What Is a Metronome and How Does It Work?

Peer in through the parlor window at a piano teacher's house on a Thursday afternoon in 1945, where a young man sits at the piano bench practicing scales. Above both student and teacher, resting on the piano top, a metronome ticks and tocks back and forth, its pendulum scraping the air like a tireless windshield wiper.

But what is a metronome and how do you use it?

What Is a Metronome?

Patented in 1815 by Johann Maelzel, the metronome is an instrument that helps you keep time for music. Maelzel's metronome used an escapement (think of the toothed wheel that makes a watch tick) to transfer power from a wound-up spring to a weighted pendulum.

Each swing of the pendulum produced an audible tick, and users could adjust a dial to control the tempo of the ticking [source: Underwood].

Pretty soon after its invention, notable composers such as Ludwig Van Beethoven began including metronome markings (beats per minute notations) on their manuscripts [source: Rockwell]. Musicians had already adopted standardized symbols to indicate time signature, key, dynamics and note relationships. In the same way, metronome markings were a way for composers to communicate the correct tempo at which someone should perform the piece.

Think of a metronome as graph paper for the ears. By imposing a tempo grid over a piece of music, students can break down complex polyrhythms into smaller, more comprehensible sections. During practice sessions, they can play these difficult passages at a slow tempo, gradually increasing the tempo as their technique improves.

The steady beat of a metronome on each quarter note also helps students identify when they're unconsciously speeding up or slowing down sections of music. It's a great tool to use to prepare for a musical performance and train your musical ear.

The first metronomes were spring-wound and, like old watches, they tended to keep time poorly as the springs lost tension. Today musicians can use electronic metronomes and other versions that are more reliable. You can even program some to play a variety of sounds, from conga drums to electronic cheeps and beyond.

The Wide World of Metronomes

Most people think of a metronome as a blocky, pyramid-shaped contraption with a pendulum. Though these mechanical metronomes are still in use, the term metronome can also refer to any instrument used to keep the desired tempo.

Here are few different types of musical timekeeping devices used from everything from music practice to song recordings.

  • Mechanical metronomes are similar in appearance to the original Maelzel's Metronome. Though they may come from materials other than wood, they retain the pyramid shape and swinging pendulum tick of the original.

  • Quartz metronomes are an inexpensive alternative to the mechanical metronome. Usually made of plastic, these timekeepers have an adjustable beats-per-minute (BPM) dial. Some offer a light that flashes along with the beat so users have a visual as well as an auditory tempo cue.

  • Digital metronomes are a step up from quartz metronomes. Varieties like the BOSS Dr. Beat offer a variety of time signatures and the option to hear a tone on the eighth notes and 16th notes as well as the quarter notes. You can also tap in the tempo, which can be very useful. Some models even offer a range of tempo tones, from electronic beeps to more natural drum or clave sounds.

  • Software metronomes are virtual devices you can use online or download onto a computer or handheld device, such as with a metronome app. Many of these are available as freeware or shareware, and they allow you to use a metronome without packing any extra hardware.

  • Click tracks are for professional recordings. Virtually all digital recording software, from Garageband to ProTools, includes a click track, which you can enable or disable at will. If you're recording to analog tape, you can create a click track by recording the sound of any metronome and then using this "click" track to keep a steady tempo as you layer other instruments.

  • A backing track is a piece of music (as opposed to a simple tick-tock or click) that has been prerecorded using a metronome or click track. For instance, a guitarist might play a song's basic rhythm to a click track, and then the band might record their parts while listening to his or her prerecorded guitar.

From Beethoven to beatbox, just about every genre of music has used and benefited from the structure of a metronome. Still, some musicians wonder if using a metronome will make their playing sound mechanical or robotic.

Robot or Superhero: The Great Metronome Debate

Metronomes sometimes get a bad rap. Composer and author Constantin von Sternberg says, "How any musician could play with a metronome, passes my humble understanding. It is not only an inartistic, but a downright antiartistic instrument."

Von Sternberg, born in 1852, came to the heights of his career during a period when composers such as Luigi Russolo and Edgard Varèse were producing futuristic music containing gurgles, explosions and electronic sounds. In the company of such experimentation, it's not difficult to imagine why von Sternberg would be so quick to label the metronome as an impediment to musicality.

Some contemporary musicians seem to agree. Drummer Ringo Starr, for instance, never plays with a click track. "Click tracks make me too tense," he says [source: Amendola].

Other drummers disagree, though. The Killer's drummer Ronnie Vannucci says, "When I was in school, I spent a lot of time with a metronome. I learned how to use it but not let it hinder my musical sensibilities" [source: Micallef].

The general consensus seems to be that, yes, a metronome can make an unpracticed musician sound like a robot — but it can also help turn a hard-working musician into a virtuoso. The more you practice with a metronome, the more fluid your playing will become. You'll learn to swing the beat or to play slightly ahead of or slightly behind the beat without rushing or dragging the tempo.

Besides turning you into a superhero musician, there are other benefits to using a metronome or click track. Multi-instrumentalist Ryan Taylor wouldn't have been able to pull off his experimental Ultralap project without using a click track. Taylor spent a year trading lap steel parts, live drum loops, synth overlays and other bits of music recorded to click tracks with bandmates Stacey Cargal and Mitchell Sosebee. "We did it all using email," Taylor said. "Because of the click track, we were able to arrange parts and build compositions in a non-linear way" [source: Taylor].

Whether you're using a click track to record music with a friend across the country or winding a pendulum metronome to work out the Suisse Orage passage in Liszt's "Années de pèlerinage," metronomes offer a sonic grid on which you can improvise and improve your playing.

Lots More Information


  • Amendola, Billy. "Ringo Starr." ModernDrummer.com. November 2005. (March 9. 2011)http://www.moderndrummer.com/web_exclusive/900001114/Ringo%20Starr

  • Micallef, Ken. "Ronnie Vannucci: Killer With A Cause." Modern Drummer Magazine. March 2009. (March 9. 2011)http://www.moderndrummer.com/updatefull/200001739

  • Rockwell, John. "Pondering Beethoven's Metronome." New York Times. Feb. 19, 1987. (March 9. 2011)http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B0DE0D61F39F93AA25751C0A961948260

  • Sternberg, Constantin von. "Ethics and Aesthetics of Piano Playing." G. Schermer. 1917. (March 9. 2011)http://www.archive.org/stream/ethicsaesthetics00steriala#page/n5/mode/2up

  • Taylor, Ryan. Personal Interview. March 15, 2011.

  • Underwood, T. and G. "The Reparatory of Patent Inventions…" The University of Michigan. 1818. (March 9. 2011)http://books.google.com/books?id=dO80AAAAMAAJ&pg=PA7&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=4#v=onepage&q&f=false

Original article: What Is a Metronome and How Does It Work?

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