Whether you're a professional musician or you're just learning, staying on rhythm is of critical importance. However, with so much going on, from concentrating on your own playing to reading music in front of you, you may not be able to count out the beat in your head. This is where a metronome can come in handy.

What is a metronome? A metronome is a small device that will maintain a beat for you. Sheet music will have a time signature, indicating the speed of the music. In order to help stay on top of the time signature, a metronome can be adjusted to make a click or other sound. This will help you maintain the tempo of your play without speeding up or slowing down.

Metronomes have been around for a long time. Now, many digital pianos have metronomes built into the keyboards. There are standalone metronomes as well, which can be carried inside of an instrument case or secondary bag. This way, whether on the go or remaining in a home studio, it is possible to stay on tempo with the aid of a metronome.

What Is a Metronome?

The metronome has been a key piece of equipment for musicians dating back hundreds of years. In fact, the name metronome even comes from the Greek word "metron," which means "to measure." The metronome itself is a rather interesting piece of equipment, as these devices have been around since before electricity or batteries, and yet the device maintained the desired tempo.

History of the Metronome

A man by the name of Abbas ibn Firnas first invented the metronome. While the exact year is not known, he lived between the years 810 and 887. The device was not used specifically for musical use, but the concept of the device was the same.

Galileo Galilei spent a considerable amount of time working with the pendulum. He helped push the concept further along, although he was unable to create a device that could maintain the same sway indefinitely.

Eventually, Etienne Loulie came around in the last 1600s and created an adjustable pendulum. This device became the first true mechanical metronome. However, this device did not make a sound, nor could it maintain the movement of the pendulum. It was designed for musicians, although since it made no sounds, a musician had to watch the device and note when it swayed back in the opposite direction. In many ways, the metronome was designed after the wave of a conductor's baton.

A device made specifically for musicians to help maintain tempo did not come out until Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel created such a device in 1814. Johann Maelzel took this design and named it the "Maelzel's Metronome" (he essentially stole the design plans from Dietrich and then named it after himself, which made it difficult to take the designs back). The patent design for the Maelzel's Metronome went through in 1815.

A number of prominent musicians and composers took advantage of the design of the metronome. Beethoven became one of the first individuals to use metronome markings on his sheet music, which he started to do just two years later in 1817.

Beats Per Minute

Metronome on a wood table

​Image via Pixabay

In order to understand what is a metronome you need to understand how it works. You will set the metronome to play back a click based on an established number of beats per minute. This is the number of times the device will "click" during the given minute. Most metronomes have a wide range, starting off at around 40 BPM (beats per minute). This is on the very slow side of the beats spectrum. However, many will then go all the way up to 208 (or around there).

When setting the beats per minute, a metronome will often put on display not only the beats per minute but also the time signature. This way, you know what the beats per minute of the metronome needs to be after seeing sheet music that has a 4/4 time signature. This will make it easier to adjust the metronome to fit exactly what you're looking for in terms of the beat.

Different Kinds of Metronomes

While all metronomes are used to maintain tempo by producing a "click," there are different kinds of metronomes. So, when looking at what is a metronome, it is important to keep in mind the different types. This will make it easier to select the right metronome for you and your personal needs.

The different metronomes you'll typically come across include the following:

  • Mechanical
  • Electronic
  • Software
  • Mobile applications

Mechanical metronomes are the oldest forms of metronomes. In many ways, these devices look similar to the original metronomes released nearly 200 years ago. With a mechanical metronome there is a swinging hand which has an inverted pendulum on the base of the rod. In order to adjust the beat and speed of the metronome, the weight of the device's rod is adjusted. This allows for the speed to change.

There are no batteries or electricity requirements for these kinds of metronomes, which is why such devices have been extremely desirable for musicians around the world. Despite not having any batteries or external power sources, mechanical metronomes are extremely reliable as there are no components that will wear down and cause a reduction in the device's generated beat.

Electronic metronomes are small devices, usually around the size of a credit card. An internal quartz crystal is used to help maintain an accurate beat over an extended period. It works in many ways to a digital watch. You will power the device on and adjust the beat with an up or down button. There are a handful of electronic metronomes that also produce a tuning "A," which is helpful if you need to tune a violin or other instrument.

One of the main benefits of an electronic metronome (which usually relies on a battery) is that you can adjust the sound created by the device. So if you don't like the "click" sound, you can adjust it to produce something else.

There are all kinds of computer programs out there that you can download that include metronomes. Most audio mixing programs have a metronome option. This is beneficial if you're recording external audio and you need to maintain the beat (either in real time or while mixing). The computer software is helpful for this.

For those on the go, a mobile application is a viable option. The mobile application downloads to a phone and works in a similar way to the electronic metronomes. This kind of application is beneficial as it not only is always there on the phone, but an individual can wear headphones to hear the click, if they don't want it to be audible to others in a performance audience.

How to Use a Metronome

Beyond the question of "what is a metronome" you will need to know how to use such a device. This is a great tool to use while you're learning not only a new instrument, but a new song. It can be tricky to stay on beat when first starting off. You may even adjust the device to rev down the beat so it's at half-speed, which makes it easier to learn the song before speeding it back up to the established pace.

Once you have decided on the kind of metronome you want, you can continue on with answering what is a metronome. Place the device on a table or somewhere near where you are practicing your instrument. Now, look at the sheet music for the tempo. You'll find this listed in the upper left corner of the sheet music, next to the kind of cleft being used for the composition (such as bass or treble). You can now set the metronome to match the tempo of the sheet music. As you begin to play, you might find that tapping your foot to the metronome makes it easier to stay on tempo while playing.

Selecting a Metronome

Now that you know the answer to what is a metronome, you will need to select the right one for you. You can have a metronome that fits into your pocket, or you can go with a mechanical option that has a better aesthetic appearance. If you want something that is especially easy to travel with, the application option is one to consider. Of course, if you have a digital piano you may already have a metronome built right into the device. Whatever you decide on, it is generally a good idea to have some kind of metronome on hand at all times while around your music.


Moving metronome

​Image via Pixabay

In general, when shopping around for metronomes and you have the question of what is a metronome, you'll probably want to know if there is one brand that is significantly better than others. In short, no, not really. You just need to pick up a metronome that best fits your personal needs.

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