A metronome is a device that generates an audible click or another sound at a predetermined interval. Often they use beats per minute (BPM) as a measure. Musicians use the device to practice playing to a steady beat.

Its form and application to musical life took hundreds of years to develop. It began with Galileo’s discovery of the pendulum’s isochronism. The pendulum will take about the same amount of time to complete one period, or back-and-forth swing, regardless of amplitude. He recognized that this finding might prove useful for timekeeping. Thus, he foreshadowed the development of the pendulum-powered clock by Christiaan Huyghens in the 17th century and George Graham in the 18th century.

Historical facts

Étienne Louilié, a French musician and pedagogue, appears as the first to create a metronome with an adjustable pendulum in 1696. However, his device was silent and required the user to keep it in sight. The issue of developing a metronome that would beat slowly enough to maintain the pace of many classical compositions, which were frequently just 40 to 60 beats per minute, troubled Louilié and his colleagues. Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel developed the more well-known mechanical musical chronometer in Amsterdam in 1814. Johann Maelzel, integrating Winkel’s ideas, added a scale, called it a metronome and began producing it under his own name in 1816. He called it the “Maelzel’s Metronome.”

Ludwig van Beethoven owns the credit as the first major composer to use metronome markings in his compositions. In 1815, Beethoven’s first metronome mark was added to the corrected copy of the Cantata op. 112 score.

Later on, mechanical instruments like the metronome received more general acceptance. Even more, they proved essential as judges of “normal,” efficient musical conduct throughout the twentieth century. Modernist composers of the twentieth century, such as Stravinsky and Bartók, created music that demanded precise rhythmic accuracy. Conductors complied, laying the groundwork for a pro-metronome attitude between performers and educators.

Tempo marking

A tempo marking is a term that conveys a narrow range of acceptable tempos and associated characters. For example, the word “Vivace” may refer to a tempo ranging from 156 to 176 BPM. Additionally, it implies that the music should be performed in a lively manner. BPM and tempo indications often appear on metronomes. A metronome’s tempo typically allows an adjustable range from 40 to 208 BPM. The most common arrangement of tempos on a Maezel metronome begins with 40 BPM.

The mechanical and electromechanical metronome

Today, we have various types of metronomes at our disposal. A mechanical metronome uses an adjustable weight on the end of an inverted pendulum rod to control the tempo. The weight slides the pendulum rod up to decrease tempo, or down to increase it. While the pendulum swings back and forth in tempo, a mechanism inside it produces a clicking sound with each oscillation. Mechanical metronomes do not need a battery but run from a spring-wound clockwork escapement.

Franz Frederick invented electromechanical metronomes.  Instead of using a clockwork or a quartz crystal, an electric motor is used to generate power for the mechanism. Most use a mechanical variable-speed drive combined with a momentary switch and a cam wheel to time the beats.

Contemporary metronomes are electronic and utilize a quartz crystal similar to those used in wristwatches to ensure precision. The most basic electronic metronomes include a dial or buttons for controlling the tempo. Additionally, some generate tuning notes in the A440 range (440 hertz).

Software metronomes may be used as stand-alone apps on computers and smartphones, or as part of music sequencing and multitrack audio software packages. A software metronome may offer a click track to synchronize musicians in recording studio applications such as film scoring.