What Is a Metronome? Here’s What You Should Know.

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If you’re unfamiliar with metronomes, it doesn’t mean you’re totally offbeat. This device is largely used in the music world, so it makes sense that some people might not know what it is right off the bat. In short, metronomes are almost as old as modern music itself, making them an integral part in making music for hundreds of years. Whether you make music yourself or just listen to it, chances are you’ve encountered a metronome or have at least benefited from the use of one in your life. So, what is a metronome, then? In this article, we’ll run through everything you should know about these fascinating devices.

What Is a Metronome?

A metronome is a tool that helps keep time when one is practicing music, usually indicated by beats per minute (BPM). For some musicians, a metronome is a God-send that helps them create, practice, and produce perfect compositions every time. For others, it can be a total nightmare and something they strain against as they hone their skills. For all musicians – whether professionals, students, or laypersons – metronomes are an essential tool for music-making.

Every song has a beat and speed. Without these, songs can sound rushed, chaotic, or even too slow. When a steady tempo is present in a song, the music flows better and therefore sounds better. A metronome ticks, beeps or clicks to provide a steady beat that one can play along with.

Today, you can find a metronome online, at your local music store, or as an app on your phone or laptop. Traditionally, though, metronomes are architectural (or pyramid-shaped) items that come in different sizes and help to keep time and speed in music.

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When Was the Metronome Invented and Why?

Now that we know what a metronome is, what about its origins? When did metronomes come to be? Why did people start using them? As mentioned, metronomes are considerably old tools, first used hundreds of years ago as far as most historians know. Of course, plenty of things can be used to perform the functions of a metronome (drums, tapping your foot, clapping, snapping your fingers, even vocalization), meaning that the idea of timekeeping in music has always been around. Despite the various ways of creating and sticking to a beat already available, the emergence of the metronome was certainly a game-changer.

When

In 1581, inventor, astronomer, and researcher Galileo Galilei discovered the isochronism of pendulums. In other words, he discovered that pendulums of all kinds and of any length vibrated at the same time. Whether the amplitude of the pendulum was large or small, each one consistently vibrated in sync.

Though this discovery took place in the 1500s, it wasn’t until over a century later that pendulums were (successfully) applied to clocks, first by Christian Huygens in 1659 and then by George Graham in 1715. Huygens and Graham helped to develop escapement, a mechanism that brought impulses to the pendulum to keep it in motion without interfering with its natural motion.

In 1696, Etienne Loulie made the first documented attempt to apply the pendulum to a metronome. Unfortunately, his machine was lacking an escapement to help keep it in motion, making it simply an adjustable pendulum with calibrations. Following his attempt, a series of inventors tried their own hands at the task, but each was unsuccessful.

It wasn’t until 1812 that Dietrik Nikolaus Winkel discovered that a double-weighted pendulum would beat low temples, even if made of short length. From here, Johann Nepenuk Maelzel copied (and somewhat improved) much of Winkel’s idea. In 1815 he patented the metronome as a timekeeping instrument and, in 1816, created and began selling “Maelzel’s” Metronome. The 1812/1816 model was typically made from wood and sported a pyramid-like shape with the swinging-pendulum ticker on the front. It is still highly successful and widely used today, made by Swiss, French, German, and American manufacturers.

Why

“What is a metronome” is a good question, but the “why” of a metronome is worth asking as well. In addition to keeping time and playing beats, metronomes do something that people and other objects cannot do. While you can tap your foot or snap your fingers, you cannot adjust your speed very easily. There are limitations to the beats you can keep, which is why metronomes are so valuable. Most metronomes are able to play beats from 35 to 250 BPM, allowing musicians to work on a wide range of song tempos.

What’s more, Maezel’s metronome was small and portable, making it possible for musicians to keep time effortlessly wherever they went. Composers, too, were now able to show performers what they wanted insofar as speed and pacing in music. The creation of the metronome, then, came about to help musicians, composers, and other musically inclined individuals to keep a steady beat and proper time in their music.

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How Does It Work?

A great way to think about a metronome is like a piece of graph paper that measures noise. By including a tempo grid over music, students and musicians are able to break down complex sections into ones that are easier to understand. They can then practice these simplified sections at slower tempos to start, gradually increasing the beat as they improve – all thanks to their metronome.

Of course, there’s more to the mechanics of the metronome. The earliest metronomes were actually spring-wound like early watches. Unfortunately, as the spring began to wear out, the metronome was no longer able to keep time accurately. Today, metronomes are much more reliable due to their different makes. The most common metronome types are mechanical, quartz, digital, and software.

Types of Metronomes

Mechanical

Mechanical metronomes look most like Maezel’s “original” metronome. Though they are not made with wood, they do have the same pyramid shape with the swinging pendulum ticker on the front. This metronome type is powered by an internal mechanical dial.

Quartz

The Quartz metronome costs less than the mechanical model and is made of plastic. This metronome type has an adjustable BPM dial and may come with lights that accompany the beat, providing users with both a visual and auditory tempo.

Digital

Digital metronomes come with a variety of time signatures and the option to hear a tone on the eighth and sixteenth notes and/or the quarter note. They also allow you to tap tempo and come with a range of tempo sounds, such as beeps, natural drums, or dings.

Software

Software metronomes are also known as virtual metronomes. They can be accessed online via download to your computer or phone and come with cool features.

5 Ways a Metronome Can Be Used

So, now that you know the what, when and why of metronomes, what about the how? Below, we’ve compiled the 5 most common ways you can use a metronome.

1. With Your Guitar

When playing the guitar, your metronome can be a huge help with timing and playing speed. It can help you keep track of chord transitioning, overall speed when playing, and beat when learning new songs.

2. With Your Piano

When used with a piano, your metronome can help you find your time signature, set your tempo, and focus on your rhythm. Like the guitar, using a metronome with a piano is important for playing speed, keeping up with beats, and falling in line with the time signature of the piece you’re playing.

3. When Singing

Though most useful when paired with an instrument, you can also pair a metronome with your voice. You may find you are singing too quickly or slowly, missing the beat on songs you’re creating yourself or singing covers of. Figuring the time signature of songs as well as the beats and rhythm can help you sing them properly even without instrumental music.

4. As a Teaching Tool for Beats, Bars, and Rhythm

Whether you’re a beginner or just in need of a refresher, metronomes can be excellent teaching tools. If you need to remind yourself about basic beat concepts, a metronome is a great place to start because you can create each beat you need and break it down. Learn more here.

5. As a Way to Understand Time Signatures

Time signatures usually look like fractions and can be found on most pieces of music. In short, the top number of a time signature indicates the beats in the measure while the bottom number indicates the note value. Metronomes allow musicians and students to decipher how to execute time signatures by keeping proper time and beat so that the music flows the way it was meant to.

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Conclusion

Metronomes are fascinating devices with a rich history. Whether you’re a musician, a student, or someone who just finds different inventions interesting to learn about, we hope this article was informative! Now that you know everything you should about a metronome, maybe it’s time to check one out for yourself. You can purchase one at your local music store or online, or play with one online here.

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