My marvellous metronome

Classic Project: Mechanical metronome

Image credit: Pixabay

Helping musicians keep perfect time with this strict machine.

Opinion is divided over who invented the mechanical pulse-emitting device for musicians known as the metronome. But the consensus is that a musical chronometer developed in the early 19th century by Dutch inventor Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel was adapted and improved by Johann Nepomuk Maelzel: engineer, imperial court mechanician at Vienna and friend of Ludwig van Beethoven (the first composer known to add metronome markings to symphonic scores). The ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’ claims the metronome is “erroneously ascribed” to Maelzel, and yet, as with many inventions that evolved incrementally, the story is less straightforward.

The idea of producing regularly timed noises had been around for 1,000 years (Abbas ibn Firnas had experimented with early metronome design in Andalusia in the 9th century). As Maelzel was probably aware that he was bordering on plagiarising Winkel, his 1815 patent for the ‘improvement’ machine for musicians is a tapestry of hair-splitting, reading in part: “I do not make any claim to the invention of beating or counting time for musical performance, by means of a machine regulated by a pendulum; but for the particular manner and mode which I have invented of applying a pendulum to such a machine, whereby the pendulum can with the greatest facility be made to vibrate a greater or less number of times in a minute at the pleasure of the performer ... each vibration being marked by the tick or drop of the escapement, without any hammer or other apparatus for that purpose.”

In other words, Maelzel’s invention, which went into production in 1816, followed the basics of Winkel’s, but surpassed it in that it had adjustable speed to go with its clockwork mechanism. Yet, as it is arguably these two features that define the modern mechanical metronome, it seems reasonable that it would be the patent holder who lent his name to the generic design (‘the Maelzel metronome’), which has remained largely unchanged over two centuries, at least in its mechanical form.

Recent decades have seen the clockwork principle superseded by battery-powered versions, while digital programmable metronomes (often with tuning pitches and accented beats thrown in) have become increasingly common. There are even metronome apps that can be downloaded to your smartphone for free.

Yet the Maelzel metronome remains the classic, with its familiar pyramidal wooden case, graduated scale and a perpendicular thin metal strip acting on the double pendulum principle (a pivoted oscillating rod weighted at both ends). Within the mechanism, the lower weight is fixed, while the upper weight is adjustable to vary the number of oscillations in the range of 40 to 208 beats per minute. As the rod swings back and forth, the metronome emits regular clicks from the escapement that regulates the instrument. While the wooden case adds to the overall aesthetic of the design, it also has the function of amplifying the satisfying ‘tock’ sound.

Beethoven was a big fan of the metronome (it’s often said that the second movement of his 8th Symphony was in some way a tribute to it, although it is more likely to be a parody of Haydn’s ‘Clock’ symphony), but not everyone is so keen. Chuan C Chang says in ‘Fundamentals of Piano Practice’ that overuse can “lead to loss of your internal rhythm, loss of musicality, and bio-physical difficulties from over-exposure to rigid repetition”.

Facts and figures: the mechanical metronome

Date: 1815

Originator: Johann Maelzel (1772-1838)

Unit cost: Modern units from c £100

The word metronome comes from the Greek words metron (measure) and nomos (regulating).

The convention for writing metronome speeds is ‘MM’ followed by the number of beats. ‘MM’ stands for Maelzel’s metronome.

Beethoven’s metronome notations are so erratic that it’s possible he had a faulty instrument.

In the 18th century, composers such as Johann Joachim Quantz used the human pulse as a metronome.

Metronomes are used in schools to assist with the teaching of simple arithmetic.

A mechanical metronome came second in a 2018 ‘Best Metronome’ survey. The Wittner 813 was runner-up to a fully programmable digital instrument from Boss.

One time AC/DC drummer Phil Rudd is known as the Melbourne Metronome.

General arrangement based on the Wittner Series 800/810 model

Classic pyramid shape

Wooden case

Tempo scale. 40-208 beats per minute (bpm)

Pendulum bar

Sliding weight

Escapement mechanism

Fixed weight

Pivot

Key (winding mechanism)

Tone selector (for models including bell)

General arrangement of mechanical metronome based on the Wittner Series 800/810 model:

Classic pyramid shape

Wooden case

Tempo scale. 40-208 beats per minute (bpm)

Pendulum bar

Sliding weight

Escapement mechanism

Fixed weight

Pivot

Key (winding mechanism)

Tone selector (for models including bell)

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