Classical Music 101: Keeping time doesn't necessarily mean sticking to a beat

By John Terauds on January 10, 2014

tshirtI woke up this morning thinking about choristers who can’t keep time — more precisely ones who don’t seem to be able to keep a certain cadence.

It occurred to me that we spend so much time in motorized vehicles and surrounded by arrhythmic noise that perhaps we’ve lost touch with a sense of natural cadence, something like what we would get from listening to a beating heart, or from going for a walk.

We also don’t read aloud much, if ever, so even the natural rhythms of language and speech are not really natural in a big, 21st century city.

Fortunately, we all have access to the metronome. Originally a wind-up mechanical gears-and-double-pendulum affair born in the wake of the world-as-clockwork Enlightenment, it is now an ubiquitous mobile app that divides time into beats-per-minute for the rhythmically wayward musician.

The old, mechanical metronomes eventually featured labels on the sliding beats-per-minute scale, so that Andante, Moderato, Presto and all the other common Italian tempo markings corresponded to specific speeds.

Which would be no help with the piece by Marcel Dupré currently sitting on my music desk, marked “Sans lenteur” — without slowness.

What does “without slowness” mean? Is it a tempo or an attitude?

And here is the crux of the craft of keeping time versus the art of knowing how a piece of music needs to flow.

It all starts with a sense of natural cadence — placid, hurried, nervous, agitated, languorous — moving forward, yet flexible, human, breathing, pausing, yet rooted in something consistent at the same time. Soloists and small chamber groups work this out amongst themselves. An orchestra uses the conductor to provide this sense of flow — a flow that is never about keeping strict, unwavering time.

A metronome is very helpful when learning a piece of music, especially for a beginner, who will naturally slow down in difficult passages and speed up in easy ones. There’s also a natural tendency to associate soft playing with a slow tempo and to speed up instinctively when getting louder.

But, even if a composer took the trouble to place a specific time, like 88 beats per minute, per quarter note, at the top of a score, that is only a guidepost. The true interpreter learns the notes around that approximate tempo, then sits down for the real work, of turning the beat-beat-beat of the metronome into real music.


I was reminded of the art of keeping time in music in Skip Sempé’s Memorandum XXI, which I wrote about in greater length here.

On p. 175 is a short entry entitled “Keeping Time With Silence.” Sempé writes:

A number of years ago, I had a fascinating experience with an antique metronome while visiting Michael Latchum in the Hague. I recounted this experience, via email, to about two hundred musicians.

Though my email was undertaken essentially in order to be provocative, I was quite surprised to receive many dozens of responses, all completely speculative. Only one person knew the answer. Here is the exchange.

From: Skip Sempé
Subject: The Metronome
Date: 4 November 2007

Greetings, with a question —

I saw one of Maelzel’s original metronomes in the Hague in a private collection a few weeks ago.

Supposedly there are only 3 or 4 still in existence.

Fascinating object; IT IS SILENT, because that is how Maelzel intended it…

They were never intended to practice with.

So, this is the question: who got the idea that a metronome should tick, and how long have they been ticking?



From: Jed Wentz
Subject: The metronome
Date: November 5, 2007

Hi Skip,

D’Onzembray invented the first ticking metronome, which he called the metrometre, in 1732. It was a flop, because, according to Diderot, you had to play in time with it.

And, he says, there are no 4 bars of an air that have the same tempo. This is in the articles I wrote on French music and rubato for the Tijdschrift Oude Muziek about 12 years ago… (1998, Nos 3 & 4).

All the best,



There is a fascinating little experiment that many people have done with metronomes: When more than one is placed on a common, isolated surface, eventually every metronome on that surface will synchronize with all the others:

A choir or an orchestra should actually work the same way, metaphorically speaking, with everyone finding a common rhythmic purpose — but never one as regimented as the goose-stepping metronomes.

John Terauds


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