Composer tip – Measure numbers

I’m sure if you’re a performer, you’ve been in rehearsals where you’ve heard something like this: “Take it from measure…one, two, three, (mumble, mumble)…, eleven measures before C.”

Often, this is followed by a bit of confusion and need for clarification. (“Yes, the clarinets have a dotted quarter note there. That measure.”)

Getting everyone to figure out where the conductor wants to pick up again can be a waste of time if measure numbers and rehearsal numbers aren’t properly labeled, even with smaller ensembles.

I’ve compiled several rules about measure numbers below with anecdotes and examples. Skim for bold writing to find them quickly.

I’ve heard varying opinions about the use of measure numbers. My own is that the frequency depends on the layout of the piece. But a good general rule for everyone (Rule #1) is to put a measures number on the first measure of every page/system*. It establishes consistency, essential in most notation, and is helpful in ordering pages and fitting a set number of measures to a page. Additionally, (Rule #2) numbers should all be the same size and style, and they should all be in the same place above their respective measures or as near to that place as possible.

How frequent should numbers be? One professor of mine recommended putting a measure number every five measures, since he believed you could never be too clear. But in my own work, I often find that putting a number every five measures soon turns a clean layout into a cluttered jumble, especially if there are notational markings above measures that could potentially collide with measure numbers. Sometimes numbers become redundant and therefore unhelpful, awkward looking, and too much trouble to position around other markings than they’re worth.

For example, in the case below from an orchestral piece of mine, putting numbers every five measures results in two consecutive measures being labeled.

Awkward measure numbers.

Awkward measure numbers.

To me, this seems awkward and unnecessary. If I went back and edited this, I’d take the number off of measure 25.

I understand that counting by 5s is very common and simple. However, I’m not sure that’s so important. The point is to make numbers clear and consistent. Numbering by 5s is arbitrary. Structurally and aesthetically, numbering by 5s may not make any sense at all. I wrote a duo for violin and viola whose second movement took phrases of three measures and grouped them into sections of 12. 5 is not a divisor of 12, so numbering in such a way would have been both structurally (a.k.a. mathematically) and aesthetically erroneous.

Measure numbers and rehearsal numbers make sense due to my structure

Measure numbers and rehearsal numbers make sense due to my structure

In fact, I labeled only the first measure of every line, and then put rehearsal numbers at the start of each new section. This works well with the layout of the music. A performer can say X measures after 9, or Y measures before A. There does not need to be an additional number between the 9 and the A, since there are so few measures.

This method works for well for pieces with clear structures. (My piece has 108 measures- exactly 9 sets of 12 measure sections.) So, (Rule #3) measure numbers should highlight the structure and substructures of your piece. But for me at least, that level of rigidity is rare and Rule #3 may not be applicable.

I like the way the measure numbers fall in my orchestral piece 03-07.

Beginning and middle numbers

Beginning and middle numbers

Again though, the fundamental nature of the piece makes this work well. If I had a long section of running 16th notes, forcing me to widen the measures, I wouldn’t need to put a number in the middle of a page because there would likely be fewer than six measures per page and counting to six to find a measure is reasonable. If I had a long section of whole notes, I might need more than two numbers per page since a single measure takes up very little space. (Rule #4) Consider the physical space the measures take up on the page.

I’ll just outright say this (Rule #5): Find a good balance of visual and numerical consistency and symmetry. I’m a fan of symmetry; numbering measures visually might make the most sense since measure widths can vary by page.  

In fact, here’s something I’ve never seen that I might just use in my next big piece: measure numbers on the first AND last measures of the page. That way, the conductor doesn’t have to flip the page back and forth to find out how many measures are on the page or what the last measure number is without counting from the beginning of the page. Plus, it help composers order their pages faster.

There’s so much more to say about measure numbers and rehearsal numbers… but for now, this is good start!

*I say ‘pages’, but it may be helpful to consider these rules as applicable to systems depending on your piece. 



  1. What’s your view on the issue of, for example, “5th measure of C” vs. “5 measures after C?” I often hear these used interchangeably by conductors, but aren’t they different measures? After all, “1 measure after C” should be the 2nd measure of C, not C itself.

  2. The way I understand it, rehearsal letters mark specific measures, not start points of a section of music. If C was put at measure 47 and D was put at measure 71, I wouldn’t say C includes measures 47-70. C merely marks a structural point or something similar warranting more than a mere measure number. So if a conductor were to say 5 measures after C, I’d assume s/he meant measure 52. The fifth measure of C would be 51, but I don’t like this terminology for the aforementioned reason; C isn’t a section, it’s a specific location. I can’t imagine musicians not having confusion over this in a rehearsal unless the conductor made her/himself clear right away.

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