You know what they say – timing is everything. And not just in comedy, either. Whether you’re a music student struggling through tricky practice pieces, a conductor on stage, or a professional performer, you have to be able to keep time.
Some people have an incredible innate sense of timing, but for the rest of us, there are certain natural tendencies. When a piece of music or even the mood of a performance is exciting, we tend to speed up. If you listen to most count-ins, they’re almost always slower than where the tempo goes later along in the song. The best way to keep on track is a metronome.
But what is a metronome? Let’s find out…
What is Tempo, Anyway?
Tempo is simply the Italian word for time. Back in the day, Italy was the epicenter of new musical techniques and innovations, and their names stuck. So we still use Italian words to describe tempo in all sorts of ways.
The tempo of a piece of music isn’t the time it takes to play that song. It’s actually the speed it should be played at. Tempos are normally written in just a relative way. Here are some examples of tempo you’ve probably seen written on pieces of music:
Lento – slow
Adagio – slow and formal
Andante – at walking speed
Moderato – moderate
Allegro – quick and bright
Vivace –fast and lively
Presto – very fast
If you’ve had a lot of formal training, you’ve probably picked up a general feel for these different tempos. The problem is that your feeling and someone else’s won’t match perfectly. Andante is at walking speed, but we don’t all walk at the same speed, right? So it helps to have a standard.
These days, clocks are in everything. Just about every digital device tosses in a clock to add an extra feature. Well lucky us, because we can always count time accurately!
BPM stands for Beats Per Minute and can be measured and programmed. This is a huge help if you’re a DJ or producer trying to mix tracks. You can speed up or slow down a track-to-beat match, which means get the beats in both tracks to the same BPM level.
BPM can give a certain feel not only to a single piece of music but whole genres. Some styles of music have pretty much defining BPMs and sound pretty strange or feel weird when they are sped up or slowed down. Here are some examples of BPM for popular music genres:
R&B: 60-80 BPM
Hip Hop: 85-95 BPM
House: 115-130 BPM
Rock: 110-140 BPM
Dubstep: 135-145 BPM
Drum & Bass: 160-180 BPM
While these are by no means set in stone, they’re pretty well accepted. Instrumentation, key, and tempo all help to define most musical styles.
Do you know your own BPM? The average resting heart rate for healthy humans is somewhere between 60 to 100 beats per minute. Roughly R&B. When people exercise, their heart rates get closer to 120-160 BPM. More like dancing to rock or dubstep. Maybe there’s some connection here.
A Metronome Sets BPM
Back to the question: What is a metronome? Well, it’s a machine that sets a tempo in BPM for you to follow as you practice or play through a piece.
In case your Ancient Greek is rusty, this comes from métron, which means ‘measure’ and némo, which means ‘I lead.’ So this machine is leading you through some perfectly measured beats. Isn’t Greek cool?
The metronome has a murky history…
Some people claim it was invented as early as the 9th Century in Andalusia. Others claim that Galileo invented it by using a pendulum swinging back and forth that you could watch to keep track of tempo.
We do know that by the early 1800s, the mechanical pendulum metronome was already on the market. It was sort of like a wind-up clock. All you did was wind it up for power and set a tempo. The pendulum on it would swing back and forth, making a click each time.
Different Types of Metronomes
You can still buy fully mechanical metronomes, such as the classic Accurate Mechanical Metronome. They’re kind of cool in a retro sort of way. They’re reliable and don’t need batteries, but you do have to wind them.
Electronic metronomes, such as the excellent Seiko SQ50-V Quartz Metronome, use a battery or AC power and have built-in quartz crystal technology that’s used in most clocks today. These metronomes are usually small and portable, and because they’re electronic, they can include other features as well.
If you want a flashing light or a beep instead of a click, no problem. Maybe you want your metronome to have a built-in tuner. Sure. You just have to keep these metronomes powered up and ready for use.
Metronome apps are making a lot of headway…
They work in just the same way as electronic metronomes but run off your phone or other device’s battery and brainpower. There are a lot of free metronome apps that work well. At the same time, they eat your battery power and may be interrupted by calls and text alerts. They still have some bugs to work out.
Interested in Learning More About Music and Instruments?
Our experts are full of helpful advice and information, so check out our handy guides on the Easiest Musical Instruments for Adults to Learn, What is Considered a String Instrument, Types of Vocal Timbre, Exercises and Tips For Better Finger Dexterity, and Odd Time Signatures for more useful information.
Also, have a look at our helpful articles on Different Types of Guitars You Should Know, How to Tune a 12-String Guitar, Everything You Need to Know About Guitar Sizes, How to Buy a Used Piano, How To Clean Your Piano Keys, and How to Play Drums for more great tips and hints.
What is a Metronome? – Final Thoughts
Playing along to a metronome takes some getting used to. It’s going to seem very strict and inflexible at first. But give it time (pun intended), and you should find it gives you a whole new appreciation for tempo.
They’re great for training…
If you’re having a lot of trouble with a certain piece or section, try playing at a much slower tempo. Set your metronome about 20-30 BPM slower than the piece should be played, and try again. This will help you focus more on your notes and where the beats fall.
Sure, using a metronome isn’t for everyone. While lots of performers play with a click track in their in-ear monitors, others detest them. It comes down to style and feel. If you want things to be free, emotional, and fluid, you can just shrug your shoulders and say, “Metronome? What’s a metronome?”
If you want your music tight and “in the pocket,” however, that metronome might just end up being your best friend.
Until next time, may the beat go on.