How to Read Music - Measures and Repeats

This is a continuation of “How to Read Sheet Music.” It is suggested that you read that and the article on “Pitch” before you move on to this one.

Measures or Bars

Music needs a way to meter itself and keep on the right track. This is done two ways, first with the Tempo, which tells the musician how fast to play the song, then there are measures which tell the musician how the notes are grouped together.

Have you ever notice how when you are listening to a song, you can usually count up to a number and then the beat start repeating? This is easiest to notice if you are tapping your foot along with a song, there seems to be a constant number of taps before you hear the same patterns over again. What you are counting are beats and the portions that seem to repeat are called measures.

Measures are made up of a set number of 'beats' and how those beats are counted depend on the time signature.

Time Signatures

Time signatures tell the musician how many beats there are in a measure. They are written usually as a fraction with a number on the top and a number on the bottom.

The top number always represent s how many beats there are in one measure.

The bottom number always denotes what note one of those beats stands for.

For example, in standard 4/4 time, the time signature is telling us that there are four beats per measure and that the quarter (1/4) note is one beat. Most time signatures you will see as a beginner will have a four on the bottom, sometimes there is an eight on the bottom, which means that one eighth note gets one beat. There may also be a two on the bottom, which means that one half note gets one beat.

If you are unclear about what the different lengths of notes mean, I will cover that in the next lesson on how to read sheet music.


One way that composers make it easier to write and read music, is by using repeats. If a certain passage is to be played several times in a row, it would be pointless to write each of those repeated passages out. It would not only waste a lot of paper, but it would make the musician unclear about if they were supposed to play the passages exactly the same or not.

Repeats do just that, they signal the musician to repeat a certain section of the music.

How to Read Music - Measures and Bar Lines

A repeat consists of a starting repeat (to tell you where the repeated section begins) and ending repeat (to tell you when to go back to the beginning). The repeat symbol is simply two dots on the inside of the repeated section's ending and beginning staff bars. See this illustration for a more intuitive example.