How to Count Bars (Measures) in Music

A single measure of music is often referred to as one bar of music. The entire measure can contain any number of notes as determined by the time signature. One of the most common time signatures is common time or the 4/4 time signature. In this time signature, the top number tells you how many beats are in the measure, while the bottom note tells you which subdivision of a whole note is worth one beat. For example, a whole note consists of four beats. With a 4/4 time signature, you can determine that the main unit of time is the quarter note since you can divide a whole note by four exactly four times. Then, you use the top number to determine how many beats are in the measure. In the case of 4/4 time, that is four beats to the measure. So, there are four quarter notes in 4/4 time and each quarter note is held for one full beat. Once you know how to interpret time signatures you need to learn about the different note values.

Time Signature

Step 1: Identify the time signature in the music. Remember that time signatures consist of two numbers with the top number giving you the number of beats or counts in a measure and the lower digit refers to the duration of the main beat.

Step 2: Calculate the beats that exist in one measure by looking at the top number. If you see a four, then there will be four beats or counts per measure.

Step 3: Learn about note values. Note values stem from the whole note. The whole note is the longest followed by the half note that is half as long, then the quarter, eighth and 16th note. Each progressive note value is worth half as much as the previous one. If a whole note is worth four beats, then half notes have two beats and quarter notes have one beat.

Step 4: Decide what note value is worth one beat. To do this, make the time signature into a fraction and replace the top number with one. This will tell you what note value you are dealing with. If there is a four on the bottom, the quarter note gets one beat because the time signature is one-quarter. If there is a two, the half note gets one beat. If there is a four, the whole note gets one beat. An eighth or 16th means that the eighth note and 16th note gets one beat.

Step 5: Use the beats per measure and the note value that gets one beat to determine how the measure is structured. There are usually three or four beats to the measure. If there are four quarter notes in one measure, then you would count the whole note as four beats, the half note as two, the quarter as one, the eighth as half and the 16th as one-quarter of a beat.

Step 6: Determine how many beats each note in the measure is worth. Start a metronome and hold each note out for the required length of time. If there are two-eighths, you must play two-eighth notes in the time it takes for the metronome to click once.

You can use numbers to help count the measure. Use whole numbers (1,2,3,4) to indicate the main beats. Use "+" signs to indicate half beats and alternate "e" and "a" to indicate quarter beats. For instance, 1 e + a, 2 +, 3 + a, 4 would be written as four 16th notes, two-eighth notes, an eighth followed by two 16ths and then a quarter note.


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