Music Theory – The Birth of a Bar

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Birth of A Bar

This week, were going to talk about a very simple concept in music theory : counting bars. Although it appears to be basic, the technique often gets overlooked.

I started to touch upon the concept of developing a process for learning music in my last two blogs. There is a lot that can be said about formulating a system for certain aspects of playing. Having a process creates stability within a technique. A lot of us creative types are not liken to formulas or rules. Think of it, rather, as a system to free your mind to be more creative.

The more confident you are with with counting, the sooner you can allow yourself to venture into lush creative pasturers.

So what exactly do I mean about counting? Most of us watched a lot of “The Count” on Sesame Street. We know how to count. How many ways are there to count?

It’s not so much about how many numbers you count, but where you start the count for each bar.

When you listen to a song, there are a lot of things being thrown at you: tempo, key, chord changes just to name a few.

One of the biggest things you want to pick up on are the amount of bars in a section. If a progression is 9 bars long, you want to be able to grab that on a first listen. Yup, sounds simple enough… until you space out!! (Enter Pigs in Space)

One way that could easily cause confusion is to tally up the bars in different positions of the bar.

For the sake of clarity I always start counting the new bar on beat 1. Some people will start counting a new bar part way through, not being very tidy about the exact birth of a bar.

I start counting each bar on the first beat as well as replacing beat 1 with the number of the bar I’m on. Here is an example of coining a 6 bar phrase:

birth of a bar | Guitar Lessons NYC

The circled number gets replaced with the number of the bar you are starting, NOT finishing.

Getting into this habit will keep things clear in your mind. You’ll be able to look back and remember more easily because you counted every bar in a uniform manner. Keeping tally of bars at different stages creates uncertainty which is not a good base to build upon.

Eventually, as you master these “skills of wonder and amazement”, you’ll be able to multi-task (and magically clear a room of people if you decide to discuss it openly).

Once you ace counting bars, you’ll be able to make mental notes of what beats the chord changes happen on.

Isn’t this like mental juggling? Yes, but nobody gets hurt like when they’re juggling knives. Unless you’re working with a particularly cruel conductor…

The way you achieve this mental juggle is each task has it’s own “assistant” in your mind. Assistant #1 counts bars, and counts each new bar at the beginning of the bar, exactly on the beat.

Assistant #2 listens to where the chord changes happen. This not only means what beats they switch on, but which bars. Getting tricky, eh?

There is a chord that starts on beat 1 of bar one and switches to the another chord on beat 3 of the fourth bar. Better get good at paying attention, Sparky! (You’re partner in loooove will appreciate your new attention skills). They can send thank you notes to me via the contact section on my website.

Eventually, this becomes second nature. The more diligent you are about the process, the faster you will progress. Uncertainty brews instability.

Here is a great way you can practice counting. Get ready for it… Listening to music!! I know right, I’m Captain Obvious. Really though, people don’t pay as much attention listening to music as they think. Especially in today’s world of music on the go. Our senses are constantly being distracted.

Try this:

Put on a song that you’re not too familiar with. Start counting bars. The first stage is just counting the number of bars in a song. From start to finish.

Do it twice and make sure you come up with the same number.

Say it out loud as you count. Do not go on automatic pilot or put counting on the back burner if your mind. Added bonus, if you do this in public you’ll have plenty of empty seats next to you on the subway. That there is a prime luxury in NYC!

After you get good at just counting bars in a song, you can start to count bars in each section. This needs to be the second step because you need to be a solid counter first. You will have to split your attention by noting what each section is.

Again, you should be counting out loud to further prevent your mind from wondering “how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall.”

It’s ok to have a pencil and paper to aid you in marking down the bar count of each section. Just make sure when you count the second time through don’t peek at the paper with the first count. Turn the paper over and compare the two counts after the fact.

The idea is to use new songs because you have no familiarity with them. They’re fresh. You won’t know where the end is. You should count on first listen. No pre-listening cheating.

When you’re just starting out, you should skip past songs that don’t have an even meter of 4/4. You’ll eventually be able to move into 3/4 or even 5/4. It will be much easier tho if you get your footing in 4/4.

Let’s look at a song as an example. I’m in a total Beatles mood this week with the anniversary of the Ed Sullivan appearance and all. We’re going to study the bar count of “Penny Lane”. Yes, I’m breaking the rule of using a song I never heard before. But, I never said I had to follow the rules.


Bar count for the whole song:

81 bars

When we look at each section we’ll clearly see this this song is brought to us by the Number 8!!

per section:

Verse 1: 8 bars
Verse 2: 8 bars
Chorus 1: 8 bars
Verse 3: 8 bars
Solo: 8 bars
Chorus 2: 8 bars
Verse 4: 8 bars
Verse 5: 8 bars
Chorus 3: 8 bars
Chorus 4: 8 bars
Ending: 1 bar

There you have it. Now, go get a nice little accounting book for music theory and start your work!!

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