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Learn About Bars in Music: Basic Music Punctuation Guide

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jul 16, 2020 • 2 min read

When a composer writes a symphony or song, they break down the piece of music into more manageable subdivisions. The smallest of those subdivisions are known as musical measures or musical bars.



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What Is a Bar in Music?

In music theory, a bar (or measure) is a single unit of time containing a specific number of beats played at a particular tempo. Bars are designated by vertical bar lines that run perpendicular to the staff, indicating the beginning and end of the bar. When writing music on a page, composers break their compositions into digestible sections that help players perform the music as intended. When a piece of music is divided into bars, players need only process a little bit of music at a time, allowing them to remain focused on delivering the best possible performance.

5 Types of Bar Lines and Their Meanings

Different types of bar lines appear in sheet music, and they communicate different instructions for the player.

Single bar line

1. Single bar line: A single vertical line that indicates the end of one bar and the beginning of another.

Double bar line

2. Double bar line: Two side-by-side vertical lines, indicating the end of one section and the beginning of another.

End bar lines

3. End bar lines: Two vertical lines, the second line thicker than the first. This indicates the end of a musical movement or an entire composition.

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Start repeat

4. Start repeat: Double bar lines—the first one thicker than the second—followed by a pair of dots that look like a colon punctuation mark. This indicates the first bar of a repeated section.

End repeat

5. End repeat: Double bar lines—the second one thicker than the first—preceded by a pair of dots that look like a colon punctuation mark. This indicates the final bar of a repeated section.

How to Read a Bar of Music

A musician reads a bar of music from left to right, playing the notes in sequence as they appear. To read a bar of music, you need to understand the basics of tempo, meter, and note values. The information conveyed within a bar of written music depends on the:

  • Time signature: Musical time signatures show the number of beats per measure (the top number in a time signature) and the duration of each beat (the bottom number in the time signature). For instance, 3/4 time indicates that there are three beats per bar and each beat has the duration of a quarter note. The most common time signature in Western music is 4/4 or common time.
  • Tempo: Tempo refers to the speed of a section of music. It can be indicated in metronome markings using beats per minute (BPM) or by using descriptive words (traditionally Italian words describe tempo like adagio or andante).
  • Note values: Individual notes within a bar last for a specific fraction of the duration of that bar. For instance, quarter notes last for one quarter of a 4/4 bar, while eighth notes last for one eighth of that same 4/4 bar.
  • Bar lines: Different types of bar lines indicate different player behavior, from continuing onward to repeating a section to stopping the music altogether.


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