][10]

Use of the metronome as an instrument

Perhaps the most famous, and most direct, use of the metronome as an instrument is György Ligeti's 1962 composition, Poème Symphonique for 100 metronomes.

The clicking sounds of mechanical metronomes have been sometimes used to provide a soft rhythm track without using any percussion. Paul McCartney did this twice:Once on "Blackbird" in 1968 & once in 1989 on "Distractions" (Flowers in the Dirt) , where McCartney, following the metronome's regular beat, performed the whole rhythm track by hitting various parts of his own body.[11] Also, in Ennio Morricone's theme "Farewell to Cheyenne" (featured on Once Upon a Time in the West), the steady clip-clop beat is provided by the deliberately distorted and slowed-down sound of a mechanical metronome.[12]

Views on the metronome

Positive view of the metronome

In the 20th century the metronome is usually positively viewed by performers, musicologists (who spend considerable time analyzing metronome markings), teachers and conservatories. The common view is reflected in the following quote:

Because its beat is perfectly steady, the metronome is an excellent practice tool for musicians. Practicing with a metronome is extremely useful for developing and maintaining rhythmic precision, for learning to keep consistent tempos, for countering tendencies to slow down or speed up in specific passages, and for developing evenness and accuracy in rapid passages. Most music teachers consider the metronome indispensable, and most professional musicians, in fact, continue to practice with a metronome throughout their careers.
—The NPR Classical Music Companion (2005) [13]
Often, the metronome by itself may not be enough to learn complex rhythms. However, its importance for all types of practicing and all genres cannot be understated. The infallibility of the machine is a blessing since it removes guesswork; thus, the player can use the metronome to learn to play evenly and to resist the temptation to take extra time when playing a difficult passage. The player must begin with the premise that the metronome is mathematically perfect and categorically correct. From there, s/he must make a personal commitment to play exactly together with this perfect "chamber music partner."[14]
—A Practical Guide To Twentieth-Century Violin Etudes With Performance And Theoretical Analysis. Doctoral thesis (2004) by Aaron M. Farrell

Metronomes are often recommended to students without reservation:

Before a student can be persuaded to use a metronome, he or she has to know why it is important. The most obvious answer is to help keep rhythms even and clean. Another reason is to keep the meter consistent, placing beats in their proper positions in the music. Metronomes can also help a student to find and fix problems. [...] The metronome quickly alerts the player to these problems by suddenly not clicking in time with the player’s beats.[15]
—"Make the Metronome Your Friend" by Professor Dr. Steven Mauk
The objection, sometimes heard, that using a metronome tends to make a player mechanical, is not founded on facts. Indeed, the students who play the most artistically are those who have been the most faithful in the use of their metronome when learning their pieces.[16]
—Josephine Menuez, Etude, April, 1932

Numerous other quotations in favour of the metronome, can be found in the book Metronome Techniques: Potpourri of quotations.

Metronome, strict rhythm: modern performance practice

The quotations above show the importance of the metronome in the 20th century ("Most music teachers consider the metronome indispensable, and most professional musicians, in fact, continue to practice with a metronome throughout their careers"[13]).

A strict rhythmic performance can be seen as a of Modern performance practice, which - though highly prevalent today - stands in stark contrast, with earlier performance practices.

The traits that distinguish Modern style [...]: unyielding tempo, literal reading of dotting and other rhythmic details, and dissonances left unstressed. [...]
Modern style [...]: light, impersonal, mechanical, literal, correct, deliberate, consistent,
metronomic, and regular. Modernists look for discipline and line, while they disparge Romantic performance for its excessive rubato, its bluster, its self-indulgent posturing, and its sentimentality. Richard Taruskin calls Modernism "refuge in order and precision, hostility to subjectivity, to the vagaries of personality." It is characterized by formal clarity, emotional detachment, order, and precision.[17]
—Bruce Haynes, The end of early music (Oxford University Press)
Modern style [...] It does not usually inflect or shape notes, [...] use agogic accent of placement, add gracing at all generously, or use rubato (tempos are metronomic and unyielding).
Sol Babitz described it as "sewing machine" style, thinking of the rigidly mechanical rhythmic approach, the four equally stressed 16ths, and the limited flexibility in tempo that often characterizes performances of historical repertoire heard in Modern style.
—Bruce Haynes, The end of early music (Oxford University Press)
Modern style is the principal performing protocol presently taught in conservatories all over the world.[17]
—Bruce Haynes, The end of early music (Oxford University Press)
Musicians of a hundred years ago, hearing a cross-section of present-day classical performances, would likely be struck by this primary difference between their performance practice and ours: [...] Our performance practice [...] assumes that a predictably regular beat is conscientiously maintained throughout a movement. [...] We compensate our lack of timing flexibility by a very highly developed sense of tone-color and dynamic which, however refined and polished it may be, tends to abstract and de-personalize the music-making, underscoring its "absoluteness".
The principle of strict unity of beat within a movement has been part of our understanding and experience of classical music for so many decades now, that today's musicians and listeners can hardly imagine that less than a century ago the "standard" classical repertoire was performed under significantly different assumptions.
—Robert Hill, Music and Performance During the Weimar Republic - Chapter 3: "Overcoming Romanticism": On the modernization of twentieth century performance practice

In the early 19th century the metronome was not used for ticking all through a piece, but only to check the tempo and then set it aside. This is in great contrast with many musicians today:

[...] early nineteenth century [...]. There was little interest in using the metronome to tick all the way through a piece of music. But this is how the device is used by conservatory students today.
—Reflections on American music: the twentieth century and the new millennium : a collection of essays presented in honor of the College Music Society by James R. Heintze (Pendragon Press, 2000)

There are writers who draw parallels between today's modern society which is "ordered by the clock" and the metronomic performance practice of today's musicians.[3][19]

While this section highlights the modern trends of strict mechanical performance as something widespread in the 20th century and beyond; it is interesting to observe that as early as 1860, there were people who firmly advocated this type of "modern" performance practice:

Correct time is considered indispensable; then why not use the Metronome. Hummel has recommended it in the strongest terms. My regard for it is such, that for twenty-five years or more I never taught a pupil without it. [...] The beginner must only use the mechanical touch, for at least a couple of years. The music chosen for lessons and studies must be free from features, which require or admit expression. No crescendo, diminuendo, accelerando, ritardando, irregular accentuation, ff. pp. sfz. is admissible.[20]
—Franz Petersilea (ca. 1860)

While some welcomed the metronome in the 19th century,[21][22] there were also critical voices, as is shown in the next section.

Criticism of metronome use

A metronome only provides a fixed, rigid, relentless pulse; therefore any metronome markings on sheet music cannot accurately communicate the pulse, swing, or groove of music: The pulse is often not regular;[23] e.g. in accelerando, rallentando; or in musical expression as in phrasing (rubato, etc.).

Some argue that a metronomic performance stands in conflict with an expressive culturally-aware performance of music, so that a metronome is in this respect a very limited tool. Even such highly rhythmical musical forms as Samba, if performed in correct cultural style, cannot be captured with the beats of a metronome.[24][25]

A style of performance that is unfailingly regular rhythmically may be criticized as being "metronomic."

Many notable composers, including Felix Mendelssohn, Richard Wagner, Giuseppe Verdi and Johannes Brahms, have criticised the use of the metronome.[26]


... this series of even, perfectly quantized, 16th notes, is no more evocative of samba, than a metronome would be. In fact, this representation neglects what makes up the samba essence in the first place — the swing![24]
Understanding the Samba Groove by Pedro Batista
The metronome has no real musical value. I repeat, the metronome has no value whatsoever as an aid to any action or performance that is musical in intention. [...] refer by analogy to the sister art of drawing. Graphic artists understand well enough the essential and generic difference that exists between mechanically-aided drawing on the one hand and freehand on the other. Similarly, musicians ought to distinguish between (1) the sort of timing that results from dull, slavish obedience to the ticking of a soulless machine, and (2) that noble swing and perfect control of pulsation which comes into our playing after years of practice in treating and training the sense of time as a free, creative human faculty.[27]
The Amateur String Quartet by James Brown III
[...] using the metronome as a constant guide to ramp up the speed or to keep the rhythm. This is one of the worst abuses of the metronome. [...] If over used, it can lead to loss of your internal rhythm, loss of musicality, and bio-physical difficulties from over-exposure to rigid repetition[28]
Fundamentals of Piano Practice by Chuan C. Chang
A good performance is so full of these minute retardations and accelerations that hardly two measures will occupy exactly the same time. It is notorious that to play with the metronome is to play mechanically - the reason being, of course, that we are then playing by the measure, or rather by the beat, instead of by the phrase. A keen musical instinct revolts at playing even a single measure with the metronome: mathematical exactitude gives us a dead body in place of the living musical organism with its ebb and flow of rhythmical energy. It may therefore be suggested, in conclusion, that the use of the metronome, even to determine the average rate of speed, is dangerous.[29]
What is musical rhythm? Perhaps it is the difference between a performance that is stiff and metronomic in its strict adherence to the beat, and a performance that flows with elasticity and flexibility that emanates from the music itself. A rhythmically musical performance seems to take its cues from stylistic considerations, tempo, phrasing, and harmonic structure, as well as form. Sometimes we may not be exactly sure what makes a piece sound rhythmically musical, but we know it when we hear it.
It should not surprise us that some children do not know instinctively how to play musically. Many youngsters are surrounded by popular music that is rigid and inflexible in its rhythm, characterized by a relentless beat that is often synthesized or computerized. Even some CDs and MIDI disks especially designed for use with piano teaching materials can encourage students to be overly metronomic in their playing. In general, our students may not be familiar with the idea of subtle nuances of tempo, and may need help understanding this.
—Jennifer Merry

Numerous other quotations critical of the metronome can be found at Wikiquote: Metronome.

See also


  1. ^ a b Maelzel's patent of the Metronome The Repertory of patent inventions: and other discoveries and improvements in arts, manufactures, and agriculture ... published by T. and G. Underwood, 1818 (alternative)
  2. ^ Yet many consider a metronome as an overly restrictive, unsuitable, and often-misinterpreted way of specifying tempo, since it cannot account for accellerando, rallendando, rubato, rhythmic alteration, spontaneous creative choices in rhythmic nuance etc. Ultimately the timing-details of an expressive performance cannot be notated with metronome markings. See also: Criticism of metronome use
  3. ^ a b The Metronomic Performance Practice: A History of Rhythm, Metronomes, and the Mechanization of Musicality; PhD Thesis by Alexander Bonus (May, 2010)
  4. ^ a b "Overcoming Romanticism": On the modernization of twentieth century performance practice by Robert Hill (Chapter 3 contribution to Music and Performance During the Weimar Republic; Cambridge University Press; November 2005)
  5. ^ Essentials of Music, READ BOOKS, 2008; ISBN 1443773697
  6. ^ "Oxford English Dictionary online". Retrieved 2009-01-16. 
  7. ^ a b "A Brief History of the Metronome". Franz Manufacturing Company, Inc.. Retrieved 2010-04-02. 
  8. ^ The Metronome; The Harmonicon, Volume 8, 1830
  9. ^
  10. ^
  11. ^ Flowers in the Dirt 1993 Reissue CD booklet; credited as "Metronome and body percussion".
  12. ^ 1995 Remastered and Expanded Edition CD booklet liner notes.
  13. ^ a b Hoffman, Miles (1997). The NPR Classical Music Companion: Terms and Concepts from A to Z. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 
  14. ^ A Practical Guide To Twentieth-Century Violin Etudes With Performance And Theoretical Analysis; by Aaron M. Farrell
  15. ^ Make the Metronome Your Friend by Professor Dr. Steven Mauk (ref)
  16. ^ Metronome Techniques
  17. ^ a b The end of early music: a period performer's history of music for the twenty-first century; page 49; (Oxford University Press) by Bruce Haynes
  18. ^ The end of early music: a period performer's history of music for the twenty-first century; page 57; (Oxford University Press) by Bruce Haynes
  19. ^ Metronomic society: Natural rhythms and human timetables (1988) by Michael Young - see also review incl. image by Ingram Pinn
  20. ^ Franz Petersilea "On rudimental instruction on the piano"; translated from Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Vol. 50, No. 3, 11, 16 by G. A. Schmitt
  21. ^ New monthly magazine, Volume 66 (1842)
  22. ^ A musical biography: or, Sketches of the lives and writings of eminent musical characters (1825)
  23. ^ Justin London. "Pulse." In Grove Music Online. Oxford Music Online, (accessed July 28, 2008)
  24. ^ a b Understanding the Samba Groove by Pedro Batista (original, alt.1, alt.2)
  25. ^ Analyzing the earliest (pre-1930) samba recordings (e.g. Pelo Telefone from 1917), reveals strong differences with many of todays "samba" performances, many of which have a very different - sterile, modernist, metronomic ("corrupted") rhythm.
  26. ^ "Thoughts on Tempi". Essays on the Origins of Western Music. David Whitwell.  Quotes from Beethoven, Berlioz, and Liszt are referenced here.
  27. ^ The Amateur String Quartet by James Brown III; The Musical Times, Vol. 68, No. 1014 (Aug. 1, 1927)
  28. ^ Fundamentals of Piano Practice - Page 20 (pdf-page 22)
  29. ^ Source from The Tyranny of the Bar-Line by Daniel Gregory Mason; The New music review and church music review, vol 9 (American Guild of Organists); 1909
  30. ^ How do you teach the difference between counting rhythm and musical rhythm?

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • métronome — [ metrɔnɔm ] n. m. • 1815; de métro et nome ♦ Petit instrument à pendule, de forme pyramidale, servant à marquer la mesure pour l exécution d un morceau de musique. Le tic tac du métronome. Mme de Cambremer « battant la mesure avec sa tête… …   Encyclopédie Universelle

  • Metronome — Métronome Photo montrant un métronome électronique simple et un métronome mécanique à ressort. Un métronome est un instrument donnant un signal audible ou visuel permettant d indiquer un tempo, vitesse à laquelle doit être jouée une musique. Il… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • Metronome — (engl. für Metronom) bezeichnet Folgendes: Metronome (Band), ein japanisches Nintendocore Projekt Metronome Records, ein schwedisches Musiklabel, Metronome (New York), eine Installation am Union Square in New York City Metronome (Zeitschrift),… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Metronome — Met ro*nome, n. [Gr. ? measure + ? distribute, assign: cf. F. m[ e]tronome, It. metronomo.] An instrument consisting of a short pendulum with a sliding weight. It is set in motion by clockwork, and serves to measure time in music. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • metronome — (n.) mechanical musical time keeper, 1815, coined in English from comb. form of Gk. metron measure (see METER (Cf. meter) (n.2)) + nomos regulating, verbal adjective of nemein to regulate (see NUMISMATICS (Cf. numismatics)). The device invented… …   Etymology dictionary

  • metronome — ► NOUN ▪ a musicians device that marks time at a selected rate by giving a regular tick. DERIVATIVES metronomic adjective. ORIGIN from Greek metron measure + nomos law …   English terms dictionary

  • metronome — [me′trə nōm΄] n. [< METRO 1 + Gr nomos, law: see NOMY] 1. a clockwork device with an inverted pendulum that beats time at a rate determined by the position of a sliding weight on the pendulum: it is used esp. to help a person maintain regular… …   English World dictionary

  • Métronome — Photo montrant un métronome électronique simple et un métronome mécanique à ressort. Un métronome est un instrument donnant un signal audible ou visuel permettant d indiquer un tempo, vitesse à laquelle doit être jouée une musique. Il est surtout …   Wikipédia en Français

  • metronome — metronomic /me treuh nom ik/, metronomical, adj. metronomically, adv. /me treuh nohm /, n. a mechanical or electrical instrument that makes repeated clicking sounds at an adjustable pace, used for marking rhythm, esp. in practicing music. [1810… …   Universalium

  • métronome — (mé tro no m ) s. m. Petite machine à pendule dont on se sert pour régler la mesure d un morceau de musique. Il y a des métronomes à sonnerie. Les mouvements de ce morceau sont marqués au métronome. ÉTYMOLOGIE    Termes grecs signifiant mesure et …   Dictionnaire de la Langue Française d'Émile Littré