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I was taught musical theory in the UK where I grew up. I was taught what a bar is. In my experience, the terminology "measure" is not used in a musical sense in the UK.

Since living in the US, I have generally found that "measure" is a direct synonym for "bar". However I hear some people here use both terms, which has confused me.

In the US, are the terms "bar" and "measure" exactly equivalent, or is there some subtle distinction between the two?

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The terms are interchangeable. There is no distinction. However, the term "measure" was used in a similar sense as "bar" in older English. "Let us measure them a measure" in Shakespeare means "Let's dance for them for a few bars". – user1044 May 4 '14 at 18:17
@WheatWilliams, I believe you are mistaken. While we have measures in music, in the dance of Shakespeare's time, there were also measures -- it meant "figure", such that one measure of dance might take several (often four) measures of music -- and the word "measure" had come to mean, by synecdoche, "dance". See "The Old Measures". So "Let us measure them a measure", probably meant "dance them a dance", not "dance them a few bars." – Codeswitcher May 5 '14 at 1:22
@Codeswitcher: "translating" Shakespeare's word plays is likely to lose some meanings. Here clearly both "a slow and stately dance, like the minuet" and "{To have hard measure}, to have harsh treatment meted out to one; to be harshly or oppressively dealt with" are implied. – User8773 May 5 '14 at 7:59
There are standard, academically recognized definitions for these terms and all musical terms currently or formerly in use. The New Grove (ie. Grove's Dictionary of Music & Musicians) is the internationally recognized reference source for terminology. Wikipedia is pretty dependable too. – RichT Sep 8 '14 at 12:21
up vote 19 down vote accepted

I've studied music in both the US and the UK (piano lessons in the UK at age 14, majored in piano in the US), and bar and measure are used interchangeably in both in my experience. Jazz and blues musicians tend to say "bar" more often than "measure": 12-bar and 16-bar blues, for example. Also, you'd never hear a jazz musician say "He stepped on four of my measures" if someone came in four bars early while he was improvising for an allotted number of bars. Nevertheless, they mean the same thing, both in the US and the UK.

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A "bar" is actually the graphical entity separating measures. "Let's start at bar x" is probably what led to "bar" becoming a substitute for "measure" in some usage. After all, "measure" has a lot of meanings already, and some of them in contexts close to music (a "at measured pace", the dance "measure", possibly also used for "phrase" generally). I'd not be surprised if dancers called a basic dancing step (depending on the metre, one or two beats) a "measure": at least German dancers confuddled me a lot by what they choose to call a "Takt".

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Strictly speaking, a bar is the vertical line which defines a set of notes. This set of notes constitutes the measure. When we say "start at bar 10" we actually mean start at the bar at the beginning of measure 10. You can also say "start at measure 10"

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This is definitely a difference between British and American usage. In British usage these lines are usually "bar-lines". – Bob Broadley May 5 '14 at 12:42
"bar line" is nicely unambiguous. However, taking a look at 1913 Webster's (admittedly an American dictionary), "bar" has plentiful non-musical meanings and almost all of them stand for some sort of barrier or at least confined space, making it hard to assume a relation to "measure" without going through the separation line as "bar". In fact, the musical definition is plainly "A vertical line across the staff. Bars divide the staff into spaces which represent measures, and are themselves called measures." – User8773 May 5 '14 at 13:31
@BobBroadley: I call them bar-lines too, and I'm American. Measure and bar I use interchangeably. – BobRodes May 5 '14 at 20:41
When we say "start at bar 10" in the UK we mean "start at the beginning of bar 10". The bar lines are the separation between the bars, and the bars are (graphically) the stuff between them. It is, fundamentally, just a case of calling things different things - in much the same way that we say "semibreve" and Americans say "whole note". – Matthew Walton May 6 '14 at 7:48
I've never been taught "bar" meaning the drawn line, otherwise "we'll start halfway through bar 10" would be meaningless. – Jeffrey Kemp May 7 '14 at 4:40

It is true that "measure" is used synonymously with "bar" in North America. Christopher Hasty, in Meter as Rhythm (1997) makes a compelling case for ceasing use of "measure" (in short, that he wishes to use the notion of "measure" more flexibly than the usage synonymous with bar, since in the process of making sense of rhythmic activity we use "measures" of a variety of lengths). While he advocates the use of "bar measure" as a surrogate, this hasn't caught on, to my knowledge; however, his case for reserving the term "measure" for the purposes he states is a compelling one for rhythmic theory. (On the topic of metric terminology, he also advocates the use of "meter signature" rather than "time signature," for obvious reasons. This is a practice followed by other careful thinkers on meter, including those who predate Hasty (e.g., George Houle, 1987), although many or most North Americans continue to use the term "time signature.")

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