In various music theory exams (typically grades 1 through 4) you will be asked to add bar lines to a given melody. This is a useful exercise as it forces you to look at the rhythm carefully. It’s an important step in understanding any music that’s in front of you.
So how do we add bar lines to music? To add bar lines, count the note values (aka. time values) and organize them into bars according to the given time signature. When counting a rhythm always double check the details such as any dotted notes, rests, tied notes and triplets.
As we’ve discussed in this article about time signatures, rhythm is an indispensable part of music so it’s important to get this right!
In this lesson we’re going to break it down into steps. The lesson covers the typical syllabi as offered by these music boards: ABRSM, Trinity and University of West London. Exercises are at the end so you can also practice on your time.
6 Steps to Adding Bar Lines
We’ll look at some examples (grade by grade) in a moment but first, here are the steps we’ll go through to make sure we add the bar lines at the right spots. (Often, you won’t even need all of these steps.)
- Look at the top number of the time signature. This number tells us how many beats every bar must get.
- Look at the lower number of the time signature. This number tells us what kind of beats we have.
- Count the note values of the melody and group them according to the time signature.
- As you know, some notes are exactly one beat long but many others are longer or shorter. Watch out especially for dotted notes (and in grade 4, watch out also for double dotted notes).
- You might also encounter some rests. Remember that these are equivalent to note values and count just the same.
- Tied notes don’t change the values of notes. They simply join 2 (or more) notes together. As we’ll see they can be good hints at what the time signature actually is.
How to Add Bar Lines in Grade 1
In this exercise, you are given a melody with the time signature but without bar lines. Your task is to add those missing bar lines. (By doing so, you automatically organize the melody into bars.)
In grade 1, you will deal with:
- The simple time signatures of 2/4, 3/4 and 4/4;
- The basic note values from whole note (semibreve) down to the sixteenth note (semiquaver) and their equivalent rests;
- The basic note values with a dot as well as ties.
Let’s say we are given this melody. The given time signature is 4/4 and only the first bar line is written. We need to add the remaining bar lines.
Let’s move in steps as outlined in the 6 points above:
Step 1: The top number of the time signature is 4. That means we’re dealing with 4 beats in every bar.
Step 2: The bottom number of the time signature is also 4. That means that the beats are crotchets (in US terms, quarter notes). We get to this answer by dividing the semibreve (the whole note) by that bottom number: 4.
Step 3: Now that we know that every bar must have 4 quarter crotchet beats, count the note values. Every 4 crotchet beats must be grouped into a bar.
Notice that I didn’t say “Every 4 notes must be grouped into a bar” but “Every 4 quarter note beats”. Remember that one note can take up any amount of beats: from half a beat (or less), to 4 beats (or more). This is why it’s so important to consider the value of the beat.
This example is fairly simple so we don’t need those other steps. Here’s the answer.
Since the beat is a crotchet beat, the minim (the half note) takes up 2 beats. The crotchet itself, of course, takes up exactly 1 full beat. So all we have to do now is draw a bar line after every 4 crotchet beats:
This next example is in 2/4. Just for an extra bit of challenge, no bar lines at all are given.
The steps to add bar lines are exactly the same as before. Steps 1 and 2 are about figuring out the time signature – in this case, it’s 2/4 and that means 2 crotchet beats in every bar.
What we do now is simply count the notes and every 2 crotchet beats, we draw a bar line. From music theory, you know that a quaver (an eighth note) is half a crotchet. And that means that 2 quavers make a full crotchet.
Since the beats are crotchet beats, then every 2 quavers also make a full beat. And so here is the answer (look at the working on top to see the pattern):
The way that quavers (eighth notes) and smaller note values are joined by a beam into groups is a good hint at what the time signature is.
We’ll discuss beaming and how it helps us later on in this lesson. For now, keep in mind that notes are beamed in such a way so that they make the beats clear. This means that:
>> A group of beamed notes will not cross over a bar line;
>> The first note of a group of beamed notes is always on a stronger beat.
Now here’s an example with several dotted notes as well as a rest.
The steps in adding bar lines are exactly the same as before. Simply remember that:
- A dot adds half the value to the original. So a dotted crotchet is worth 3 quavers (2 from the original plus 1 from the dot); and a dotted minim is worth 3 crotchets (2 from the original plus 1 from the dot).
- Rests are counted just as notes are. In this case we have a crotchet rest so (just like a crotchet note) it’s exactly one beat long.
So the answer to this example is as follows. The working out is on top in orange.
Once again, notice how the grouping of the eighth notes follows the layout of the time signature. The first set of eighth notes (bar 1) covers the third and fourth beats. The second set of eight notes (bar 4) covers the first and second beats.
In these exercises you will never be asked to draw a bar line across a beam!
This next example features some semiquavers (sixteenth notes) as well as dotted quavers (dotted eighth notes).
Nothing else is new so we’ll go through the same process to add bar lines. The time signature is 3/4 meaning 3 crotchet beats in every bar. We have quite a few dotted quavers + semiquaver units (that’s dotted eighth + sixteenth in the US).
Since the dotted quaver is equal to 3 semiquavers, the unit consists of 4 semiquavers. As you know from music theory, that equals a crotchet.
In fact, when we count every note, we’ll realize that every group equals a crotchet. And in this time signature, that’s a beat. The only note that takes more than a beat is that minim (half note).
And so adding bar lines every 3 crotchet beats gives us this answer:
This next example is not much different than all the others except for the ties.
Ties can be helpful in recognizing the time signature because there are 2 main reasons for their use:
- Either because there’s no other way of writing the duration of a note (such as when a note is a crotchet and a semiquaver long),
- Or because a long note doesn’t fit so it needs to take some time value from the next bar. This second point is useful: ties can (and often do) cross a bar line.
So with these points in mind, we simply add all the notes and put a bar line every 3 crotchet beats (as the time signature is 3/4).
How to Add Bar Lines in Grade 2
In grade 2, you will deal with everything in grade 1 plus:
- These simple time signatures: 2/2, 3/2, 4/2 and 3/8;
- Triplets (including triplets with rests).
Let’s dive right into some examples.
As you can see, the time signature here is 3/8. The top number is 3 and that means 3 beats in every bar. The bottom number is 8 and that means that the beats are quavers (eighth notes). Just like before we get to this answer by dividing the semibreve (whole note) by that bottom number.
So the time signature 3/8 tells us that we have 3 quaver beats in every bar.
It shouldn’t be too difficult to add bar lines here. All we have to do is count the value of the notes and add a bar line every 3 quavers. Like before, the beaming and the grouping of quavers and smaller notes is extremely helpful.
In 3/8, these rhythms shown here are very common. Observe how most are grouped in 3 quaver beats (and so that means a whole bar).
Of course we can have rests as well. They don’t change anything in our counting of quaver beats. All these units below are also 3 quaver beats long and take exactly one bar in 3/8.
This alone makes us more familiar with how 3/8 works and so here’s the answer to this exercise:
As we’ve seen a few moments ago, in grade 2 you will also deal with time signatures whose bottom number is 2. In these time signatures the beat is measured in minims (half notes).
So in this example, we get 2 minim beats in every bar.
Since we’re measuring the beats in minims, a minim note itself takes up a whole beat, a crotchet is half a beat, a quaver is one-fourth of a beat and so on. In other words:
- 1 minim (1 half note) = 1 beat
- 2 crotchets (2 quarter notes) = 1 beat
- 4 quavers (4 eighth notes) = 1 beat
- 8 semiquavers (8 sixteenth notes) = 1 beat
- and so on.
Counting these carefully, we get to this answer. Once again, observe that we’re counting 2 minim beats in every bar:
Such a question could just as easily include a few rests here and there. This doesn’t change anything in the way we count.
Triplets are another addition to the syllabus in grade 2. A triplet is the division of a beat (or part of a beat) into 3 notes instead of the normal 2. Triplets are marked with a small 3.
So for example, a quaver triplet consists of 3 quavers in the place of 2 (quavers).
Since the quaver triplet takes up the space of 2 quavers, it obviously counts as 2 quavers (or 1 crotchet).
There is no particular reason that the second beat is the triplet in the example above. It’s just my choice for an example. It could have been on the first beat and it could have been on both beats. In other words, triplets can go anywhere.
Here’s another triplet example. This one is a minim triplet. It’s 3 minims in the space of 2. So these 2 bars below have the same amount of beats: 2 minim beats. The only difference is that the first beat of the 2nd example is filled with a crotchet triplet.
So here’s an example with triplets. The time signature is 3/2 meaning 3 minim beats in every bar. Where should we add the bar lines?
Now considering that the crotchet triplet takes up the time of 2 crotchets, then it’s equivalent to a minim. Since the time signature is 2/2, a minim is exactly one beat. And so the crotchet triplet in this time signature also takes up exactly one beat.
Everything else counts as usual and so we get to this answer:
This next example features many quaver triplets. As we just discussed, the triplet takes the time of 2 of the same kind. So in this case, the quaver triplet takes the time of 2 quavers.
Considering that the time signature is 3/4, every bar will consist of three crotchet beats.
And since 2 quavers equal 1 crotchet, a triplet of quavers also equals a crotchet. So this is where to add bar lines in example 9:
How to Add Bar Lines in Grade 3
In grade 3, you must be confident with the topics from grade 1 and 2 plus:
- These compound time signatures: 6/8, 9/8 and 12/8;
- The 32nd note (demisemiquaver) and its equivalent rest.
Let’s dive right in with some examples. If you were able to follow what we’ve done so far today in grades 1 and 2, grade 3 is just a step forward.
Like 3/8, the time signatures 6/8, 9/8 and 12/8 are measured in quaver beats (eighth note beats). The big difference however, is that 3/8 is a ‘simple time signature’ while 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8 are ‘compound time signatures’.
Compound time signatures are those whose beats divide naturally into 3 parts rather than 2. This happens because the beats of compound time signatures are dotted. In the particular time signatures for this grade, the beat is a dotted crotchet (a dotted quarter note).
As you know from music theory, every dotted crotchet is naturally divisible into 3 quavers:
What this means for us when we have to add bar lines is that we’re looking for these units that combine into a dotted crotchet (just like we did with the exercise in 3/8).
Here’s an example in 9/8. Where should we add the bar lines?
Although 9/8 means 9 quavers in a bar, it’s not actually 9 beats. As we discussed, the quavers in compound time signatures group into threes. That means that we actually have 3 beats (9 division by 3). Specifically, we have 3 dotted crotchet beats and each one of them contains 3 quavers.
All this means that in 9/8 we are looking to organize the notes into bars of three dotted crotchet beats. So the answer to this question is this:
Note that a dotted crotchet rest is equal to a dotted crotchet note and so in these compound time signatures, it takes up an entire beat.
In grade 3 you might also encounter the demisemiquaver note (the 32nd note) and its equivalent rest. As its name implies, the demisemiquaver is worth exactly half a semiquaver. So two demisemiquavers make a semiquaver. (In American terminology that’s two 32nd notes make one 16th note).
Where should we add bar lines in this exercise? Once again, the beaming provides good hints.
Since the time signature is 6/8, we must put a bar line after every 2 dotted crotchet beats (2 dotted quarters).
Remember that although 6/8 means 6 quaver beats in every bar, we’re actually counting 2 beats of 3 quavers each – that is, 2 dotted crotchet beats.
As we’ve learned, the demisemiquaver is half the semiquaver. And so 4 demisemiquavers make a quaver. So this is what this melody looks like when adding bar lines:
There could have been rests too but as we’ve seen over and over again, they don’t change anything in how we count these rhythms and add bar lines.
How to Add Bar Lines in Grade 4
By now you should know every topic from grades 1 to 3 quite well. The only additions in the syllabus are:
- The note value of the breve and its equivalent rest;
- Double dotted notes.
Before we get into our final example for this lesson, let’s quickly review these new topics.
The breve (and its equivalent rest) is twice as long as the semibreve. In American terminology it’s known as a double whole note.
As for double dotted notes, here’s how to work them out:
- The first dot is worth half the original value.
- The second dot is worth half the first dot.
- Add these all together and you get the value of the double dotted note.
Here’s an example with the double dotted crotchet. The first dot is half the original (half a crotchet) so it’s worth a quaver. The second dot is worth half that quaver, so it’s a semiquaver.
Here’s an example with the double dotted minim. The first dot is half the original (half a minim) so it’s worth a crotchet. The second dot is worth half of that crotchet so it’s a quaver.
The time signature of this example is in 4/2 meaning that every bar will have 4 minim beats. Notice also the breve and semibreve rests.
As we learned about the breve, it is worth 2 semibreves. The remaining notes in this exercise are not new so here is the answer with added bar lines:
I hope this lesson helped you understand how to count rhythms and time signatures. Download the exercises below for more practice. And if you have any questions, leave a comment below or let me know on our Facebook group here.
Exercises to Add Bar Lines
Exercises for Grade 1: Click/tap here for PDF
Exercises for Grade 2: Click/tap here for PDF
Exercises for Grade 3: Click/tap here for PDF
Exercises for Grade 4: Click/tap here for PDF