The ability to read musical notation is basically like learning an entirely new language. It is a highly sort-after skill for musicians and a music student’s worst nightmare.
However, if you want to be fluent in your specific instrument, you must understand how to read the notation given to you or risk the scorn of music tutors across the world.
Although it might feel super complicated or impossible to grasp, I promise that there are ways to make it feel a little less daunting.
In order to understand what a measure is in regards to music, we must also understand time signatures and the way that we write and discuss how to sing or play a bit of music.
What Is A Measure?
A measure is also known as a “bar” and is a specific unit of time that is set by the time signature and tempo, so the actual duration or number of notes within a measure can differ wildly.
Imagine it a little bit like a paragraph: a measure separates movements of music into smaller sections in order to make it easier to read and understand, as well as practice.
Musicians have been using measures for centuries because it’s much easier to read music when you divide it up into small units of time so that the majority of people will be able to understand where one section of music ends and another begins.
What Is The Time Signature?
Like I said, in order to properly understand what a measure is, you also need to understand the time signature as the two concepts come hand in hand.
The time signature will show you the number of beats allotted for each measure (the number on the top of a time signature), and the duration of each beat within the measure (the bottom number in the time signature).
The most common time signature, at least in Western music is 4/4, also known as common time.
This means that there are 4 beats in each measure, which will each take up a quarter of the time.
Another common time signature is 3/4, which means that instead of there being 4 beats in each measure, there are only 3, however, the duration of each beat is still the same as in 4/4.
Other signatures might look like 6/4, or 7/8 – they all follow the same rules, though some are a lot more difficult to get your head around than others.
What Is Tempo?
The final part of the equation that you need in order to understand exactly how you’re supposed to be playing is the tempo, this will tell you how fast the section of music needs to be going.
Typically this is written using BPM (beats per minute). The higher the BPM, the faster the song.
With this added to the previous two elements, you should be able to figure out how the piece is supposed to sound, and how to read each measure properly.
Don't Forget Note Values
Now that you understand the basics of how notes need to be played within a measure you need to next look at each note's value. This refers to how many beats each note should last.
For example, a quarter note is going to last for exactly a quarter of the time allotted for a 4/4 measure.
However, a half note will take up half of the measure – it makes a decent amount of sense when looking at 4/4 time signatures, however, it's a little more complicated to work out what a quarter of 6/4 is, for example.
Luckily there are tons of websites and video tutorials that can go into a lot more depth than I've been able to here.
Figuring Out The Different Types Of Bar Lines
Something else that you will need to keep in mind when beginning to read sheet music is the type of bar line that is being used and what it means.
As a guide, a bar line is the black line that separates each measure, and its appearance will communicate different instructions about how the measure needs to be played.
There are 5 basic types of bar line, and they mean the following:
Single Bar Line
A single bar line is the most common and will be found between the majority of measures within your sheet music. It simply indicates the end of one measure and the beginning of another. Consider it like a paragraph break.
Double Bar Line
If you see two bar lines right next to each other, they indicate the end of one full section, like a chorus or verse, and the beginning of another one. The double bar line is used like a new chapter.
End Bar Lines
A single bar line followed by a thicker, bold bar line indicates either the end of a musical movement (like in Vivaldi's Four Seasons, each season is a different movement) or the end of the composition as a whole.
Repeat Bar Lines
The last two come as a pair as they are only ever used as companions.
The “start repeat” bar line will be indicated by a double bar line (where the first is slightly thicker than the second) followed by two dots that look like a colon punctuation mark.
This indicates the beginning of a measure or group of measures that will need to be repeated.
Then, a little later into the notation, you will come across the “end repeat” bar line, which looks like a backward version of the start.
It will look like a colon punctuation mark, followed by a double bar line where the second line is thicker than the first. The end repeat indicates that you now need to go back to the start of the repeat and play that section again.
There you have it – everything there is to know about what a measure in music is. As you can see, it’s nowhere near as complicated as you might have originally thought.
Follow the advice outlined above, and you’ll have it mastered in no time!