?`s and ANNEswers

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Bar Lines

This blog is not about the line for a cocktail at a wedding or an awards banquet. It’s about those vertical lines in music that break it into measures.

You’re probably wondering how this blog came out of left field, but bar lines have given me considerable pause for thought during my piano studies. And since I just finished my daily practice, I’m in the mood to share.

Bar lines help the pianist or trumpeter or banjo player identify a certain place in the music, as each measure has a number. If your teacher says you need extra work on measures 12 through 18, you know where to find them.  Bar lines also help with the time signature in that each measure meets the requirements for the particular signature involved.  For instance, if the time signature is ¾, the music student knows the quarter note (the number on the bottom) gets a full beat and that there are three of them (the number on the top) in every measure. Unless, of course, there’s an anacrusis (an incomplete measure — and a subject for another time).

Bar lines come in various types. There is the standard bar, the double bar, the end, the begin repeat, the end repeat, and the begin and end repeat. They all mean different things and are helpful guidelines in navigating the music in question.

The thing is that while bar lines help with the mathematics of music and avoid pages of repeated measures, they do not help with the dynamics of a piece.  This is because the phrases of played music ignore the bar lines as they move along.

Imagine a sentence like this: Annie loves coffee, but joe loves seltzer.  In English, there are five syllables in each sentence joined by a comma. But in music, in 4/4 time, there are only four beats to a measure.

So, if the above sentence were in musical notation (assuming all notes were quarter notes . . . and often they’re not), it would read like this in 4/4 time.  Annie loves coff/ee but Joe loves/ seltzer. “Seltzer” would be in a different measure; and while the mathematician in me understands that, the musician in me struggles to leap the bar line for the sake of the music.

If you don’t understand any of this, that’s fine. You probably didn’t understand diagramming sentences either. Or maybe you never took music. Just know that standing in a bar line for a cocktail is far easier.

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