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Mechanical metronome

A metronome is any device that produces regular ticks (beats). More precisely it produces a regulated aural, visual or tactile pulse. It dates back to the early 19th century. A metronome is used by some performing musicians for practice in maintaining a consistent tempo; it gives composers an approximate way of specifying the tempo. From its inception, however, the metronome has been a highly controversial tool (see Criticism of metronome use), and there are musicians who reject its use altogether.


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

metron = measure, nomos = regulating


A mechanical wind-up metronome in motion

The mechanical metronome was invented by Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel in Amsterdammarker in 1812. Johann Mälzel copied several of Winkel's construction ideas and received the patent for the portable metronome in 1816. Ludwig van Beethoven was the first notable composer to indicate specific metronome markings in his music, in 1817.


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 always measured in beats per minute (BPM); metronomes can be set to variable tempi, usually ranging from 40 to 208 BPM.

Types of metronomes

The following samples are generated by a click track, but give a close approximation of the sound of a metronome.

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.

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.

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: in 1968 on "Blackbird", included on the famous "White Album" The Beatles, and 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. 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.

Criticism of metronome use

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

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.

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.


From a performance perspective:

On cultural aspects:


Further reading

  • Metronome Techniques, by Frederick Franz, New Haven, Connecticut, 1988

See also

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