A metronome is an essential part of any musicians kit. There are many different types and designs, but they all have one thing in common; they provide you with a steady tick-tock sound. This tick-tock sound is simple enough, but a metronome is an invaluable tool to help you learn to play in time.
As one of the most important tools of the musician, a metronome is used to set the desited tempo or beat. This beat is especially useful when learning a song for the first time, as it is almost impossible to keep time in your head. The ability to play along with a beat is especially important for musicians, who bridge the gap between rhythm and melody.
Metronomes vary in features. All can play in 4/4 time, usually from 40 to 208 beats per minute (BPM). There are three broad categories of metronomes.
The classic acoustic metronome has changed very little since being patented in 1815. This design has a pendulum which swings back and forth, creating the familiar sound. A small, adjustable weight is located on the pendulum; when adjusted, it alters the speed of the pendulum and thus the number of beats per minute. They are usually made of wood and shaped like a pyramid. This type of metronome usually has limited adjustability. An acoustic metronome must be placed on a flat surface and it must be wound intermittently.
Electric acoustic metronomes can be plugged into an electrical outlet and so do not need to be wound. They use a quartz crystal, similar to those found in watches, to keep time. This type is least common, as it must always be plugged in and has the same, limited features of the acoustic metronome.
The last, and most diverse, category is based on digital software. The most common of these is the battery-powered portable metronome. Often combined with a tuner, these are practical when portability is required.
There are hundreds of metronome apps for smartphones and all music composition software includes a metronome. These are the most customizable. They can be set to play anything from 16th notes in 12/8 time to simply quarter notes in 4/4. The stress of beats can also be customized. Having the first beat of every measure beep louder than the others is a common choice, as it allows you to picture your position in the piece of music.
The type of metronome you choose will depend on your needs. All have pros and cons; for example, a classic acoustic metronome will never run out of batteries, but it may only be able to play in a certain time signature. An app on your smartphone will always be in your pocket, but if you run out of batteries its portability means nothing.
Metronomes have even transcended their humble beginnings, with the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti writing a piece entitled Poeme Symphonique for 100 Metronomes. Next time you think that your single metronomic ticking is driving you crazy, spare a thought for the 10 performers who have to control 10 metronomes each to play the piece of music!