When writing music or reading musical pieces, musicians often rely on measure.
What is a measure in music?
A measure is a crucial part of musical language—a universal concept that artists understand and use.
It essentially divides music into smaller, more manageable chunks, allowing musicians to read and play music more easily (at a specified tempo).
In musical notation, a measure (or a bar) is a segment of music, or a single unit of time, that holds a specific number of beats represented by particular note values.
If this sounds a bit complicated, don’t worry!
I’ll go through everything in detail in this article to ensure the above definition becomes more understandable.
Stick along to grasp new musical knowledge.
The measure helps us sort things out—it’s as simple as that.
For example, think about musical phrases as thoughts—measure allows us to arrange those thoughts and define their beginning and end.
To help you understand this better:
Canyoueasilyreadwhativewrittenhereornotbeacusei’mactuallyhavingtroubleevenwritingthesewordscorrectly. Did you have trouble reading this?
Without measure, music notation would look just as chaotic as that.
Measure divides the music pieces into smaller units.
That’s especially useful when you’re an orchestral player.
If you have a two-hour symphony, finding that one motif (our thought) is time-consuming without measures.
By dividing music into bars, you end up with ‘marked locations’ or pinpoints which helps us follow written music or sight-read more easily.
To understand the measure (or the bar), you need to understand the information conveyed within a measure.
Those details vary depending on the following:
- Time signature
- Note values
- Bar lines
Note that almost all musical pieces are read from left to right, playing the notes in sequence one after the other.
The time signature determines the number of beats in each measure.
It’s written at the beginning of the score but can be changed during the composition itself.
To make this simple, if you have a time signature of ¾, the top figure (in this case, number three) indicates the number of beats per bar, while the bottom figure determines the duration of each beat (a quarter note in this example).
Hence, your measure consists of three beats equal to a quarter note.
Most often, the time signature in Western music is 4/4.
However, some cultures play with different rhythms, such as ⅞, 11/4, 9/8, and many other forms with 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, and other numbers of beats per bar.
Whether your bar lasts long or not depends on the tempo mark.
In other words, tempo determines the composition’s speed or pace.
In most pieces, the tempo is indicated at the start of the score in metronome markings using beats per minute (bpm) or by using words.
Most often, these are Italian terms such as andante, moderato, largo, and adagio, among others.
So returning to the previous example of ¾., if you have the following mark: quarter note = 60, it means that one beat (out of three) will last one second.
You’ve probably seen that not all notes look alike.
Each note takes up a certain amount of time in a measure, and by using note values, we know what that time is.
Again if you have ¾, a quarter note lasts one beat, but an eighth note lasts half that beat.
On the other hand, if you have a half note, it will last two beats, and so on.
Vertical bar lines determine the boundaries of each measure.
Think of them as fences that separate one property from another.
A bar holds a significant meaning in music since it tells whether a particular part of the composition will continue, repeat or end.
There are five types of bar lines.
Each one gives different instructions to the player.
A single bar line separates one measure from the other.
It tells you that one bar has ended, and the other has begun.
Most great musicians know how to convey that sense of time and measure without accentuating each beginning or end of the bar.
A double bar line or a double bar is composed of two side-by-side vertical lines.
It divides two music sections within a piece, indicating the end of one part and the beginning of another.
When you see a new music section, you usually have a new time signature, a new tempo mark, or sometimes even both.
The bar that indicates the end of a musical movement or the entire composition is the end bar line.
It has two vertical lines, the second thicker than the first.
If you see two bar lines, with the first one thicker than the second, followed by two dots (after the second line), you have a repeat sign.
Hence, the measures that follow should be repeated.
A double bar line, with the second line thicker than the first, followed by two dots (before the first line), indicates that the measures before are to be repeated.
The start repeat sign and the end repeat sign always go together.
When you’re a beginner, understanding the meaning of the measure can be a bit hard, but once you’ve played a couple of pieces and jammed with a couple of friends, you’ll see that it’s all-natural and logical.
Remember that music is all about the feel and the flow, so don’t try to learn to measure mechanically.
Instead, listen to music in different beats and styles, and try to hear the notes, the changes, and the harmony.
Trust me—your understanding of music will grow exponentially.