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Mälzel’s Metronome 3/3: The Metronome Countdown / Der Metronome Countdown

The third of three essays for works by Paolo Salvagione


This Saturday, July 6, a series of works by artist Paolo Salvagione will debut in Regensburg, Germany, and at the nearby Walhalla. They all revolve around the life and work of Johann Nepomuk Mälzel (1772-1838), best known as having perfected the analog metronome as we know it. As part of my continuing work with Salvagione, I wrote three essays about the Regensburg/Walhalla/Mälzel project. The first, posted two days ago, was “Time Changes Everything” / “Zeit verändert alles.” The second, posted yesterday, was “Eternal Partners” / “Ewige Partner.” This is the third of them:

The Metronome Countdown

The year 2015 will mark the 200th anniversary of the introduction of a device that set the pace for all music that followed. The device is the metronome, which in 1815 was perfected by a roguish tinkerer named Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, who was born in Regensburg, Germany, 43 years prior. That would be 1772, the same year as romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, utopian philosopher Charles Fourier, and rocket artillery pioneer Sir William Congreve. If both technology and the arts experienced revolutions during this era, the metronome’s pendulum teetered at their fulcrum.

The influence of Mälzel’s metronome cannot be overstated. Long before the Internet set the digital clip for contemporary life; long before turntables were equipped with buttons marked 33, 45, and 78; long before the atomic clock employed electromagnetism to dictate the highest standard for timekeeping, the humble metronome employed mechanical means to give shape to time, and to make those shapes consistent, communicable, universal.

In his lifetime, Mälzel’s most advanced early adopter was none other than the composer Ludwig van Beethoven, who was two years Mälzel’s senior. Beethoven was early on intrigued by Mälzel’s contraption, and late in life, long after he had lost his hearing, he went back to his earlier symphonies and notated what he deemed the “correct”timings. That these metronomically precise timings were considerably quicker than considered appropriate to musicians at the time (and to this day) remains something of a musicological mystery.

As for Mälzel, he remains as ubiquitous as his device, yet his presence is so prevalent as to be nearly invisible, rendered as a mere pair of initials: the “MM”notation that in traditional musical scores states the pace of a work. (The double M stands for “Mälzel’s Metronome.”) His device is music’s training wheels, its click track. It is the beat that percusses through rehearsal halls and yet is — with some notable exceptions, such as György Ligeti’s 1962 “Poème Symphonique,”composed for 100 metronomes — mute by the time the curtain rises.

The goal of the celebration this year in Mälzel’s hometown, as the two-century anniversary of his invention comes into view, is to build public support for his wider recognition — to bring Mälzel’s mechanical triumph to the foreground.

And this is the German translation:

Der Metronome Countdown

Das Jahr 2015 markiert den 200. Jahrestag der Perfektionierung eines Gerätes, das das Tempo für jede Musik festlegte, die nach dessen Erfindung komponiert wurde: Das Metronom.

Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel reklamiert die Erfindung des Musik-Chronometers für sich, aber verfeinert und schließlich vollendet wurde das Metronom 1815 von einem schelmischen Bastler namens Johann Nepomuk Mälzel, der 43 Jahre früher in Regensburg zur Welt kam. Es handelt sich um das Jahr 1772, in dem unter anderem der romantische Dichter Samuel Taylor Coleridge, der utopische Philosoph Charles Fourier und Raketenartillerie Pionier Sir William Congreve ebenfalls das Licht der Welt erblickten. Wenn man die Revolutionen in den Bereichen Technik und Kunst dieser Zeit betrachtet, dann symbolisiert das Metronom mit seinem Pendel genau diesen Dreh- und Angelpunkt.

Der Einfluss von Mälzels Metronom kann nicht hoch genug bewertet werden. Lange bevor der digitale Clip das zeitgenössische Leben prägte, lange bevor sich auf Plattenspielern die Umdrehungen 78, 45 und 33 einstellen ließen, lange bevor die Atomuhr mit Hilfe von Elektromagnetismus den höchsten Standard der Zeitmessung diktierte, verwendete das bescheidene Metronom mechanische Mittel, um der Zeit eine Form zu geben und diese Form konsistent, übertragbar und universal zu machen.

Der erste moderne Anwender von Mälzels Erfindung war kein geringerer als Ludwig van Beethoven, der nur zwei Jahre älter war als Mälzel selbst. Von Anfang an war Beethoven von Mälzels komischem Apparat fasziniert. Gegen Ende seines Lebens, als er schon lange seinen Gehörsinn verloren hatte, kehrte Beethoven zu seinen ersten Symphonien zurück und notierte diese neu in der jetzt “richtigen”zeitlichen Festlegung. Diese neuen präzisen metronomischen Anweisungen waren deutlich schneller und wurden von den damaligen Musikern (zum Teil auch jetzt noch) als unangemessen angesehen und bleiben bis heute ein musikwissenschaftliches Rätsel.

Mälzel ist zwar als Person allgegenwärtig wie sein Gerät, jedoch macht dessen weite Verbreitung ihn gleichzeitig auch fast unsichtbar. In Erscheinung tritt er lediglich durch seine Initialen “MM”, die in traditionellen Partituren das Tempo des Werkes angeben. (Das Doppel M steht für Mälzels Metronom). Mälzels Gerät ist das Rückgrat der Musik, die Click-Spur. Es ist der Beat, der durch die Proben schwingt und verstummt, sobald sich der Vorhang hebt. Mit einer bemerkenswerten Ausnahme, dem ”žPoème Symphonique“ von György Ligeti, einer Komposition für 100 Metronome, aus dem Jahre 1962.

Mit unserer Kampagne wollen wir im Rahmen dieser einmaligen Veranstaltung auf der Walhalla die Gelegenheit ergreifen, Mälzel in seiner Geburtsstadt zu feiern und das 2015 anstehende 200-jährige Jubiläum seiner Erfindung einer größeren Öffentlichkeit bekannt zu machen. Wir werben für eine breitere Anerkennung seiner Leistung und rücken Mälzels mechanischen Triumph in den Vordergrund.

More information at Design by German translation (from English) by Simone Junge. Initial project announcement:,

By Marc Weidenbaum

Tags: , / Comments: 2 ]


  1. Guy
    [ Posted July 7, 2013, at 5:52 am ]

    Great set of essays for a fascinating subject, particularly this last one. Indeed, the metronome’s significance is that it structures time within the limits of human perception and action, providing a system of temporal regulation which is “consistent, communicable, [and] universal.”

  2. Ben Raphael
    [ Posted September 3, 2013, at 9:07 am ]

    The “Mälzel” metronome is pictured on various websites, but I have been searching in vain for an illustration of the original made by old Johann himself. I assume that what we now call the Mälzel metronome resembles the one Beethoven might have used, but how does it differ?

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  • Marc Weidenbaum founded the website in 1996 at the intersection of sound, art, and technology, and since 2012 has moderated the Disquiet Junto, an active online community of weekly music/sonic projects. He has written for Nature, Boing Boing, The Wire, Pitchfork, and NewMusicBox, among other periodicals. He is the author of the 33 1⁄3 book on Aphex Twin’s classic album Selected Ambient Works Volume II. Read more about his sonic consultancy, teaching, sound art, and work in film, comics, and other media

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