In sheet music I currently read, I notice two distinct ways of rendering the measure number. On some staff line beginnings, it's rendered just as a

  • bare number (positioned above the clef)

where on other lines (and sometimes in the middle thereof) it's shown in a

  • larger font with a rectangular border around the numbers. See the following example:

staff with differenly rendered measure numbers

All are obviously measure numbers, as they match the actual measure count. I suspect, but am not sure whether the bordered measure numbers have a specific meaning, like the start of a section or similar.

Is there a general consensus on how to write measure numbers, and what meaning such borders should convey?

  • 3
    Related question. Boxed bar numbers are just one (and in my opinion: not the best) way of defining rehearsal marks.
    – guidot
    Commented Jun 24 at 15:04
  • @guidot: What approach do you prefer for rehearsal marks? If a piece has small measure numbers just before each measure, duplicating a measure number for a rehearsal mark may be inelegant, but seems cleaner than omitting the small mark for the measure in question. On the flip side, using small bar numbers at the start of each line, and also having large rehearsal numbers as shown in the example will make it easy for any player who's fluid with addition and subtraction to quickly identify any bar given its number.
    – supercat
    Commented Jun 24 at 20:50
  • @guidot the rehearsal marks in the question you link to aren't bar numbers, however. They're just rehearsal marks. If they were bar numbers then mark 5 would be over the bar immediately following mark 4.
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 25 at 12:45

2 Answers 2


In most cases a measure number that is bold and boxed indicates the beginning of a section and/or a rehearsal number, a logical landmark to use as a reference when rehearsing or learning a piece. As an example, a musical director in a rehearsal may say: “Let’s begin at bar 17.”

As for measure numbers in general, there is no specific standard way to use them. Some pieces use them for every measure, some every 4, some at the beginning of each new line. It is a choice the arranger or copyist will make.

  • Thanks, and it supports my initial thought. I have to say though, our director also often chooses other measure numbers to begin with, for example one ore two earlier, to also have the build-up of a section rehearsed with it.
    – Marcel
    Commented Jun 23 at 21:31
  • 3
    @Marcel Your director is probably being logical, it is not uncommon to begin a measure or even two before if there is an anacrusis or some other type of lead in to a phrase or section. Commented Jun 23 at 22:36
  • I'll add that "at every 4" is only likely in pieces with 4- or 8-bar phrases. Some more unusual music might use phrases of a different length, or even inconsistent lengths between phrases, and those might put a measure number at the start of each phrase.
    – Hearth
    Commented Jun 24 at 4:08
  • 2
    @Marcel even with rehearsal letters it's common to begin "four before B" or whatever because a key danger, especially with amateurs, is neglecting to rehearse transitions.
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 24 at 14:00
  • The rehearsal marks are the same for all instruments, while line breaks (and therefore numbers at the start of lines) can be different. So "2 before 17" instead of "15" can make a lot of sense even if a particular voice has measure 15 marked.
    – linac
    Commented Jun 25 at 11:49

This is weird. There's no point in having both styles of measure numbers, and it's worse than being pointless because it's confusing. Often the boxed above-the-staff style is used when the numbers are given in multiples of five or ten no matter what.

The more common use for dual systems is when there are rehearsal letters given, typically based on considerations of form and structure, and measure numbers are given as well.

My guess is that the editor either didn't intend this result or didn't understand the conventional approach to giving measure numbers.

  • I would say the measure numbers at the beginning of each line are a useful aid when it comes to locating a boxed measure number quickly.
    – TonyK
    Commented Jun 25 at 11:02
  • @TonyK but why have the boxed measure numbers at all?
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 25 at 12:13
  • 3
    Rehearsal marks. It might not be the way that you would annotate them, but it seems very workable to me.
    – TonyK
    Commented Jun 25 at 12:26
  • @TonyK what is the point of a rehearsal mark if you have measure numbers? The point of measure numbers is to avoid having to say "before rehearsal C, count with me, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 measures." With measure numbering, you just say "measure 42" without regard to rehearsal marks. Also with this approach you run the risk of saying "three before 17" and your choristers saying "you mean 14?" :-)
    – phoog
    Commented Jun 25 at 12:39
  • 3
    If you think that conductors will want to start at measure 17 frequently, because of the structure of the piece, then it makes sense to highlight measure 17 even if it's not at the beginning of a line. The alternative is waiting for everyone to figure out what the closest measure number is that's printed on their page and counting forwards/backwards to the correct measure, which wastes time. Commented Jun 25 at 15:34

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