The Beat Goes On: A Short History of the Metronome

Metronome ( James Lee / Flickr)

( James Lee / Flickr)

The musician sent home to practice with a metronome confronts in this prescription an absentminded chaperone. It sits on the stand and clucks a rigid beat regardless of whether the player, afflicted with an inability to keep a steady tempo, deigns to follow it. For the musician yet to play a piece in the time she wishes to, the metronome can be a useful straitjacket no less begrudgingly put on.

The tenacious timepiece seems to have ticked through time immemorial, but its form and application to musical life were hundreds of years in the making, beginning with the 16th-century scientist Galileo’s discovery of the pendulum’s isochromism: regardless of amplitude, the pendulum will take about the same amount of time to complete one period, or back-and-forth swing. This discovery could be applied to timekeeping, Galileo realized, foregrounding the invention of the pendulum-powered clock by Christiaan Huyghens in the 17th century and George Graham in the 18th. In 1696, Étienne Louilié, a French musician and pedagogue, was reportedly first to design a metronome with an adjustable pendulum, though his invention was soundless and required the user to keep it in view. Plaguing Louilié and his contemporaries was the problem of creating a metronome that would beat slowly enough to keep the tempo of many classical pieces, often at a mere 40 to 60 beats per minute. Full story.

Jennifer Gersten (WQXR) / October 12, 2017

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