Go to Chapters 2, 3 & 4



The Musician and the Metronome

The original purpose of the inventors of the metronome was only to provide a yardstick with which tempos could he accurately measured and specified. Although Maelzel's and Beethoven's labors served this purpose well in the development of the instrument and the tempo scale, the growth in the use of the metronome is attributable to other uses to which it has been put. One of the principal objects of these other uses is the attainment of a high degree of skill in executing difficult or tricky rhythms.

There are two schools of thought among musicians concerning this use of the metronome-one opposed and the other favorable. "Practicing with a metronome" has been criticized by some musicians as "making you mechanical." In some instances such criticism is largely a prejudice, the critic having gained the impression that one starts a metronome and simply continues playing with it indefinitely. In most instances, however, such criticism is excusable since so little has been published on specific techniques of metronome uses. It is hoped that those who oppose its use for learning and improving the control of rhythm will read with tolerance these methods, employed by those who favor it, and perhaps investigate their value by experimenting with one or two of them in their own teaching or preparation for concerts.

To acquire concert-performance control of rhythm with all its nuances, a knowledge of the subtle use of metronome technique is very profitable. This little book aims to supply such knowledge. The techniques are really very simple. If one approaches the subject with an open mind, improvements that are positive, pleasurable, and often astonishing, are sure to follow.

Many of the techniques presented in this book have been gathered from correspondence and conversation with exponents of the art and are here codified and published for the first time. The others have been published here and there over the years. All are the result of the thoughts of many minds. Credit for first use or first publication is given when it has been possible to obtain the information. But, in an art as old as the use of the metronome in the study of music, exact knowledge of first uses is often obscure. It is hoped that any omission or incorrect attribution of credit may be pardoned in light of this fact. If the reader of this book employs successful methods in his or her teaching or concert preparatory work, other than those described here, we shall welcome an explanation of his or her methods so that an abstract of them may be included in future editions. It is intended to revise this book from time to time as new methods are devised and as more old ones are revealed. Then they, too, will be brought to the attention of those who love and live to make music.


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The two outstanding groups of uses of the metronome are

(1) to set an absolute tempo (number of beats per minute) and

(2) to act as a guide in learning complex rhythms.

This chapter will treat some of the techniques of uses under the first group. The next chapter will treat some of those under the second group.

Performing at the Tempo the Composer Intended

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This use is so well known that an explanation is useful for the record only.

fig 1

In these examples the symbol means that a quarter note receives one beat and that the tempo of the piece is 60 quarter notes per minute. The letters "MM," found in older music indicate "Maelzel's Metronome." These letters are omitted in more recent music since other metronomes are now available. The word "circa" means approximately, and indicates that the composer would permit slightly different tempos without criticism. Metronome markings on old compositions are not always those of the composer: when they have been added by subsequent artists they may differ from the composer's intentions. However, in some instances it is known that the composer applied the metronome marking, yet the composition seems impossibly rapid to perform or too slow to be pleasant. Musicologists have concluded that in such instances the composer used an inaccurate metronome.

Measuring Tempos Used By Celebrated Musicians

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Conductors listen to radio broadcasts of symphonies by celebrated conductors and mark the tempos of the various movements on their own scores. A different colored pencil is used for each celebrated conductor. They then compare the tempos with their own and make such modifications as their judgment dictates.

The newspaper list of radio programs is useful in preparing for such studies. During the broadcast the score is on the desk and the left hand is at the metronome knob. The metronome is adjusted to agree with the tempo of the movement. When it is found, it is instantly recorded on the score.

An apparent anomaly sometimes arises in these measurements. It is this. The beats of the music and the metronome may not be together, yet the tempos of the music and the metronome may be identical. This is easily explained by thinking of the two as being in syncopated relationship. Syncopated and principal melodies are identical in tempo although the accented beats are not coincident. As long as the difference between the accents does not change, the metronome reading is the correct tempo.

Assume that the metronome has been adjusted to correct tempo, although it syncopates with the music, and assume it is desired to bring the accents into exact coincidence. The technique is then as follows:

If the metronome beat lags behind the music beat, suddenly turn the knob to a faster indication and then back again. If the correction is not enough repeat it until coincidence is achieved. Such adjusting makes the metronome gain temporarily.

If the metronome beat leads the music beat, suddenly turn the knob to a slower indication and then back again. If the correction is not enough repeat it until coincidence is achieved. Such adjusting makes the metronome lose temporarily.

When the metronome is not beating at the same tempo as the music, the changing of the relation between the accents will indicate the kind of the error. if the metronome beat is constantly losing on the accent of the music, getting further behind the music, the metronome setting is slow. To make the adjustment to slightly faster, it is best to wait until both beats are together and then instantly set the metronome slightly faster. Conversely, if the metronome is constantly gaining on the accent of the music, the metronome setting is fast and the opposite adjustment is necessary.

This procedure of noting the tempos of celebrated artists is also applied to the study of phonograph recordings and is used not only by conductors but also by soloists, on bowed, wind and other instruments.

School band and school orchestra teachers note tempos on school parts to see how close the school hand or orchestra can come and still perform well.

Obtaining Metronome Setting from Italian Marking

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When a composition bears only the Italian-named tempo. (for example Moderato) the approximately correct setting of the metronome can be found by use of the following two tables. They are the result of an analysis of a large number of classic, romantic and modern compositions. The tables list the middle 75 percent of all the tempos given by the composers or editors in compositions having both the Italian tempo designation and the metronome setting.

In using these tables it is first necessary to decide on the kind of a note which shall be given one heat. This note depends upon the time signature. To find it refer to the table at the left, and locate the time signature of the composition to be played. Adjacent to it find the note which usually (but not always) receives one beat.

Now refer to the table at the right and locate the Italian name which designates the tempo of the composition. Under this Italian name find this note which usually receives one heat. Adjacent to this note is given the suggested range of metronome settings.

If the composer indicates that the composition should he played on the slow side, choose the lower of the metronome settings; if on the fast side, choose the higher setting. Otherwise choose an intermediate value.

fig 2

Indicating Shading During The Course Of a Composition

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An example of this use is found in the D'Albert edition of Beethoven's Appassionata Sonata, where in the first movement Dotted Quarter Note=120 for a few bars; then it changes to 126,116, 120, 126, 120, 116, 120 and finally to Quarter Note=160.

Teaching Memory of Tempo

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A vocal student, when studying a new song, will check his or her pitch after a few bars, by striking the piano key. If his or her pitch has drifted a correction is made.

The metronome is used for a similar purpose in teaching memory of tempos. The movement is started with the metronome and then the metronome is turned off. Later during the playing at presumably uniform tempo, the instructor checks the tempo and can tell the student, or the ensemble, exactly how much the tempo has drifted. If it has slowed, and, on repetition it slows again, an increase in tempo must be felt by the performers. If it is once slow, then fast, a keener sense of memory of tempo must be developed.

Just as some musicians can acquire a sense of absolute (or nearly absolute) pitch, so musicians can acquire a sense of absolute (or nearly absolute) tempo. Concentration at some standard tempo such as 60 beats per minute has proved helpful. This memorized time unit can then be mentally divided into halves, thirds, or quarters just as a quarter note is divided into eighths, triplets, or sixteenths and beaten out as 120, 180, and 240 per minute. Skating rink organists are particularly sensitive to correct tempos since rhythmic accuracy in their art is of paramount importance.

Ritardandos and Accelerandos

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One of the difficulties occasionally encountered in performing these nuances is that the desired effect is introduced too rapidly. As a result the effect is finished before desired.

For example consider Edward Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King. This composition is played with a feeling of continuous accelerando from the beginning to the end of the 86 bars. A too rapid accelerando will exhaust the skill of the musician before he or she reaches the end of the composition, compelling him or her to finish it at a uniform Presto tempo. Note how Sir Thomas Beecham, conducting the London Philharmonic Symphony, graduates the tempos to give the effect of a tremendous accelerando in his Columbia recording, without attaining an impossibly high tempo at the end and yet without making it appear that his orchestra has reached the limit of its speed. He plays the first 24 measures at Half Note=66 to 69 without any increase in tempo. During the next 48 measures he gradually increases his tempo to Half Note=116 (actually one metronome notch, or step, to every four measures). During the final 16 measures he also gradually increases his tempo but at a faster rate to finish at Half Note=160 (actually one metronome notch increase to every two measures). The speed increases right up to the finish! The effect is superb.

In practicing such a nuance, one procedure is to decide what the beginning and ending tempos should be. The metronome marks are then placed at those points on the score. Next, the difference is equally distributed over the accelerando phrase; If a metronome, beating at the starting tempo, is readjusted at each measure, by this amount, as the playing proceeds, the change will be gradual and will begin and end at the desired tempos.

In the following example the conductor's desire upon entering the accelerando phrase was Quarter Note=60 and he desired to end with Quarter Note=104.


This change (from 60 to 104), is found to total twelve notches on the metronome scale. Since the accelerando in these twelve steps is to be equally distributed over the six bars of music, the arithmetic works out to two steps for each bar.

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Footnote: :The Maelzel-Beethoven metronome scale is particularly appropriate with this procedure, since each "notch" or "step" or "degree," changes the tempo the same relative amount anywhere on the scale. This change per notch is about 5% (it actually varies from 3.3% to 5.5% depending upon the point on the scale). Two notches are about 10% change, 10 notches are about 50% Change. For example from 80 to 84 (one notch) is a change of 4 beats or 5% of 80. From 120 to 126 (one notch) is a change of 6 beats or 5% of 120. From 100 to 152 (ten notches) is a change of 52 beats or about 50% of 100.

Setting the metronome at 60 the conductor moves the metronome indicator two steps for each measure beginning at the accelerando. It is best to avoid sudden movements of the indicator. Rather adjust it gradually and continuously. Thus when the music is at the middle of the first measure the metronome is at the first step (63), at its end it is at the second step (66), and so on.

If one is practicing alone one can hum the melody while adjusting the metronome to the change in tempo. With an instructor, the student plays and the instructor manipulates the metronome. The student observes whether or not his or her change is too rapid.

Skating Rink Tempos

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Dance steps, done on skates, and the tempos of skating music are standardized. Skaters are particularly sensitive to slight errors in tempo. Skating rink organists are trained to maintain even and rigid tempos. Since skating demands a slow tempo, which is difficult to maintain evenly, skating rink organists almost invariably play with their metronome in continuous operation.

A common skating tempo is 92, that is, a quarter note in a fox trot receives one tick of the metronome at 92. The time is considered 4/4, and not "cut time" (or 2/2). In a 6/8 number a dotted quarter note receives one tick, and is played like a march, two bears to a measure. In a waltz, there would be three ticks to a measure. In a tango there would be four.

A bold pedal beat (bass), or occasionally chords in the left hand, should predominate on the 1st and 3rd heats of each measure to accentuate these beats in 4/4 time. But in 3/4 time only one bold beat to a measure is preferable.

Following are the tempos for the various steps, the description of which may be found in skating handbooks such as that published by the Roller Skating Rink Operators' Association.


How to Check a Metronome Accuracy

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Obviously, to check a metronome the first requirement is an accurate standard. Perhaps the most accurate standard commonly available when this book was first published was the electric clock with a sweep second hand, which runs on A.C. (Alternating Current) electricity supply. Even more accurate is a quartz electronic wristwatch with a stop-watch feature.

Some musicians check their metronome at 60 because it is easy to do so. Accurate operation at 60 does not imply accuracy throughout the scale. Metronomes should be checked at not less than four points, say 40, 60, 120 and 208.

In checking a metronome, the common and correct method is to count 1,2,3,4,5 and so on with its beats, for a period of one minute and compare the count with the metronome setting. However a warning is necessary. When the clock hand crosses the starting line and the metronome beats, do not count "1." At this instant, count "zero," or "start." The next beat is 1. This is because the final count is made when the hand again crosses the starting line. Counting beats both times would erroneously add a beat to the correct speed.

This detail has been explained at length because it differs from the counting of musicians who have been trained to count by numbering the beginning of each interval.

When the error is 1% or less at all settings the instrument is highly accurate. If the error runs to 3% at some settings the accuracy is fair. If the error is 5 to 10% at any setting the instrument is very poor. If the error is 10 to 15% at any setting the instrument is worthless as a standard of tempo.

fig 5


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There is no way to check uniformity of beat without a chronograph. However, some instruments are so lacking in uniformity that an untrained ear can detect a "limp," or a sporadic irregularity. Such instruments should be exchanged for good ones.

A metronome may be uniform and not accurate. That is, the instrument may be so uniform that precisely the same time interval elapses between any successive beats, yet instead of beating say 104 when set there, it may beat 112 or 96. Such an instrument would not be useful for the work described in this Chapter. However, it would still be useful for the work described in Chapter II.

A metronome cannot be non-uniform and accurate. if the time between heats is irregular the number of beats per minute is only an average.

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Go to Chapters 2, 3 & 4