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The Musician and the Metronome

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

There are two schools of thought among musicians concerning this use of themetronome-one opposed and the other favorable. "Practicing with ametronome" has been criticized by some musicians as "making youmechanical." In some instances such criticism is largely a prejudice, thecritic having gained the impression that one starts a metronome and simplycontinues playing with it indefinitely. In most instances, however, suchcriticism is excusable since so little has been published on specifictechniques of metronome uses. It is hoped that those who oppose its use forlearning and improving the control of rhythm will read with tolerance thesemethods, employed by those who favor it, and perhaps investigate their value byexperimenting with one or two of them in their own teaching or preparation forconcerts.

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

Many of the techniques presented in this book have been gathered fromcorrespondence and conversation with exponents of the art and are here codifiedand published for the first time. The others have been published here and thereover the years. All are the result of the thoughts of many minds. Credit forfirst use or first publication is given when it has been possible to obtain theinformation. But, in an art as old as the use of the metronome in the study ofmusic, exact knowledge of first uses is often obscure. It is hoped that anyomission or incorrect attribution of credit may be pardoned in light of thisfact. If the reader of this book employs successful methods in his or herteaching or concert preparatory work, other than those described here, we shallwelcome an explanation of his or her methods so that an abstract of them may beincluded in future editions. It is intended to revise this book from time totime 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 firstgroup. 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 beatand 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 nowavailable. The word "circa" means approximately, and indicates thatthe 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 thecomposer's intentions. However, in some instances it is known that the composerapplied the metronome marking, yet the composition seems impossibly rapid toperform or too slow to be pleasant. Musicologists have concluded that in suchinstances 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 conductorsand mark the tempos of the various movements on their own scores. A differentcolored pencil is used for each celebrated conductor. They then compare thetempos with their own and make such modifications as their judgment dictates.

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

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

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

If the metronome beat lags behind the music beat, suddenly turn theknob to a faster indication and then back again. If the correction is notenough repeat it until coincidence is achieved. Such adjusting makes themetronome gain temporarily.

If the metronome beat leads the music beat, suddenly turn the knob toa slower indication and then back again. If the correction is not enough repeatit until coincidence is achieved. Such adjusting makes the metronome losetemporarily.

When the metronome is not beating at the same tempo as the music, thechanging of the relation between the accents will indicate the kind of theerror. 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 theadjustment to slightly faster, it is best to wait until both beats are togetherand then instantly set the metronome slightly faster. Conversely, if themetronome is constantly gaining on the accent of the music, the metronomesetting is fast and the opposite adjustment is necessary.

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

School band and school orchestra teachers note tempos on school parts to seehow 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 exampleModerato) the approximately correct setting of the metronome can be found byuse of the following two tables. They are the result of an analysis of a largenumber of classic, romantic and modern compositions. The tables list the middle75 percent of all the tempos given by the composers or editors in compositionshaving both the Italian tempo designation and the metronome setting.

In using these tables it is first necessary to decide on the kind of a notewhich shall be given one heat. This note depends upon the time signature. Tofind it refer to the table at the left, and locate the time signature of thecomposition to be played. Adjacent to it find the note which usually (but notalways) receives one beat.

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

If the composer indicates that the composition should he played on the slowside, choose the lower of the metronome settings; if on the fast side, choosethe 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'sAppassionata Sonata, where in the first movement Dotted Quarter Note=120 for afew bars; then it changes to 126,116, 120, 126, 120, 116, 120 and finally toQuarter Note=160.

Teaching Memory of Tempo

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A vocal student, when studying a new song, will check his or her pitchafter a few bars, by striking the piano key. If his or her pitch has drifted acorrection 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 turnedoff. Later during the playing at presumably uniform tempo, the instructorchecks the tempo and can tell the student, or the ensemble, exactly how muchthe tempo has drifted. If it has slowed, and, on repetition it slows again, anincrease in tempo must be felt by the performers. If it is once slow, thenfast, 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 provedhelpful. 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 rinkorganists are particularly sensitive to correct tempos since rhythmic accuracyin their art is of paramount importance.

Ritardandos and Accelerandos

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

For example consider Edward Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King. Thiscomposition is played with a feeling of continuous accelerando from thebeginning to the end of the 86 bars. A too rapid accelerando will exhaust theskill 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 SirThomas Beecham, conducting the London Philharmonic Symphony, graduates thetempos to give the effect of a tremendous accelerando in his Columbiarecording, without attaining an impossibly high tempo at the end and yetwithout 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 intempo. During the next 48 measures he gradually increases his tempo to HalfNote=116 (actually one metronome notch, or step, to every four measures).During the final 16 measures he also gradually increases his tempo but at afaster rate to finish at Half Note=160 (actually one metronome notch increaseto every two measures). The speed increases right up to the finish! The effectis superb.

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

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


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

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Footnote: :TheMaelzel-Beethoven metronome scale is particularly appropriate with thisprocedure, since each "notch" or "step" or"degree," changes the tempo the same relative amount anywhere on thescale. 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, 10notches are about 50% Change. For example from 80 to 84 (one notch) is a changeof 4 beats or 5% of 80. From 120 to 126 (one notch) is a change of 6 beats or5% 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 twosteps for each measure beginning at the accelerando. It is best to avoid suddenmovements of the indicator. Rather adjust it gradually and continuously. Thuswhen the music is at the middle of the first measure the metronome is at thefirst 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 themetronome to the change in tempo. With an instructor, the student plays and theinstructor manipulates the metronome. The student observes whether or not hisor her change is too rapid.

Skating Rink Tempos

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

A common skating tempo is 92, that is, a quarter note in a fox trot receivesone tick of the metronome at 92. The time is considered 4/4, and not "cuttime" (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 bethree ticks to a measure. In a tango there would be four.

A bold pedal beat (bass), or occasionally chords in the left hand, shouldpredominate on the 1st and 3rd heats of each measure to accentuate these beatsin 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 maybe found in skating handbooks such as that published by the Roller Skating RinkOperators' Association.


How to Check a Metronome Accuracy

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Obviously, to check a metronome the first requirement is an accuratestandard. Perhaps the most accurate standard commonly available when this bookwas first published was the electric clock with a sweep second hand, which runson A.C. (Alternating Current) electricity supply. Even more accurate is aquartz 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 and208.

In checking a metronome, the common and correct method is to count 1,2,3,4,5and so on with its beats, for a period of one minute and compare the count withthe metronome setting. However a warning is necessary. When the clock handcrosses the starting line and the metronome beats, do not count "1."At this instant, count "zero," or "start." The next beat is1. This is because the final count is made when the hand again crosses thestarting line. Counting beats both times would erroneously add a beat to thecorrect speed.

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

When the error is 1% or less at all settings the instrument is highlyaccurate. If the error runs to 3% at some settings the accuracy is fair. If theerror is 5 to 10% at any setting the instrument is very poor. If the error is10 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 detecta "limp," or a sporadic irregularity. Such instruments should beexchanged for good ones.

A metronome may be uniform and not accurate. That is, the instrument may beso uniform that precisely the same time interval elapses between any successivebeats, 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 heatsis irregular the number of beats per minute is only an average.