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"Practicing with a metronome is extremely useful for developing and maintaining rhythmic precision, for learning to keep consistent tempos, for countering tendencies to slow down or speed up in specific passages, and for developing evenness and accuracy in rapid passages. Most music teachers consider the metronome indispensable, and most professional musicians, in fact, continue to practice with a metronome throughout their careers." —Miles Hoffman, NPR (2005)

A metronome is a device that produces regular, metrical clicks (beats); some metronomes also include synchronized visual motion. The metronome was conceived as a tool for music in the 1815 patent application by Johann Maelzel. The device has found widespread use among musicians, yet remains the subject of long-running debate in the profession.

Quotes critical of the metronome

"Never play with a metronome: The keeping of absolutely strict time is thoroughly unmusical and deadlike." —Josef Hofmann (1920)
  • 100 according to Maelzel, but this must be held applicable to only the first measures, for feeling also has its tempo and this cannot entirely be expressed in this figure.
  • If a pianist plays as if a metronome were at his side, the time may be faultless, but there will not be much scope for expression.
  • I do not mean to say that it is necessary to imitate the mathematical regularity of the metronome, which would give the music thus executed an icy frigidity; I even doubt whether it would be possible to maintain this rigid uniformity for more than a few bars.
  • A metronomical performance is certainly tiresome and nonsensical; time and rhythm must be adapted to and identified with the melody, the harmony, the accent and the poetry.
  • I think here as well as with all other music, the metronome is of no value. As far at least as my experience goes, everybody has, sooner or later, withdrawn his metronome marks. Those which can be found in my works – good friends have talked me into putting them there, for I myself have never believed that my blood and a mechanical instrument go well together.
  • Paderewski plays the rhapsodies like improvisations – inspirations of the moment. It is the negation of the mechanical in music, the assassination of the metronome. When ordinary pianists play a Liszt rhapsody, there is nothing in their performance that a musical stenographer could not note down just as it is played. But what Paderewski plays could not be put down on paper by any system of notation ever invented. For such subtle nuances of tempo and expression there are no signs in our musical alphabet. But it is precisely these unwritten and unwritable things that constitute the soul of music and the instinctive command of which distinguishes a genius from a mere musician.
  • How shall a discriminating sense of rhythm and a correct regard for time-keeping be cultivated? Certainly not by the continuous use of the metronome. The click of this little mechanical time-keeper serves admirably to mark the tempo, but if slavishly depended on will make a slave of mechanism rather than a musician.
  • An inelastic time-measurer can never give us characteristic Bach or Beethoven, Mozart or Wagner. Metronome marks are never more than approximate at best.
  • It is notorious that to play with the metronome is to play mechanically – the reason being, of course, that we are then playing by the measure, or rather by the beat, instead of by the phrase. A keen musical instinct revolts at playing even a single measure with the metronome: mathematical exactitude gives us a dead body in place of the living musical organism with its ebb and flow of rhythmical energy.
  • To be emotional in musical interpretation, yet obedient to the initial tempo and true to the metronome, means about as much as being sentimental in engineering. Mechanical execution and emotion are incompatible. To play Chopin's G major Nocturne with rhythmic rigidity and pious respect for the indicated rate of movement would be as intolerably monotonous, as absurdly pedantic, as to recite Gray's famous Elegy to the beating of a metronome.
  • The mechanical is never art; the metronome must never take the place of the guiding brain and understanding heart.
  • The most mechanical playing imaginable can proceed from those who make themselves slaves to this little musical clock, which was never intended to stand like a ruler over every minute of the student's practice time.
  • That a conductor or performer may lose sight of the expression of a piece and be unconscious that he is so doing, is a commonplace. This may arise not so much from lack of artistic perception as from his giving undue attention to some particular aspect or aspects of the work in hand – correctness of music, rigid regard to tempo, literal performance of the p's and f's of the copy – so that it or they crowd out the poetic element of expression, and instead of his being an emotional artist he is merely a human metronome.
  • Do not sing Mozart in metronome rhythm. ... Never divest word and note of their soulful accents of emotion so as to condemn them to a monotony which some would designate as classical.
  • Never play with a metronome: ... The keeping of absolutely strict time is thoroughly unmusical and deadlike.
  • The habitual use of the metronome should be avoided, since it nips in the bud any possibility of a rubato suggested by the player's fancy, and his whole manner of playing takes on a machine-made cast. Not without reason is it regarded as a reproach when an artist is said to play like a metronome.
    • Carl Flesch, The Art of Violin Playing (1924), translated by Frederick H. Martens, p. 165
  • The metronome has no value whatsoever as an aid to any action or performance that is musical in intention. ... Musicians ought to distinguish between (1) the sort of timing that results from dull, slavish obedience to the ticking of a soulless machine, and (2) that noble swing and perfect control of pulsation which comes into our playing after years of practice in treating and training the sense of time as a free, creative human faculty.
    Now for the idea that strict metronomic pulsation is the normal basis of music. Nobody could persuade me that this is true. If I believed it I would give up music tomorrow.
  • There is an immense amount of metrical playing and singing in the world ... : there is too little rhythmic reality. And if you habitually play or sing thousands of metrical phrases without transmuting them into your own rhythms, you will become a metronomical musician.
  • One of the most stubborn modern misconceptions concerning baroque music is that a metronomic regularity was intended.
  • Dozens of critics have explained why metronome marks are more problematic than early-music enthusiasts used to acknowledge. Composers, to begin with, often take their own music faster or slower than the speeds they imagined when setting numbers to the page. Changes of mood can lead anyone (including a composer) to different tempos at different times. Besides, what sounds right inside the composer's head often needs adjustment to work with real instruments in real places. ... Insisting that there is something essential about following a metronome mark imposes a meaningless limit on performance.
    • Bernard D. Sherman, "Period Recordings Have Won the Right to Be Routine", The New York Times (29 August 1999), Section 2, p. 25
  • Many recent recordings of pop music demonstrate how music is killed by a metronome, for they are as square as a draftsman's T.
  • Metrical exactitude ... is the embodiment of slavishness in music, i.e., the music is the slave of the beat when it should be its master, exactly the opposite of what C.P.E. Bach suggested, in his Essay on the "True Art of Playing Keyboard Instruments," when he wrote that one should "endeavor to avoid everything mechanical and slavish. Play from the soul, not like a trained bird."
    Like the beating of the heart, the musical pulse needs to fluctuate in speed as the emotional content of the music fluctuates. Like the natural shifting accents in speech, musical accents need to shift according to the meaning being expressed. To feel perfect, music must be metrically imperfect.
    • Keith Hill and Marianne Ploger, The Craft of Musical Communication, in Cleveland Johnson, Orphei Organi Antiqui (2006), p. 232
  • I'm against the metronome. If you own one, burn it please.
    The problem with the metronome is, that even when you don't play with the metronome, subconsciously it's still ticking in your mind.
    As a musician, it doesn't do a darn thing for you. It actually destroys the music. You don't discover the music, because the metronome is still ticking in your head.

Quotes in favour of the metronome

  • Correct time is considered indispensable; then why not use the Metronome. Hummel has recommended it in the strongest terms. My regard for it is such, that for twenty-five years or more I never taught a pupil without it.
  • The objection, sometimes heard, that using a metronome tends to make a player mechanical, is not founded on facts. Indeed, the students who play the most artistically are those who have been the most faithful in the use of their metronome when learning their pieces.
    • Josephine Menuez, The Etude (1932); quoted in Frederick Franz, Metronome Techniques, Chapter 3
  • Everyone knows that after a piece has been thoroughly tested and stabilized with the metronome, the necessary rhythmic variations, the accelerandos, the ritardandos, the ad libs, the tempo rubatos may be introduced far more intelligently and artistically.
  • The metronome is one of the greatest technique builders available to the teacher or the pupil.
    • LeRoy V. Brant, The Etude (1944); quoted in Metronome Techniques
  • Harold Bauer once said that the most impressive performance of "Lohengrin" he ever heard was the time the Boston Symphony played it for rehearsal from beginning to end with the metronome.
    • Viva Faye Richardson, The Etude (1945), p. 486; quoted in Metronome Techniques
  • Because its beat is perfectly steady, the metronome is an excellent practice tool for musicians. Practicing with a metronome is extremely useful for developing and maintaining rhythmic precision, for learning to keep consistent tempos, for countering tendencies to slow down or speed up in specific passages, and for developing evenness and accuracy in rapid passages. Most music teachers consider the metronome indispensable, and most professional musicians, in fact, continue to practice with a metronome throughout their careers.
  • Before a student can be persuaded to use a metronome, he or she has to know why it is important. The most obvious answer is to help keep rhythms even and clean. Another reason is to keep the meter consistent, placing beats in their proper positions in the music. Metronomes can also help a student to find and fix problems. ... The metronome quickly alerts the player to these problems by suddenly not clicking in time with the player's beats.
    • Steven Mauk, Ithaca College, "Make the Metronome Your Friend", Saxophone Journal (1997), p. 1
  • Often, the metronome by itself may not be enough to learn complex rhythms. However, its importance for all types of practicing and all genres cannot be understated. The infallibility of the machine is a blessing since it removes guesswork; thus, the player can use the metronome to learn to play evenly and to resist the temptation to take extra time when playing a difficult passage. The player must begin with the premise that the metronome is mathematically perfect and categorically correct. From there, s/he must make a personal commitment to play exactly together with this perfect "chamber music partner."
    • Aaron M. Farrell, Louisiana State University, A Practical Guide to Twentieth-Century Violin Etudes with Performance and Theoretical Analysis, D.M.A. thesis (2004), p. 23
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