Practicing with a metronome is the best possible way to learn to keep a steady pace throughout a song, and it’s one of the easiest ways to match the tempo of the piece you’re playing to the tempo conceived by the person who wrote the pieces.
When was metronome invented? The metronome was first invented in 1696 by the French inventor Étienne Loulié. Loulié’s first prototype consisted of a very simple weighted pendulum. The problem with his invention, though, was that in order to work with beats as slow as 40 to 60 beats per minute (bpm), the device had to be at least six feet tall. It wasn’t until more than 100 years later that two German tinkerers, Dietrich Nikolaus Winkel and Johann Nepomuk Maelzel, worked independently to produce the spring-loaded design that is the basis for analog (non-electronic) metronomes today. Maelzel was the first to slap a patent on the finished product, and as a result, his initial is attached to the standard 4:4 beat tempo sign, MM=120. MM is short for Maelzel’s metronome, and the 120 means there will be 120 bpm, or 120 quarter notes, in the piece played. Like the concept of the minim, the metronome was warmly received by musicians and composers alike. From then on, when composers wrote a piece of music, they could give musicians an exact number of beats per minute to be played. The metronomic markings were written over the staff so that musicians would know what to calibrate their metronomes to. For example, quarter note=96, or MM=96, means that 96 quarter notes are to be played per minute in a given song. These markings are still used today for setting mostly electronic metronomes, particularly for classical and avant-garde compositions that require precise timing.
How is Metronome notation? Although the metronome was the perfect invention for control freaks such as Beethoven and Mozart, most composers were happy instead to use the growing vocabulary of tempo notation to generally describe the pace of a song. Even today, the same words used to describe tempo and pace in music are used. They are Italian words, simply because when these phrases came into use (1600–1750), the bulk of European music came from Italian composers. If you have a metronome, to properly appreciate the differences from one tempo setting to the next, you may want to try setting it to different speeds to get a feel of how different pieces of music might be played to each different setting.