Chances are you have heard of metronomes. Perhaps you have even used one. But where did they originate, how do they work, and what are they really used for?

Different Types of Metronomes

A mechanical metronome at work. Photo courtesy of Paco Vila on Flickr

There are a few different types of metronomes on the market today.

Mechanical Metronomes: These types of metronomes could very well be considered “classical” metronomes. They typically come in a pyramid shape and use an inverted pendulum to keep the beat.

Electronic, or Quartz, Metronomes: When electricity came onto the seen, more precise ways of measuring time came into being. Quartz metronomes use quartz crystal, much like a wristwatch does.

Digital Metronomes: Of course, whenever you have a electronic version of something, you have a digital version of something. A digital metronome is just a piece of software that will do the whole metronome thing for you. These do, however, frequently provide extra features, particularly for recording artists.

Metronomes: A Brief History

The concepts behind a metronome are very old. Older, in fact, then you might imagine. It all started out in the 1600 when Galileo observed that a pendulum always completes a full swing in the same amount of time no matter how large or how small the swing is. It makes sense, then, that pendulums are very good timekeepers. Since they always swing in the same amount of time, as long as you can keep it running, it will continue to swing at a constant speed. So, if you can create a rig to keep track of it, you got yourself an excellent timekeeper.

Now I am not here to discuss the mechanics of a pendulum clock, which is the most obvious use of this technology, I am here to discuss the metronome. Safe to say that using that same technology you could create a metronome that would swing back and forth at a constant rate, producing a ticking sound similar to that of a clock. All you have to do to change the duration of the swinging is shorten or lengthen the pendulum. This is accomplished by an adjustable weight that moves up and down the pendulum. Etienne Loulié was the first to demonstrate this in 1696, however it made no noise and did not contain an escapement to keep it constantly swinging.

In the 1816 century the first modern mechanical metronomes began to be manufactured. The patent was held by a man named Johann Maelzel, but many considered it truly invented by a man named Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel in 1814.

The Influences on Music

Up until the time of the metronome, music had no exact tempo markings. There was no way for the author to convey exactly how fast they wanted a piece to be played. They could use words like Adagio (slow) or Allegro (fast). But beyond there was no precision. Now composers could indicate exactly how fast or how slow the wished a piece to be played. Many liked this, and many did not. Beethoven was one of the first well known composers to use metronome markings in his music. Many other composers though, such as Johannes Brahms where not as fond of it. Brahms once said that:

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.”

Many musicians view the metronome as a hindrance to musical expression. If you don’t have an exact beat you have to keep, it allows you more freedom to do as  you choose in the music.

Uses

The most common use of a metronome is to figure out exactly the tempo that a piece should be performed out. Choirs, for example, which lack an percussion (except when singing with a orchestra), will tend to use a metronome in rehearsals. However it can also be used in all different types of music such as solo piano. Some rock drummers will even use digital metronomes to create a constant ticking that is fed into their monitor so they can stay exactly on beat.

All and all, the metronome has been a big addition to the music world in every way. Simple, yet highly effective.

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