No, it’s not a garden gnome that resides in a city. A metronome is a device that produces a steady click or other sound that musicians can use to maintain a steady beat while playing.
Take a look around; is there a good old fashioned ticking clock in the room? That clock is a basic metronome, one that ticks 60 regular pulses each minute. A real metronome allows its user to change how many beats or clicks it produces a minute – from a super slow tempo (or speed) as low as 40 per minute, to a speedy 200 or more.
What’s the big deal about a steady beat? A steady beat is like the backbone of all music. It is the regular heartbeat that holds it all together. If every member of an orchestra played to a different beat, the result would be chaos. If there was no steady beat in the pop songs on the radio, there would be nothing for you to tap your foot along to. That is why musicians must be careful to keep a steady beat while playing.
But, we musicians are humans – not tick-tocking robots – so it can sometimes be difficult to play to a steady beat without a little help. It is common for us to speed up on easy parts and slow down on difficult parts. By practicing with a metronome, we hone skills like our motor memory and dexterity, and strengthen our own internal steady beat.
The first metronome was invented by a Dutchman named Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel in 1812. Early metronomes worked like old fashioned clocks, with a swinging pendulum that ticked and a weight to adjust its speed (similar to the one pictured above). Now, most metronomes that are used are electronic or smartphone apps!