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I know there's a decent amount of science that goes into creating a device that can set and maintain time, so this may be a very simple question with "no" being the answer, but I'm just curious whether there is any very early history of the pendulum or other automatic timekeeping devices being used for musical purposes (accurately setting and maintaining tempo [bpm] and pulse).

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    Having used the clock ticking, or the second hand moving, back in the early days, I guess not. Maybe that's the reason adagio, allegro et al are wide ranging on metronomes and indeed, on music sheets.
    – Tim
    Nov 4, 2023 at 8:52
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    Early descriptions of tempo often use the human pulse as a reference (as far as I understand--I haven't done any research on this myself), so that's obviously very imprecise. Perhaps another way of putting this question is whether, before the invention of the metronome and after the discovery that pendulums of identical length have the same (effectively) constant period, pendulums were used to measure tempo. Of course, units of length varied widely from place to place, but conversion factors were known, so it still should have been possible. "Two feet" differed, but "2 feet of Saxony" did not.
    – phoog
    Nov 4, 2023 at 9:52
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    Worth bearing in mind that a metronome is really an upside-down pendulum...
    – Tim
    Nov 4, 2023 at 10:56
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    You might find Alexander Bonus's work interesting Nov 4, 2023 at 12:37
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    @Lecifer but people were comparing musical pulse to anatomical pulse well before time could be measured precisely enough to know what a "minute" is. Most clocks in the 15th and 16th centuries didn't have minute hands, let alone second hands.
    – phoog
    Nov 5, 2023 at 23:40

4 Answers 4

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One consideration is: Asking "What did people use to keep the musical pulse steady before the technology was available" might be an anachronistic angle. Richard Taruskin talks about an "evolutionary fallacy" when dealing with history—the assumption, that if we wound up in a certain situation, that prior periods somehow anticipated and aspired to that situation, and were just doing their best to figure out how to get there.

Full disclosure, I haven't actually read Alexander Bonus's thesis or chapter in the Oxford handbook about time in music. But my impression from hearing him describe it is that part of his point is that people didn't place such an emphasis on "metronomic" regularity before the metronome. It wasn't that the aesthetic desire was present and the technology was lacking; rather, the value we currently place on mechanical precision came about alongside the machine age and a growing interest in automata and measurement. In earlier periods there might not have been such an emphasis on maintaining the same tempo throughout a piece, or nailing down the exact tempo to within 5 bpm and arguing over which tempo is correct.

That's not really a direct answer to your question, but it is a part of the answer!

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    Yes, in fact these devices did not come up as a means of keeping the pulse steady, but to be able to precisely specify a tempo (rather than something unspecific such as Allegro).
    – Lazy
    Nov 4, 2023 at 22:50
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    How about en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gamelan "Balinese gamelan instruments are built in pairs that are tuned slightly apart to produce interference beats, ideally at a consistent speed for all pairs of notes in all registers." Video: youtube.com/watch?v=UEWCCSuHsuQ Nov 6, 2023 at 12:35
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    @piiperiReinstateMonica Wow! In other instrument-based evidences: In 1635 Marin Mersenne talked about the tremulant device for an organ—a sort of vibrato effect—and says it should be calibrated to beat "8 times in a bar which lasts 2 seconds." (Which begs the question... how are you measuring the seconds.) Nov 6, 2023 at 14:39
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    Maybe they got the length of a second by dividing a year by 31 536 000. Nov 6, 2023 at 14:57
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It is a simple question and the answer is yes. Thomas Mace suggested using a pendulum for specifying pulse in late 17th century. An early attempt at a timekeeping device was made by Abbas ibn Firnas in 9th century. But actual attempts to get the concept popular starting around 1800. The actual metronome was invented by Winkel, who realized that adding (moveable) weights at the ends of a (twosided) pendulum removes the need for incredibly long strings for slow tempi. Mälzel then added a scale, coined the term Metronome and patented it (he later lost a case). He then spent lots of effort to make the device popular.

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  • Perhaps the question could use more focus because I'm not sure if attempts at time keeping are the same as there being devices "used" for timekeeping prior to Winkel. Nov 4, 2023 at 14:38
  • @ToddWilcox Isn’t there an overlap between a metronome and a clock. As in, all clocks are metronomes, not all metronomes are clocks. What I mean is, isn’t a clock also a metronome that is always at 60bpm. But as far as my question goes, my focus is on devices for bpm and pulse. So not something like a hourglass.
    – Lecifer
    Nov 4, 2023 at 15:20
  • @Lecifer The point of my comment was that this answer starts with saying "yes", which I interpret to mean "yes, timekeeping devices were used for setting and maintaining tempo prior to the metronome", but then this answer goes on to say that a pendulum was "suggested" and another device was "attempted". If you consider suggestions and attempts to be "use", then the answer "yes" makes sense. If you're asking if anything was used successfully, then maybe this answer is incomplete in asserting that one or more devices were fully "used" prior to the metronome. Nov 4, 2023 at 15:52
  • @ToddWilcox Oh! Ok I thought you were saying my question needed more focus. Yea I’m not exactly sure what attempts were made by Abbas ibn Firnas but that gives me a direction of someone that was trying. And the time period is partially what I mean in my question, i.e, were there any instances of a metronome/clock before the 17th century.
    – Lecifer
    Nov 4, 2023 at 18:17
  • @ToddWilcox Pendulum was suggested by Mace, and there have been multiple uses this idea. I only gave the earliest reference to the idea I’ve heard of. There is a concrete design for such a thing by Loulié dating back to the late 17th century. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chronom%C3%A8tre_of_Louli%C3%A9 for reference. See Here an edition from 1705 giving tempo markings: vmirror.imslp.org/files/imglnks/usimg/4/48/…Principes..._pour_bien_apprendr_la_mausiqu,_7015.pdf Between pp 54 and 55 there is an explanation of the system (in the pdf page 63)
    – Lazy
    Nov 4, 2023 at 22:48
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When music is played for dancing, usually the musicians have a pretty good sense of the tempo the dancers will want. The optimum dancing tempo depends on the nature of the dance movements and the physical characteristics of the limbs and muscles. Dancing and music have gone together since ancient times; listening to music without dancing was more the exception than the rule. (I think it was in "This Is Your Brain on Music" by Daniel Levitin where I read that.) I don't think there was a way of numerically measuring the tempo, but I would guess the musicians had terms corresponding to "Sarabande Tempo" or "Tarantella Tempo" for their favorite dances.

Thousands of years ago, pendulums weren't used, but I might consider the dancers an "automatic timekeeping device," particularly if one yells out "Too slow! Play it faster!"

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  • Hey Mark! Thanks for pointing this out this actually makes a whole lot of sense. I know dance definitely preceded instruments, probably even vocal music as well. So as you said, the main answer could really be that dance is the original metronome. It could also explain why it took so long to make a device that can provide a pulse. Maybe we could even say it’s like trying to recreate a human.
    – Lecifer
    Nov 6, 2023 at 21:28
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The first observation that a pendulum was consistent in its rate was by Galileo in 1588. It wasn't until 1656 that a pendulum was used to control a clock. It wasn't until ~1700 that someone thought to regulate music this way with numbers!! Anyway, my real answer, as a musician (http://johnsankey.ca/harpsichord.html) is that the dynamic of the human body was used, and still is. Use your arm to conduct music: each rate has a different feel to it, and with practice you can keep a remarkably uniform rate by dynamic feel alone. Any string player will tell you that their bow arm can tell them the same thing. There were lots of Italian words used to describe tempi, but the earliest texts all described how the music was to feel physically. When a conductor asks me the tempo for a harpsichord concerto, I wave my arm up and down with the feel that matches the desired tempo; no way I use numbers! Ballet performers use exactly the same thing, physical feel, to communicate tempo.

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  • Hey John! That’s a great explanation in why it took so long to create something to keep time, and even with a mechanical metronome we can’t change the bpm instantly. It’s like trying to create a copy of humans, so that makes perfect since. And very interesting on early texts describing how music should feel physically. As I said to Mark Lutton’s comment, I could see how dance (and then probably voice) is the original metronome, and it not being automatic is probably a good thing!
    – Lecifer
    Nov 6, 2023 at 21:51

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