If you’ve ever played an instrument in a band or took lessons, you’ve most likely played with a metronome. Almost all professionals practice for hours at a time with a metronome, and rock stars and pop stars listen to them while they’re playing a live show.
So, what exactly is a metronome, and how can you use it to help you become a better musician? Well, first we have to understand a bit about tempo.
What is Tempo?
In music, tempo is essentially just the speed at which you play a song. We can have a song with a fast tempo, medium tempo, or a slow tempo.
This Chopin piano Etude Op. 10 No. 4 has a very fast tempo:
This Chopin piano piece, Waltz in A minor, is in a medium tempo:
And this Chopin piano Prelude Op. 28 No. 4 is in a slow tempo:
Tempo is almost always measured in Beats per Minute, or BPM for short.
BPM is just how many beats of the song occur in a minute.
For example, a piece with a BPM of 60 has 60 Beats per Minute, and therefore every beat is one second long.
For a much more detailed look, check out our guide to tempo here.
What is a Metronome?
A metronome is a device that produces a click or sound at a regular interval, set in BPM.
This device helps both amateur and professional musicians play at the speed they are supposed to.
For example, say you have a piece of music that says 78 BPM.
You set the metronome to 78 and it produces a click on every beat.
Then, when you play along, you can hear if you’re singing or playing is not at the correct speed.
Here is a link to an online metronome that you can try out.
History and Types of Metronomes
The metronome was first patented as a device in 1815 by Johann Maelzel.
He created the name Metronome for his device and said it was an “Instrument/Machine for the Improvement of all Musical Performance.”
His type of Metronome was a mechanical, wind-up device.
It has a weight on an upside-down pendulum, and the weight can slide up and down to either decrease or increase the tempo.
If the weight slides down, the tempo increases and speeds up.
If the weight is slid up the pendulum rod, then the tempo slows down. Here’s a picture of a mechanical metronome.
To use a mechanical metronome, you wind it up, set it to the desired BPM and then move the pendulum rod to one side to start it.
When it is in use, the mechanical pendulum swings back and forth, like this:
Another type of metronome is an electronic metronome.
Instead of a wind-up spring, like the mechanical metronome, this metronome runs on electricity and has a quartz crystal inside of it to keep it as accurate as possible, like what a wrist watch does.
To set the tempo and time signature, you just have to press a few buttons.
You can also “tap in” the tempo, which means you can set the tempo of the metronome by trying to tap the specific BPM on a certain button.
Sometimes electronic metronomes also produce a few specific notes so you can use them to tune your instrument as well.
This is what an electronic metronome looks like:
Lastly, there are also metronomes that are built-in to a software Digital Audio Workstation, or DAW.
Nowadays, a lot of music like electronic music or pop music is written on the computer, with software like Logic, Pro Tools, Cubase, or FL Studios.
These software DAWs usually have a built in software metronome, and all you have to do for these is just click on them and type the specific BPM you want them to produce.
They are usually set to 120 BPM as standard.
Professional musicians, when playing live on stage, often have in-ear headphones so that they can hear themselves play and sing while everything around them is very loud.
These headphones almost always have what’s called a click track, which is just a simple metronome that only they can hear, so they never lose the beat of their music.
In a live setting, it is very easy to get faster when you get more excited, but these click tracks allow musicians to always know exactly what the speed of their songs are.
The last thing to do with metronomes is rubato.
Rubato is a technique for playing an instrument or singing, where the musician purposely does not stay exactly on the beat.
Instead, sometimes he or she can speed up or slow down for certain parts – it is a very flexible, expressive style of playing.
For example, take this Chopin B Flat Minor Nocturne Op. 9 No. 1.
The pianist, Arthur Rubinstein, plays some notes faster than those around them, and some notes slower. He also sometimes pauses a tiny bit in between notes.
For example, around the 0:15 second mark, he speeds up the right hand high notes.
Another time, around the 0:30 second mark, he slows down the right hand.
Every classical performance, whether it’s piano or orchestra or opera, has rubato in it, and different performers use their rubato techniques differently.
So that’s all there is to know about metronomes!
Once you understand how they work, they are a very helpful tool that can help you become a much better player and learn how to play exactly at the right tempo. Please let us know in the comments if you have any questions!
As a fun ending note: A metronome can sometimes be thought of as a musical instrument in itself.
Here is a piece of music by Gyogy Ligeti, called “Poeme Symphonique For 100 Metronomes”, consisting solely of 100 metronomes being played at different times and at different tempos. Check it out!