Keeping Time: A Short History of the Metronome

I am a self-proclaimed metronome maniac. You’ll always find a metronome clicking methodically away throughout my practicing routine, used both as a speedometer and as the rhythm police. It helps me keep time and gain speed as I learn new pieces, and I feel strange when I practice without it.

Long story short, I love metronomes. Even though I love music history, I’ve never given much thought to the origins of my trusty practice companion. Imagine my surprise when one of my students told me that the “inventor” of the metronome actually stole the design from someone else! Obviously, I had to investigate this sordid history…

If we’re being quite literal, the metronome was inspired by the swinging lamp Galileo observed in the Pisa Cathedral in 1588.

Even though rhythm and timing have always been integral to musical structure, it wasn’t until Galileo began studying pendulums and their isochromism (inspired by the swinging lamp he observed) in 1588 where we begin our metronomic musings. Isochromism simply means that the swing of any moving object (such as a pendulum) is independent of its amplitude. More simply put, an object displaying isochromism will take the same time to swing (period), no matter how large the swing (amplitude) is. Galileo realized that this observation would have important timekeeping benefits.

After Galileo’s discovery, there were a few important developments throughout the next few centuries:

  • 1656: Dutch inventor Christiaan Huygens creates a clock powered by a pendulum which is the most reliable timekeeping source for nearly 300 years
  • 18th century: English clockmaker and inventor George Graham improves and adds several designs to the pendulum clock
  • 1696: French musician and pedagogue Étienne Louilié develops the first metronome with an adjustable pendulum, but it does not produce a sound, requiring it to always be in the musician’s sight. Another downside was that it could not achieve slow enough tempi (40-60 BPM) required of many slower pieces of classical music. (Fun fact: Louilié also invented a sonometer used to tune harpsichords.)

This is where things get interesting. In 1814, inventor Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel (1777-1826) develops the musical chronometer (yay!)… but neglects to patent his creation (no!). He donated this prototype to the Hollandsch Instituut van Wetenschappen, Letterkunde en Schoone Kunsten in Amsterdam, and that’s where his role in the metronome’s history comes to a premature ending.

You might not be surprised to learn that Winkel’s design was quickly stolen in 1816 by German inventor Johann Nepomuk Mälzel (1772-1838). Mälzel’s father was an organ builder, and he consequently received a fine musical education throughout his youth. This allowed him to develop several musical inventions, such as the orchestrion and panharmonicon, both of which garnered him fame and notoriety throughout Europe. When Mälzel discovered Winkel’s musical chronometer, he added a simple scale, claimed the invention as his own design, and called it Mälzel’s Metronome (this is why we use the abbreviation M.M.). These first metronomes look like the ones you might find in your parents’ practice rooms today – wooden pyramid-shaped boxes with an adjustable pendulum to change tempi. Mälzel created 200 of the metronomes to send to friends and admirers throughout Europe, where they quickly gained popularity. (Fun fact: this first batch of metronomes could only go as slow as 50 BPM.)

One of the early adopters of the metronome was none other than Ludwig von Beethoven, who lauded Mälzel and was the first composer to include metronome markings in his music (instead of generic terms like allegro or lento). However, Mälzel and Beethoven did have a few fights along the way. Mälzel and Beethoven collaborated on a piece called The Battle of Vitoria (also known as Wellington’s Victory, Op. 91) which used some of Mälzel’s automaton instruments and most of Beethoven’s compositional genius. After the completion of this piece, Beethoven accused Mälzel of claiming the music as his own (wouldn’t be the first time for Mälzel!) and staging unauthorized performances with faulty transcriptions. Beethoven said that Mälzel was  “a rude, churlish man, entirely devoid of education or cultivation.” Ouch.

Our modern musical derision towards metronomes is nothing new – critics began describing certain conductors as “metronomes” or “metronomic” if they appeared bland or performed without expression. However, as modern music became more complex and featured more complicated rhythms, patterns, and meters, metronomes became invaluable to untangle the music of composers such as Stravinsky.

Ode to metronomes

If you think I have an odd obsession with metronomes, here are some…creations…to convince you otherwise:

  • Gyorgy Ligeti wrote a piece called Poème Symphonique (1962) for 100 mechanical metronomes set at varying tempi. The piece lasts until the last metronome finishes its faithful clicks.
  • Surrealist artist Man Ray (né Emmanuel Radnitzky) attached a photo of an eye to the pendulum of his metronome in 1923 so it would watch him while he painted. He called this “Indestructible Object (or Object to Be Destroyed).” Yes, it gets weirder. When his lover Lee Miller left him in 1932, he attached a photo of her eye (?!) to the metronome. But wait, there’s still more! Several years later, this artwork was on exhibition in Paris, and a group of students (“Jarivistes”) went to the exhibit and shot the metronome with a pistol. May Ray was upset, not that his artwork was destroyed, but that it met its end via pistol instead of the hammer’s blow he had specified in a text that accompanied the artwork.
  • Japanese composer Toshi Ichiyanagi wrote his avant-garde aleatoric piece Music for Electronic Metronomes in 1960. Each performance of this piece is unique – it is for 3 to 8 performers who must manipulate electronic metronomes using the graphic notation score.
  • Although it might seem counterintuitive, the metronome played an important role in John Cage‘s composition of 4’33”. He used the I Ching to select from a chart with different tempi and metronome markings to create the rhythmic structure of each movement of this piece, which is based on compositional silence.
  • The art installation Metronome by Kristin Jones and Andrew Ginzel is in Union Square in Manhattan and is one of the largest private commissions of public artwork, commissioned at $4.2 million. These seemingly random numbers serve as a clock for anyone who takes the time to decode their sequence.



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