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  • by Mary Barton

Measuring Out The Music!

Updated: Dec 26, 2019

Ever looked at a piece of music and wondered why it’s broken into all those small chunks called measures or bars?

Well, there are a couple of good reasons for that!

1) Firstly, the eye doesn’t deal well with clutter.

If we were to write a paragraph about something but not use any punctuation, spacing, capitalizing or any other visual clues as to where one word or thought ends and another begins (we’ve actually pretty much just described ancient Greek!), it would be difficult to readily decipher what we’re reading. Not that it can’t be deciphered – it’s just not as easily done.

Take the sentence below, for example:


I’m sure you understood the entire sentence without missing a word, but how quickly? Briefly glancing at the next sentence, not taking time to read it, what do you pick up?

Learningtoplaypianohasbeenalifelongdreamandnowthatmykidsarelearningiwantto learntoo

How many words did you get at a glance? How about now?

i am going to take piano lessons this fall like i have always wanted to

Even without caps, you get a lot more from just a glance. It’s the same with reading music. The pianist needs to be able read the music readily, clearly, and pick up as much as possible in a glance. Not that we don’t take time to study a piece of music beforehand, but when we’re playing, our eyes are sometimes on the music and sometimes on the piano or our hands. We need to be able to glance up, pinpoint where we are, and quickly scan what comes next in the music. This is important even if we have already memorized a piece of music.

Who wants to glance up and try to make sense of something like this???

So, measures facilitate strong visual clues by organizing the notes.

2) The other reason has more to do with HOW we organize the music. Measures organize a piece of music into its basic overall rhythmic structure. Generally, every piece of music has a basic underlying rhythm (though sometimes the rhythm can change part way through a piece.)

In Part 1 of the blog post, “Rhythm, Beat and Tempo: What’s the Difference?” we called this basic underlying rhythm stress on a beat in a repeating pattern. For example:

BOOM boom boom BOOM boom boom BOOM boom boom

We can see that every 3 beats in this pattern is stressed; it’s stronger. But again, which better helps find your spot? That or the following?

BOOM boom boom l BOOM boom boom l BOOM boom boom

How much more so a group of notes!

Measures gather the notes together in bunches according to the basic rhythmic structure of the music. (For demonstration purposes, I've only included the "bar lines" that separate one measure from another.)

However, in music we don’t show the stressed beat of the basic rhythm by bolding, using caps or some other visual device on the note itself. We use something called a Time Signature to signal the performer which beat gets the stress. So, for example, in 3/4 time, which is actually demonstrated above, the first beat is always stressed.

But, we'll discover more about time signatures next time!

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