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I’ve heard this phrase most commonly used when counting off a song in a jazz context. The MD will say “I’ll give you a bar for nothing” and then count off the song.

What does it mean?

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    What does "The MD" refer to in Jazz performance? Is it a name for a role in the band? Commented Oct 30, 2023 at 6:01
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    @GratefulDisciple - Musical Director. Generally the piano/keyboard player, but I've been in bands where MD is the drummer. Not always jazz bands, could be any style, any size.
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 30, 2023 at 8:21
  • @Tim Thanks. But in classical group (chamber or orchestra), I have never heard "MD" used colloquially (like in rehearsal, or in referring to the conductor in conversations), even though the term "musical director" / "artistic director" is meaningful as a job title. Isn't it always maestro / conductor / dirigent in the classical music world? Or am I wrong? Commented Oct 30, 2023 at 8:30
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    @GratefulDisciple - I would imagine that the conductor of an orchestra would never use the phrase. It's used more by ensembles, jazz, etc.
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 30, 2023 at 12:01
  • As opposed to giving ... Measure For Measure :-) Commented Oct 31, 2023 at 15:28

2 Answers 2

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It means that a full bar will be counted before starting to play. The "for nothing" means the musicians don't have to play during that bar; thus, it's a bar "given for free."

The phrase can use any number: "two bars for nothing", "three bars for nothing", .... It's just the total number of bars to be counted ahead of the start of the song.

A definition of the phrase can be found at the South Bay Philharmonic website:

"Bar for nothing" (phrase)
Typically the conductor will give one or two preparatory beats before the music begins. The phrase "bar for nothing" (or "measure for nothing") indicates the conductor will show one entire measure before the music starts. (The preparatory measure may include a pickup.)

Another definition comes from Uketropolis: "How To Start A Song Right!"

So, this brings us to one last thing called a "bar for nothing." A "bar for nothing" is when you count one extra measure just to give everyone more time to tune into your tempo, especially when there's a pickup. So, adding a "bar for nothing" is a good idea on a piece like It Had to Be You and it would sound like this: "1, 2, 3, 4, 1, It had to be you." A bar for nothing on Oh Susanna would sound like this: "1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, Oh I come from Alabama." The bar for nothing is often done in cut-time like this: 1--, 2--, 1, 2, 3.

There is a seeming discrepancy between the two definitions in regard to whether the "bar for nothing" does or does not include an anacrusis. Here I can only rely on experience, which is that the "bar for nothing" includes the anacrusis if it's on the "and" of the final beat; otherwise, the "bar for nothing" is always a complete bar plus additional counts for the anacrusis bar.

There is also the phrase "beats for nothing", indicating a single, incomplete bar will be counted.

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    Also “for free” and just “free”. Also sometimes the number of beats or metronome click is given instead of a number of bars. So “three free” could be three clicks of the metronome without playing and then start on the fourth click. Commented Oct 29, 2023 at 14:54
  • @ToddWilcox The "free" in this case means "you don't have to work for it"; i.e., you don't have to play. "You can have this bar for free, but after that you've got to work."
    – Aaron
    Commented Oct 29, 2023 at 16:55
  • Yeah, I know. Did you mean to address your comment to me? Commented Oct 29, 2023 at 19:30
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    I was just adding that “for free” is sometimes said or written instead of “nothing” and sometimes it’s beats or “clicks” instead of bars. For example, films scores would have something like “8 free” at the top of the first bar of a cue to indicate that the ensemble will hear 8 clicks of the click track before the first beat of the cue. This terminology has bled into non-film situations sometimes, but not often. I’m the only upvote on this answer BTW. Just amplifying, not correcting. Commented Oct 29, 2023 at 21:16
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    I always assumed that ‘for nothing‘ indicates that that bar is not in the written music, but is being added to it.  (I.e. you get one bar ‘for free’, and then you start playing as written.)
    – gidds
    Commented Oct 30, 2023 at 19:30
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Just about what it says - instead of merely counting the 'phantom' bar before the start - or the start of the bar containing the anacrucis, there'll be another, extra bar counted in, prior to that. Thus, 1, 2, 1234 would be an example, the 1, 2 being the 'bar for nothing', rather than simply counting the 1234.

Works best where a song has an anacrucis of more than the last beat, as it gives the musos a chance to lock in to the tempo more easily.

EDIT: I'm working from the premise that every number will have one bar count in, regardless, so 'for nothing' makes no sense. Adding a preceding bar prior 'for nothing' actually does!

RE-EDIT. Just had a thought from a former band leader: In a recording situation, there's a count of one bar, then silence for the ensuing bar, then the music starts. To ensure the count isn't recorded. That would be the 'bar for nothing'. Maybe not so important these days, but in the days of tape, etc, saves some editing.

RE-RE-EDIT: another band leader reckons that often he gives two 'bars for nothing' - 1, 2, 1234. Which probably makes more sense than anything!

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  • The "1234" is the "bar for nothing". The example given here would be "two bars for nothing".
    – Aaron
    Commented Oct 29, 2023 at 8:58
  • I'm going to disagree. There needs to be a count in, so that's something. Can't just go 'ready, steady, go'! So the bar prior would be the bar for nothing. It's what we've called it in all my 60-odd years playing in bands.
    – Tim
    Commented Oct 29, 2023 at 9:54
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    @Tim, yes but what I mean is a conductor WILL, relatively frequently, give us a bar of nothing, when rehearsing, and will describe it in exactly those words to us. And in such a case it will be the bar directly preceding the first written bar :) It's true it will normally only need a downbeat, we usually don't need a tempo set because we have a conductor. But when sight reading slightly more finicky stuff the bar of nothing thing will come up semi frequently!
    – OwenM
    Commented Oct 29, 2023 at 10:20
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    My first comment is that the whole “orchestra only gets an upbeat” is irrelevant here because that has been hashed over many times here in other questions and this question is asked in a jazz context. My second is that 1, 2, 1234 (or 1234, 2234) is two for nothing, not one for nothing unless there is a pickup bar. Finally although we are all used to it and accept 1, 2, 1234, shouldn’t it be 1, 3, 1234 instead? A drummer friend in a big band actually does that. Commented Oct 29, 2023 at 16:01
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    @ToddWilcox exactly, for the show the conductors up-baton compared to down-baton is all thats needed to initiate the tempo of the piece. In rehearsal the conductor being clear that they are giving a 'a bar of nothing' before the first written measure is relatively common and necessary, while the piece is settling in. Otherwise the musicians would start counting bars from the first downbeat and could easily end up a bar off.
    – OwenM
    Commented Oct 30, 2023 at 0:21

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