Some insights on the history and use of metronome

Some insights on the history and use of metronome, including a discussion of modern options.

 

Metronome - Something about metronomes... they're reassuring to me. - picture shared from James Lee

 

Irene Gomez
( edits J Wunsch)

Recently, while reading the book  “L’écriture du geste”,  a conversation between pianist Cécile Gilly with French composer Pierre Boulez, I came across the subject of  Tempo.

In this book, Boulez explained how two composers of the Romantic period, Wagner and Berlioz, had completely different concepts of tempo when they were conducting their own works. It was thrilling to discover that while Berlioz was extremely precise over the rhythm, Wagner was more into the practice of having tempo follow the musical ideas. This thinking was in accord with his conviction of the importance of bringing the text (poetry), the image, and the music together. (Gesamtkunstwerk).

This explanation of the practice in that regard of these two great composers and directors of their own music led me to exploring the thoughts of musicians of different times regarding the concept of tempo, and how the metronome became such a necessary device for us. The metronome’s use was spurred to open acceptance by Beethoven, recognized as the first composer to specify the tempo marking in a score.  This happened after the creation around 1815 by Johan Maelzel of an “ instrument/machine for the improvement of all Musical performance called ‘metronome’”.

Looking even farther back in history, David Martin in his book “Early Music” mentioned that in the  “Principes de Musique” Loulie describes in Paris in 1696, a chronometer Quantz, that he had not seen, and he established that he preferred  to take the pulse of a healthy man as his standard. This he fixed at eighty beat a minute!

Additionally the question of being free but recommending to be steady as well, was part of the discussion at that time. (This discussion is still alive!)

Arnold Dolmetsch in his classic book “The interpretation of the music of the 17th and 18th centuries” pointed out two opinions:  The preface to the first volume of Tocattas of Girolamo Frescobaldi published at Rome in 1614, contains many advises to the reader (player) in which the common denominator is to “leave it to the good taste and fine judgment of the player to regulate the Tempo”.  And, Thomas Mace, who published in 1676 the book entitled “Musick´s Monument; or a Remembrance of the Best Practical Musick, both Divine and Civil, that has ever been known to have been in the World”,  states in some paragraphs: “…you must Know, That although in our First undertaking, we ought to strive for the most Exact Habit of Time-keeping that possible we can attain unto (and for severall good  Reasons, yet, when we come to be Masters), so that we can command all manner of Time at our own Pleasures”.

Every day, even in our digital era, we musicians still have to deal with the subject of how to approach the right tempo in the music we play. Even before learning a piece people now have access on the internet to see or hear many versions of the same piece, each one with at least subtly different tempi. In the case of beginner students this would not be the best reference without the guidance of a teacher. The modern convenience of a metronome allows students and teachers to better communicate on the critical questions of what tempo is best for a particular piece in the hands of a particular player, and to effectively work toward accomplishing that tempo.

We currently have a wide range of possibilities to choose from in order to have the metronome that best fits our needs.  The old pendulum metronome that Beethoven used is now more in the field of charming rarity and instead we can look to reliable options such as the Seiko Quartz Metronome SQ50V, the Sona MM-1000 / SM1000, and the Korg KDM2 Digital. The Seiko Quartz is an excellent basic metronome for establishing and guiding tempo, while the Sona MM-1000 / SM1000 and the Korg KDM2 Digital also provide beat patterns. These models with beat patterns are very helpful in understanding and refining meters and subdivisions within beats, such as a triplet in one beat. These metronomes also have different tones which help one to better discriminate meters and subdivisions.

Currently there are also a number of metronome – tuner combinations on the market. Most of these tuners contain a silent metronome that discreetly guides a player with a flashing light.

Like everything else, the use of metronome does not have to lead to a mechanical interpretation. The use of this device should be conscious, and used when necessary in the process of working a piece, stopping its use when we feel we have established or understood the right tempo or when we finally know the  rhythm is in place. This is a sane way to use the metronome while preventing it from leading to a stiff interpretation of the music.  Tempo, as we know, can change through the time, and it is very probable that the Andante in Bach’s time (or in Beethoven’s time!) is not our same Andante. But in spite of that consideration, there is no doubt of the value of having the metronome close when building technique or working to establish accuracy of rhythm.

 

Classical guitarist Irene Gómez regularly contributes to Strings By Mail through her teaching and performance videos as well as articles. She is a Strings By Mail Sponsored Artist, teaches guitar at the National University in Bogotá, Colombia, and performs worldwide.

Sources mentioned in this article:

L’ecriture du geste, conversations avec Cécile Gilly, Gedisa Editorial

Early Music, David Martin, Oxford University Press (through Jstor)

The Musical Times, Standley Howell, Musical Times Publications (through Jstor)

The Interpretation of the Music of the 17th and 18th Centuries, Arnold Dolmetsch, Dover Publications, Inc. Mineola New York

 

Items mentioned:

Seiko Quartz metronome SQ50V

Korg KDM2 metronome

Sona MM-1000 / SM1000

 

Metronome image:

Metronome – Something about metronomes… they’re reassuring to me. – picture shared from James Lee @ www.jronaldlee.com

 

8 thoughts on “Some insights on the history and use of metronome

  1. Hello, I was very interested in the topics that were broached, however I can’t seem to locate two of the references (L’ecriture du geste & Early Music). Although I found the book, it states that the editor is Christian Bourgois, likewise, I can’t find Martin’s article on JSTOR. Is there any way you could provide a link to these sources? Many Thanks,
    Carl


    1. Hi Carl. Thanks for reading, and apologies for the late response.
      I have forwarded your questions on to Irene Gomez, who was the guest author on the article. She is currently in the of a concert tour, but said she would respond as soon as she could.

      Thanks,
      Strings By Mail


  2. Dear Mr, Carl,

    Thanks a lot for your reading and interest on the topic presented in this blog, and I apology for the delay to replying but like explained for Strings by Mail, when I received the notification of your question I was in the middle of concerts then I could not access to my files. And, effectively this theme is quite more intricate as it looks at first sight and it has so many points of view through out history that it is quite amazing to discovers this big diversity of thinking about this essential aspect of music. I looked for the source you mentioned of David Martin, Early Music and since I wrote this last year I did not find neither that link. However, thanks to your inquire I looked some other sources and I found some wonderful textes that can give you a great light on this subject.
    These are:
    Performance practice, A dictionary guide for musicians, by Roland Jackson
    Classical and Romantic Performing Practice by Clive Brown
    Discoveries from the fortepiano, A manual for beginners and seasoned performers by Donna Louise Gunn
    The Harvard dictionary of music by Michael Randel
    Elements ou principes de musique written by Etienne Loulie (1696) is available on Performer’s Editions.
    The book L’écriture du gesté’ is effectively under Christian Bourgois Éditeur. In the article I mentioned the Spanish editor.
    I am sure you will find delightful and revelatory information in these books.
    as well as in the classic ‘The interpretation of the music of the 17th and 18th centuries’ by Arnold Dolmetsch
    Again, highly appreciated your reading and comments.
    Irene Gomez from Strings By Mail







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