The Tyranny of the Bar-line

OK, the word tyranny might be a little strong – the humble bar-line never killed anyone or threatened to take over the world. The bar-line does, however, from time to time make perfectly rational beings (and even the less rational ones) do peculiar things, oftentimes without us realizing it. Tricksy little bar-lineses!

How so?cropped-guitar.jpg

Let’s take a slight step back first and look at the bar-line’s function. What’s it there for, all straight up and down, a vertical divider across the stave?

Well, it’s there to help us make sense of where we are rhythmically with the music and fundamentally separates each bar or measure and indicates where the main pulses (see last week’s post for more on that) lie in the music (most of the time anyway).

So why do these seemingly innocuous lines make us do funny things? The placement or observation of a bar-line can sometime create a barrier. I’ve observed (in myself, students and other players – no one is completely immune) that the presence of a bar-line can often have quite a significant psychological impact of “here’s a barrier, here’s an end to something, here’s a beginning to something” when that may not in fact be the case. And here’s the real kicker – you may not always be consciously aware of it! It’s like we’re subconsciously conditioned for these barrier, box-like, neat parcel thingos.

Music doesn’t come in box-shaped parcels

Yes, things balance out rhythmically and mathematically (if you want to go that far) in terms of beats in the bar and so on. However, the phrases and musical lines, more often than not, do not fit neatly into little bar shaped parcels as dictated by the time signature. No, no, no. that would be kind of dull too.

Lines and phrases move across bar-lines, phrases are more fluid than that little vertical stripe would have us otherwise think. Take a look at some of your music now and notice really where the phrases begin and end.

Just like white lines painted on the road, there’s nothing actually physically stopping you from travelling over the line (it’s only paint after all), but we’ve been conditioned to stay within the lines. Of course there are safety considerations and so on that limit this metaphor a little, but you catch my drift.

Here are some tips to avoid the tyranny of the bar-line:

  • Take a look at pieces you’re playing now or new pieces you’re about to start and try to imagine a there are no bar-lines there. Does the melody cross bar-lines? Do phrases, sub-phases or cadence points move to and/ or finish just over a bar-line? What does the shape of the notes suggest in terms of musical direction? Where are the main phrases? Are there smaller sub-phrases in there?
  • Pick out the melody line of your piece and ask yourself how you would sing it? You probably wouldn’t have a wee micro-gap between one note and the next or from one note to the end of the phrase if you were singing a song. Or maybe you would – it’s up to you how you feel these things. But putting these things as that’s how you feel it musically is preferential, I think to doing something because you’ve not really thought about it, or being limited by something you weren’t aware you were being limited by! Using singing (in your head or out loud and as terribly or as beautifully as you like!) can help us find where the music is going naturally.
  • Think and feel “connected” when playing the musical phrases, especially across bar-lines if this idea is new to you!
  • Avoid practicing things in bars, focus on practicing phrases, shapes or lines. This is the essence of the music, not bar divisions.
  • Check out music that has been written without bar-lines. A lot of early music was written in this way (from around 13th century to late 16th/ early 17th century). And more recently Erik Satie was onto something when he wrote his Gymnopedies and Gnossiennes for piano (and other stuff besides) – no bar-lines! It’s not a crazy as it sounds as you can still very much feel a strong sense of pulse in the music, but the absence of bar-lines makes you look the shape of the music on the page to tell you where the music is going.

2 thoughts on “The Tyranny of the Bar-line

  1. Rather strange that you don’t mention the name “Daniel Gregory Mason”, when you borrow the title of one of his articles, for your own.
    His article is a prime early source of information on the matter, and deserves to be mentioned.

    1. Hi Joe,

      gosh, yes that is rather strange and thank you very much for bringing Daniel Gregory Mason to my attention. Hand-on-heart, I’ve not heard of him before! And certainly not aware that he wrote about similar things or even used that same title! I’m most definitely not interested in claiming other people’s work as my own – I always give credit if others work is used (and if I haven’t it is most definitely unintentional). The spirit of this blog is one of sharing, raising awareness and show casing talent. I definitely have no interest in taking credit for someone else’s hard work just for a 500 word blog post!

      So, yes, for this blog post, as with all my other writings, I can promise you that the blog post is 100% my own work and thoughts, based on my own learnings, thoughts and experiences with my own students without even a modicum of awareness of Daniel Gregory Mason and previous use of the title! Just goes to show – there’s nothing new under the sun!

      I shall be most definitely be checking out Daniel Gregory Mason as I’m always eager to learn new things, particularly prime early sources on a subject as you mention. Thank you for bringing him to my attention and thanks for reading the blog 🙂


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