When someone learns how to read music, they can develop the ability to pick up a piece of sheet music and immediately begin singing or playing.
If you haven’t learned how to read music yet, then this might seem like an almost-magical ability. In reality, the person who can read music probably spent years developing their skill.
Learning how to read music begins much like learning anything. It’s essential to start with the most basic components.
One of music’s most basic components is the “bar.” This is a unit of time that is made up of a certain number of beats that are played in a particular tempo by a musician. A simple vertical line may be drawn perpendicular to the musical staff to show where each bar ends. In addition to being the end of a bar, that line is the beginning of the next bar.
When a songwriter is creating a new piece of music, they use bars. You may hear bars referred to as “measures” or “time measures,” but these are all one and the same thing. Composers use these measures, or bars, to divide their work into smaller segments.
Defining the Bar in Music
The measure is an incredibly important unit of time that composers use to organize their work. Moreover, musicians and vocalists rely on bars to help them perform together and orient themselves within the piece.
Each bar on a sheet of music represents one moment in time, and all of the bars in the same song typically have the same number of beats.
As an example, a song to which you can count, “one, two, three, four,” usually has four beats in each bar.
A Bar Is Like a Container
Think of a bar as a convenient container into which a certain number of beats may be placed. Who decides how many beats should be placed in each bar?
It’s the composer’s choice, and their selection is made known via a time signature that is displayed at the beginning of the piece.
The time signature includes two numbers, one on top and one on the bottom. The top number tells the musician how many beats are found in each measure. The bottom number provides the note values for those beats.
For instance, a four on the bottom of the time signature means that each beat is a quarter note. When the bottom number is two, each note is a half note. An eight on the bottom means that each beat is an eighth note.
Known as “common time,” 4/4 is probably the most frequently used time signature. Other time signatures include:
By looking at the time signature before you begin playing or singing, you’ll instantly know how many beats are in each bar of music in the piece.
Vertical Lines and Grouping
Each bar is divided from the next by a vertical line. Sometimes, you may hear these vertical lines being referred to as a bar. Whenever you see a piece of written music that utilizes the grand staff, which is common in music that is written for the piano, you’ll notice that music bars are used to connect the staves. These sometimes are referred to as “systematic bar lines.”
It is common for music bars to be made up of four beats. All you have to do is count, “1, 2, 3, 4,” to make your way through a bar. Each time this pattern is repeated, it represents another bar.
The four beats that you see in a bar also may represent a grouping. Also called either a bar or a measure, this grouping is what the composer uses to organize a song or other musical composition. By bringing all of the bars together, a cohesive whole is achieved.
What Do Bar Lines Do?
Primarily, the bar line is used to divide the musical staff into many measures. The lines of the music staff are presented horizontally while the bar lines are vertical. Thanks to these two types of lines, you can keep track of where you are in a musical piece.
The bar lines are a lot like the punctuation that you are accustomed to seeing in written language. Accordingly, you might think of a bar as being a sentence and a line that contains several bars as a paragraph. Just as sentences function to make the paragraph more readable, the bars provide helpful guidance so that the entire musical piece makes more sense.
Think of the music staff as if it is a timeline. The staff is broken up into smaller segments, or smaller units of time, the same way that an hour is made up of minutes and a minute is made up of seconds.
The bar lines also function to help the musician or singer count the beats in the piece they are performing. This helps to prevent them from getting lost, which can be especially helpful if they are performing as part of a larger ensemble.
Different Bar Lines
The single bar line may be the one that you will see the most as you examine a written music sheet, but you may notice other vertical lines as well. What do these lines mean?
Essentially, there are five types of bars that are used to organize musical pieces. Each one has a slightly different meaning. These five types of bars are the:
- Single bar line
- Double bar line
- End bar line
- Start repeat line
- End repeat line
The single bar line is a simple vertical line that is drawn perpendicular to the musical staff. It tells the musician when to start and stop playing, but only for that specific section. The musician then carries on to the next bar. Accordingly, each single bar line is the end of one measure and the beginning of the next.
The double bar line consists of two parallel bar lines placed in close proximity. Typically, it is played through just like the single bar line is, but it does represent the end of one section and the beginning of another.
An end bar line is used when the piece of music is done. Like the double bar line, it is drawn with two parallel bar lines placed close together. However, the end bar line differs in that the second line is noticeably thicker than the first line. Sometimes, the end bar line is used to indicate the end of a movement before the next one begins.
The start repeat line also has two parallel lines placed in close proximity. This time, the first line is the thicker one, and there is a pair of dots placed immediately after the second line. These dots are arranged one on top of the other, just like the punctuation mark known as a colon.
When a musician sees the start repeat line in a piece of music, they know that everything that comes after this line needs to be repeated.
When the musician reaches the end repeat line, this is the point at which they return to the start repeat line to play that section over again. The end repeat line is another pair of vertical lines, this time with the second line being thicker. A colon comes before the first line.
A Bar Full of Information
Just as with written language, music is read from left to right. Accordingly, musicians play each note in the same sequence in which they are recorded in the written music. To successfully and accurately read a music bar, it is essential for the musician to recognize and abide by the time signature, the tempo, and the note value.
Effectively, the bar lines are used to help musicians know when to stop, when to repeat and how to stay together throughout the piece of music, no matter how long it is.
From the time signature, musicians know how many beats are found in each measure and the value of each of those beats.
When coupled with the tempo of the piece, it is possible for a group of musicians and singers to perform together in perfect harmony, and all of this is built upon the simple music bar.
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