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The Wikipedia page for anacrusis states that

Western standards for musical notation often include the recommendation that when a piece of written music begins with an anacrusis, the composer, copyist, typesetter, or printer should delete a corresponding number of beats from the written music's final bar in order to keep the number of bars in the entire piece at a whole number.

In addition, my music teacher said that this is almost always the case, and that she hasn't seen any piece where this "rule" is broken.

Why is this the case?

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9 Answers 9

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Basically, I'd say this isn't a rule.

Or maybe it's a misphrasing of a rule.

You generally see the last bar shortened to match the pickup bar when there's a repeat that goes right back to the start of the pickup bar, in order to preserve overall bar lengths as consistent within the section. This then implies that the subsequent section also has a pickup (the remainder of the bar with the repeat marking in the middle of it).

And notationally, actually, that's often done by dropping a start repeat marker on the first full bar after the anacrusis, so the anacrusis for the second time through is actually incorporated into the last bar of the repeated section. This enables the anacrusis to be different the second time, but more importantly means you don't have to stick a repeat sign in the middle of a bar, which can be confusing to sight-readers.

With regards to the end of the piece, I've seen a few pieces where the piece ends on a partial bar, but I've seen a lot more pieces where it ends on a full bar, thus leaving the entire piece with a non-integer number of complete bars.

My experience is primarily with baroque, renaissance and English folk music, so this might be different elsewhere, but the pattern I generally see is:

(pickup bar):(lots of full bars):(finish with a full bar, sometimes a longer bar)

In an era where throwing in bars of different lengths from time to time was perfectly normal (and indeed a lot of music was being written without bar lines anyway, making that kind of thing much more tempting), not 'matching' your pickup opening in the last bar would've been entirely unremarkable. If you look at scores for various fantasies, ayres, various dances and so forth you'll often find the ones that do start with a pickup still finish with a full bar for the final chord (at least in the bass, sometimes in every part).

So I'd only expect to see anacrusis length matching when repeating.

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It is to make up for starting early in an anacrusis (pick up) measures because without making up for it at the end, you technically have one measure in a different time signature.

Think of it this way, when you start a song with an anacrusis lasting one beat in 4/4 you would start the song with counting 1 - 2 - 3 and star playing on 4. The song did not start until beat 4 so at the end this must be taken into account and a full measure consists of the leftovers before the anacrusis to combine to make a full measure so the last measure will only consists of beats 1, 2, and 3 leave out 4.

Also note the anacrusis is not the first measure. The first measure of a song happens after the anacrusis so it would make sense to tack on the extra beat to the end instead of the beginning. There is no measure 0.

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  • 4
    While your answer explains the concept (and, as such, your answer is completely correct and valid), I do think that the premise of the concept is completely wrong. A bar with an anacrusis does not have a different time signature. Think of it as a bar that comes before the actual first bar, where the first x notes are rests. This is quite clear when you look at an anacrusis for an instrument that is being accompanied by other instruments. The others are already playing, and the bar has already started, when the instrument joins in, mid-bar, so to speak. - cc -
    – Lee White
    Commented Jun 23, 2014 at 15:19
  • This bar is not an incomplete bar; just not all of it is being utilized by that one instrument. Regardless of this, +1 because good answer.
    – Lee White
    Commented Jun 23, 2014 at 15:20
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    @LeeWhite - if what you state is true, then every anacrucis would be written with the appropriate rests before it to fill up that bar, wouldn't it?
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 3, 2016 at 6:39
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    @Tim, Not writing the empty part of the pickup measure is a convention understood by most musicians, but I've seen it written as a whole measure in at least one book for absolute beginners. You could write it every time, but no one bothers.
    – Karen
    Commented Aug 3, 2016 at 20:08
  • I agree with Karen. The same argument can be used against the anacrusis having a different time signature: if it had a different time signature, its rhythm would reflect that time signature in practice. While in fact, when you hear an anacrusis, its rhythm always sounds exactly like the last few beats of each bar of the rest of the song. For instance, if a 4/4 song starts with a 3 beats anacrusis, the anacrusis usually doesn't sound like it's introducing a waltz; it tends to be pretty clearly the last 3 beats of a 4/4 bar. - cc -
    – Lee White
    Commented Aug 5, 2016 at 9:26
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This "rule" is helpful and common when notating hymns that repeat for multiple verses. When you get to the end, it's common to go back to the top and repeat the anacrusis, or pickup, which includes text.

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The "rule" is necessary where a piece is in simple ternary form, with a DC al fine. Much Grade 1 piano music follows this simple pattern, so we tend to be over-exposed to it early in our musical careers! It's also often appropriate in strophic songs, hymn tunes etc. which start on an upbeat.

It should be obvious when the rule has run out of being useful.

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Phrases want and need round numbers of bars to end on. You typically have 8 or 16 bar phrases. You don't want seven-and-a-half bar phrases, nor do you want eight-and-a-half bars phrases.

You want a good amount of time to develop the phrase both rhythmically and harmonically, but if there is an odd amount of bars the phrases has an uneasy, uncompleted feel to it.

Wikipedia offers this piece of insight.

Western standards for musical notation often include the recommendation that when a piece of music begins with an anacrusis, the notation should omit a corresponding number of beats from the final bar in order to keep the length of the entire piece at a whole number of bars.

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If there is a direct repeat to the beginning indicated by a repeat sign or some sort of form, e.g. D.C al fine, then the first and last measures must complete the anacrusis in order to prevent having too many beats in the measure where the repeat is taken. Otherwise, it seems to be just more a good practice than an actual rule.

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The ruling probably came in when bar lines were the acceptable way to divide tunes, Baroque time.Then a rule needed to be made to compensate for the part bar at the beginning. An incomplete bar at the end adding to the anacrucis rounded it off better. It's maybe more noticeable in songs - the most important word would be 'saints',not 'Oh when the'. So the first proper bar starts on 'saints', not '(rest) Oh'. So the anacrucis is regarded as bar 0 - on some computer stuff, rather than bar 1. It then makes sense to complete the cycle with the rest of that '0' bar. Sometimes songs have an anacrucis on only some of their verses. In those cases, the repeat line is not right at the beginning of the piece, but at the beginning of 'bar 1', the new anacruses being written at the END of the previous verse.

No, it's not strictly necessary in some cases, as, by the end you've stopped counting naturally anyway.But, it adheres to some rules which may make the piece appear better written.As it's found in so many pieces, musicians tend to expect it to be written correctly. A bit like putting Ab instead of G# in a tune in E - some would argue 'well it's the same note anyhow - in equal temperament.. '.But it would throw musicians who are used to convention.

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  • Baroque music with an anacrusis typically ends on a full-length bar, in my experience. They didn't really care about bar lines then. Commented Jun 23, 2014 at 15:00
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I believe this "rule" is antiquated, therefore arguably obsolete. What I do with my scoring is this: count in two bars for free, the second bar has the anacrusis, say it's two eighth notes. In 4/4 e.g., count in "One, two, one two three...", then play the two eighth notes anacrusis, hitting beat #1 of the next bar, the first beat of the piece proper. The anacrusis has served its purpose; it's no longer needed, ergo never to be revisited. However, the piece can have starting and ending staff repeats, at start of bar #1 of the piece proper, and the ending repeat at the final full bar, with the anacrusis reprising on beat 4 of that bar. This way, the anacrusis can be different, if you so choose. Yes, it's IMHO, but however borne of long experience, helping to cull potential stumbles in sightreading ;-]

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  • It's not (and never was) a universal rule. But it's appropriate - vital in fact - if you're making a Da Capo to an anacrusis. Happens all the time in multi-verse songs, hymn tunes etc.
    – Laurence
    Commented Dec 1, 2023 at 13:11
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Rules were made... a long time ago. This rule makes sense to me for boxy, structured pieces including hymns. It also makes sense, from a publishing and sight reading perspective. I use it when it makes sense. Supporting ending ritardandos or fermatas can make it a deliberate, aesthetic choice, but it's always optional unless you're entering a baroque contest.

What happens if you change time signatures? Must one wrap up the partial measure before switching gears? Heavens no!

Just don't forget to omit your pickup measure from the measure count and start with 1 on the first full measure.

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