What Is A Measure In Music? (Definitions, How To Use It & More)

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  • Learn about measures in music
  • Learn about basic time signatures
  • Apply these concepts to your own productions
  • Also, check out our post on What Is A Music Interval?

Musicians often use terms such as “measure,” “bar,” and “time signature.” How do all of these words relate to one another, and how do they apply to the composition and performance of musical ideas?

One might use a ruler or tape measure to measure the length of something in inches or centimeters.

Measures in music function in a similar fashion, but instead of measuring a physical object in length, they measure the length of a segment of music.

What Is A Measure In Music?

Measures, also known as bars, divide a musical composition into segments and count the duration of each segment. They follow a time signature that indicates the number of beats in each measure. While pieces of music can have any number of measures, it’s not uncommon for time signatures to change within a composition.

What Are Measures Used For, And Why Are They Important?

Dividing musical notation into smaller sections enables musicians to better process, read, and memorize the information it contains.

If a conductor directs an orchestra to “read from measure 32,” every member will know exactly where to begin with little to no room for error on their behalf, avoiding any potential for miscommunications that could derail a great performance or even a rehearsal session.

In the studio, measures help music producers and recording engineers to zone in on specific sections of the project efficiently.

Most DAWs will include measure numbers above the play header to indicate where in a specific piece the user is currently situated.

This enables producers to easily mark edit points, problem areas, and other points of interest within a project without wasting a client’s time desperately trying to find a point of interest without any real reference point.

Creating Measures With Time Signatures

A measure is created by dictating what type of note occupies a beat, then assigning a number of beats within a single measure.

If you have ever looked at a piece of sheet music or an electronic composition tool, you may have noticed two numbers at the beginning of a line.

These numbers will always be situated on top of each other in a similar way to how fractions appear in mathematics; these two numbers are the time signature.

The top number in the time signature will signal how many beats a single measure comprises. In most popular music styles of the past 80 years or so, this number will be a 4, so a single measure will, in turn, comprise of 4 beats.

The bottom number tells the musician what type of note occupies the beat. Once again, this number will often be a 4 indicating that a quarter note occupies a single beat.

A top and bottom number of 4 would indicate that the piece is in a 4/4 time signature, 4/4 is commonly referred to as common time.

Once the measure is full, “in this case when it has 4 beats filled with 4 quarter notes,” it will then be time to move on to the next measure in the piece; this means of dividing the piece into measures will continue for its entire duration regardless of what time signatures are utilized in the composition.

What Is A Meter In Music?

Meter relates to time signatures and the way beats are grouped together in music. Meters can be simple or compound. They can also be duple, triple, quadruple, or complex. 

Simple meter is when one beat can be evenly grouped by two. Examples of simple meters include time signatures such as 2/4, 3/4, and 4/4.

Compound meter is when beats can be grouped in threes. Examples of compound meters include time signatures like 6/8 and 9/8. 

Duple meters are grouped in twos. An example of a simple duple meter is 2/4. An example of compound duple meter is 6/8. 

On the other hand, Triple meters are grouped in threes. An example of a simple triple meter is 3/4. An example of a compound triple meter is 9/8. 

Quadruple meters are grouped in fours. An example of a simple quadruple meter is 4/4. An example of compound quadruple meter is 12/8. 

Complex meters have odd-numbered groupings such as 7/4 and 5/8. Progressive rock and metal bands like Rush, Dream Theatre, and Meshuggah enjoy using complex meters in their music.

Black Dog by Led Zeppelin is an example of a song that uses complex meter as it switches between 4/4 (simple quadruple) and 7/8 (complex).

One might notice that some of the time signatures in these meters crossover; this is due to the fact that two individuals may feel the pulse in a meter differently and, as a result, count it differently. 

In this scenario, people collaborating on a piece of music will generally have to compromise and meet in the middle on an agreement of time signature for the specific measure in question.



Composers will generally have the intent of having musicians play the piece, whether it be in a recording studio or live on stage.

Understanding measures and time signatures ensure that the notation passed onto the musician is easily interpreted.

Not only will an understanding of measure benefit the musicians who are required to read the music, but it will also benefit the composer.

Making the process of composing the piece more efficient and less time-consuming, freeing up more mental capacity for creative ideas and experimentation within the piece.

Reading music 

Many vocalists and instrumentalists read music at a high level. Having an accurately notated score makes rehearsal go quickly and efficiently.

Even if a performer does not know how to read music, understanding the basics of measures and time signatures can still greatly help performance.

Another way in which reading can greatly benefit a group of musicians is when learning new material; they won’t need to take the time to memorize a piece as they will likely be able to sight read it during rehearsal.

Music Production 

Understanding measures and time signatures can help you produce music with more awareness and detail. Different time signatures create different musical effects and create a different flow that can expand your creativity. 

In addition to this, it can also help you make better choices in how to arrange whatever it is that you are working on.

Having an understanding of measure and time signatures will prevent you from composing pieces that do not translate rhythmically or that may have the potential to confuse or alienate the listener. 

Generally, this would be undesirable unless the effect is a deliberate creative decision.

How Do Measures Relate To Tempo?

You can have the same time signature at a faster or slower tempo. The beats within the measure will just move at a certain number of beats per minute. 60 beats per minute (BPM) is one beat per second. 

Increasing the beats per minute makes the song faster without changing the rhythm at all.

Sometimes, increasing the tempo can give the song more energy or excitement, whereas slowing it down can make it more relaxing or reflective. You can also hear different aspects of the music differently depending on the tempo. 

Wrapping Up

Hopefully, we have helped answer all of your questions about measures. Once you understand how time signatures work and how measures are broken down, you will have a clearer understanding of what is possible musically. 

In addition, the more familiar you are with counting beats and how the beats are divided, the better you will become at composing, reading, or producing music. 

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