Scientists have solved the riddle of Beethoven’s metronome

(ORDO NEWS) — Spanish scientists, using big data processing methods, analyzed the speed of reproduction of Beethoven’s works by different conductors and came to the conclusion that the great composer had incorrectly read the metronome readings, and, therefore, mistakenly indicated the tempo of his symphonies in the manuscripts. The research results are published in the journal PLOS One.

Ludwig van Beethoven was one of the first composers to use the metronome, a device patented by Johann Nepomuk Maelzel in the 1810s. From about 1815, Beethoven supplemented his musical notations with numerical marks indicating the rhythm of the metronome.

However, these figures raise questions for most musicians and music researchers – if you perform works at the pace indicated by the master, then it turns out too fast, as art critics say, “crazy” version.

Some conductors, adherents of so-called historicism, do so, but most often Beethoven’s works are performed in a “romantic” style, that is, more slowly than the composer recommended, and each orchestra chooses the tempo at its own discretion.


There are many hypotheses that try to explain the “Beethoven metronome” riddle. Some suggest that the instrument was broken or poorly oiled, others that the original design of the metronome that Beethoven used was different from the modern one.

Researchers at the Carlos III University in Madrid decided to test these hypotheses. They developed a mathematical model of the “Beethoven metronome” based on a double pendulum, with corrections that take into account the amplitude of the oscillations, friction of the mechanism, the force of the momentum and the mass of the rod.

“Using this model, we developed a methodology for evaluating the initial parameters of the Beethoven metronome from the available photographs and the patent scheme,” the authors of the work explain.

In addition to this, they disassembled a modern metronome in order to measure it and use it to test the mathematical model and methodology.

They then analyzed the tempo and its variations for each of Beethoven’s symphonies, interpreted by 36 different conductors, putting a total of 169 hours of music into the computer.

“Our research has shown that conductors tend to play slower than Beethoven indicated, even those who strive to follow them exactly. The pace set by the composer is too fast – to the point that musicians tend to slow them down anyway.” – quoted in a press release from the university, the words of one of the study’s authors, Iñaki Ucar, a musician and analyst at the Big Data Institute.

The authors noticed that the conductors almost always make a systematic adjustment to the slowing down of the tempo of the symphonies. It turned out that the deviation is not accidental and can be corrected if the digital model is corrected for the weight of the weight fixed on the metronome rod.

The final answer came to the researchers when they saw the mark “108 or 120” on the first page of the Ninth Symphony manuscript. Scientists have guessed that the master doubted when he made this inscription. But not in how quickly to play the piece – the difference in tempo would be too great – but in where to read the metronome.

“This deviation can be explained by the fact that the composer read the scale of the instrument under the load, and not above it. Ultimately, this is a common problem with the new technique,” says another study author, Almudena Martin-Castro.

According to the authors, their discovery puts an end to the 200-year-old dispute about the correctness of the performance of Beethoven’s works and allows musicians and critics to take a fresh look at the work of the great composer.


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