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
    Commented May 4, 2014 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." Commented May 5, 2014 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
    Commented May 5, 2014 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
    Commented Sep 8, 2014 at 12:21

6 Answers 6


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.


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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    I thought the graphical entity separating measures was a "bar line" (or maybe that's a British English thing too). Commented Aug 12, 2016 at 20:37
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    Gardner Read's excellent book "Music Notation" contains a rant similar to the claim in your answer; in Standard American (English), the space between two bars is called a measure. But in Standard English English, it is not: barlines separare bars. So both you and he are simply wrong if you intend to address anything wider than US usage. Commented Jun 29, 2017 at 6:34

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.")

  • I would love for you to expand this by clarifying exactly what ‘the purpose he states’ is; as it is now, your answer doesn’t read easily.
    – Canned Man
    Commented Oct 28, 2022 at 13:43

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". Commented May 5, 2014 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
    Commented May 5, 2014 at 13:31
  • @BobBroadley: I call them bar-lines too, and I'm American. Measure and bar I use interchangeably.
    – BobRodes
    Commented May 5, 2014 at 20:41
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    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". Commented May 6, 2014 at 7:48
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    I've never been taught "bar" meaning the drawn line, otherwise "we'll start halfway through bar 10" would be meaningless. Commented May 7, 2014 at 4:40

I feel there are 4 beats to a "measure" or "Bar"....I used to think as the dividing line between "beats" as a bar....and a measure being the complete line...say of 4 beats....then to say there are 4 bars to a measure....even though I know that the terms bars and measure are used interchangeably, as well as, in Jazz and Blues they use the terms...12 bar and 16 bar phrases or lines...(Also as Bob Rodes above says 12 bar and 16 bar Blues...Joe Murphy (Drummer) S.W.FL. orig. J.C.NJ

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    Can you improve the grammar of this answer? Right now it comes across as a stream of thought and is not very coherent - it sounds like you are saying there are 4 bars to a measure, which I think is definitely wrong in every musical context that I have been exposed to. I can retract my downvote if you can make this clearer and/or more correct. Commented Jun 28, 2017 at 18:08

Bars and measures are the same thing but we (in the States) use them to talk about 2 different things when writing music. In 4/4 there are 4 beats per bar and 4 bars per measure. So this can change how many measures are in a song because one song has 4 bars per measure vs an 8/4 time song that has 8 beats per bar and 4 bars per measure or 6/5 time which has 6 beats per bar and 5 bars per measure. Now not every musician looks at it this way but I know plenty who do.

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    This is incorrect. No one (in the U.S. or elsewhere) disputes the meaning of the term "measure." It means the same thing as a bar. Maybe you're thinking of a hypermeasure?
    – jdjazz
    Commented Jan 7, 2018 at 3:39
  • What's more, even though some music may have the sense of hypermeasures of 3 bars (Ritmo di tre battute) or perhaps 5, nobody puts such a number in the bottom of a time signature; that number is always a power of 2, e.g. 2, 4, 8 or 16 but never 5.
    – Rosie F
    Commented Jun 7, 2018 at 9:18
  • I don't know any musicians who look at it this way. Doesn't mean that they don't exist, but to every music-reading musician I know, 8/4 means 8 beats per bar/measure and 4th note gets one beat. Then 6/5 time presupposes the existence of a "fifth note," which would get one beat. How to write six of those in one measure is problematical, and it doesn't make much sense to me to do it anyway, since AFAICS you could write the same rhythm and meter much more easily with 6/4 time signature.
    – BobRodes
    Commented Sep 27, 2021 at 3:19

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