Tick-Tick-Tick or Pling-Thump-Twang Goes the Music Beater

Fradley Garner By

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I set out to make the metronome that I had been looking for. That meant the ability to play weird time signatures and be as customizable as possible. —Weird Metronome creator David Johnston
Ching! tick, tick, tick,

Ching! tick, tick, tick ...

These are metronome sounds with four beats to the measure—for instance a time signature of 4/4, with stress here on the first beat. A metronome produces a pulse you can hear and/or see. It lays down a steady rhythm in beats-per-minute (BPM) when you play a piece of music. It's an invaluable composing and practice tool that goes back hundreds of years.

Many synthesizer keyboards have built-in audible timekeepers. And battery-powered digital metronomes these days are little bigger than handheld cards. They may beep, show a pulse of light, swing a needle on the beat, display the BPM number. You can order metronome beats sent to your cell phone. You can even download a virtual metronome to your computer. More about this in a minute.

The word metronome first appeared in English c.1815, formed from the Greek words metron (measure) and nomos (regulating). The earliest metronome, first described in 1696, took a team of horses to cart around. It drew little more than gawks and guffaws because composers in those days were also conductors. Written directions for playing speed were rare, anyway.

"But a century later, in 1816, early in the Industrial Revolution, Johann Maelzel created the first metronome of the kind we're accustomed to," writes the late Robert Jourdain in his 1997 book, Music, The Brain and Ecstasy: How Music Captures Our Imagination. "In short order, metronome markings went on to everything, new and old alike. [BPM numbers were added] to the music of Haydn and Mozart.... Never again would there be confusion about the proper tempo!"

Except there was. Beethoven at first embraced Maelzel's invention. He added metronome markings to his works, including all nine symphonies. After BPM-marking all movements of the Ninth, however, he lost the manuscript somewhere in his cluttered loft. "He later marked a second score, then rediscovered the first," writes Jourdain. "Hardly any metronome markings matched." The composer threw up his hands. "No metronome at all! Whoever has the right feeling needs none; and whoever lacks it, has no use for one—he will run away with the whole orchestra anyhow."

In our own era, Stravinsky, Ellington and Marsalis have taken metronome markings lightly in recording their own music. Many composers and musicians today, however, do rely on those digits, often softening them with the old expressive descriptions (allegro moderato, andantino, adagio, whatever).

Returning to the score:

A jazz composer writes something in an "irregular" time of 7/8. That might produce this pattern: Ching! tick, tock, tick, tock, tick, tick.... Another pattern for 7/8 is Ching! tick, tick, tock, tick, tock, tick.... Try reading either bar aloud and briskly (allegro)—keep repeating it without a break while you tap your foot in rhythm.

Julius Hemphill (1938-1995), a reeds player remembered as leader of the World Saxophone Quartet, left a body of extended works (Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin) as rich as anyone in jazz since Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus. To replicate the band's sound without Hemphill in it would be as hard as recreating Duke's sound without Johnny Hodges. All the same, as his onetime sideman Marty Ehrlich points out, Hemphill's "manuscripts had metronome markings and expressive markings, so we're not flying blind."

You can't hold the newest form of metronome in your hand because you can't touch it. The gadget exists only virtually. You see it and program it on screen. You hear it, in whatever beat sounds you enter, over your computer loudspeakers. Many models are offered on the Net. "Weird Metronome," as Los Angeles animator David Johnston dubbed his creation, is "a program that runs in Windows and functions as a timekeeper."

The inventor plays several instruments. He set out "to make the metronome that I had been looking for," he told me. "That meant the ability to play weird time signatures and be as customizable as possible." Weird Metronome uses any of some 50 different instrument "voices" to sound the beats. Say you're playing a jazz piece with five beats to the bar. Say the first and third beats should be accented. "For this," writes Johnston on his Web site, "you would set tick sound 1 to be a basic beat sound (I like 'Side Stick') and tick sound 2 to a more emphasized sound (I use 'Bass Drum 1'), and set your custom measure to read "21211."

We'll leave it there. Except to say that Weird Metronome is—hold that ticker—FREE. "I wanted to share what I had created with others," Johnston told me. "It gives great satisfaction to have so many people use my program."

You can download it and ask questions of the inventor at: pinkandaint.com.


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