Why do we have barlines?

Music is by its nature free and flowing, so how did it become hemmed in by the rhythmical prison of the barline? And how did it escape? Ivan Hewett explains


I was very young when I first felt the tyrant’s boot on my neck. I was trying to blow a tune on a fife, and can remember the teacher saying, ‘Come on now, it’s in three-in-a-bar! Where are the accents? It should be ONE-two-three, ONE-two-three!’ I have a distinct memory of thinking, ‘No it shouldn’t, it sounds silly like that.’


I’m probably inventing this memory. But there have been many times since when I’ve felt the heavy presence of the barline squeezing the rhythmic life out of something (violinist André Rieu’s plodding waltz performances are a case in point…). Plenty of other musicians have chafed at the rule of this tedious musical traffic cop. Schumann dreamed of a music without barlines. Debussy complained that music’s ‘divine arabesque’ cannot be imprisoned within its regular grid. Busoni looked forward to a future where rhythm, like pitch, would admit finer gradations than our present cumbersome notation would allow.

So if the barline is such a tyrant, why do we tolerate it? Most of the world’s musicians have lived and died in blissful ignorance of the barline, which reminds us that it’s a peculiarly Western thing. It’s part of that complicated apparatus of notation which has developed such an iron grip on our musical practice. Where music is improvised, it can indeed be a ‘divine arabesque’, as fluttering and changeable as the wind. If it does obey regular rhythms, they are the subtly fluctuating ones of the body: the in-and-out of breathing, which according to the great ethnomusicologist Curt Sachs was the bodily root of triple time, and walking, which provides the model for the up-down, arsis-thesis movement of duple time. 

There’s another model for musical rhythm, which is speech. The stream of irregular long and short beats you find in spoken rhythm becomes more orderly in poetry, where it is subtly overlaid with patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables. The sorting of this rhythmic counterpoint into types and patterns is what we call prosody. But though it is orderly, the rhythms outlined in prosody are hardly metronomic. It is this fluctuating, only partly quantifiable rhythm of prosody which governed the earliest form of notated music in the West, which was sacred chant. 

Such a music hardly stands in need of barlines, and in fact rhythm as a whole is largely ignored – apart from the odd tantalising hint. A letter written at the end of the ninth century by Notker, a monk at the Swiss monastery of Gall, explains the meaning of some of these. For example the letter ‘p’ above a note means pressing forward, ‘t’ means ‘drag out’. Were these and other notational mysteries signs that the musicians obeyed a proper metre you could actually beat out? Or do they point to accents within something basically free? We don’t know. With the many-voiced music (polyphony) of the 13th century we move on to firmer ground. Here we have proper quantities: longas, breves, semi-breves, related to each other in groups known as ‘perfections’, because they added up to the perfect number three. It’s here that barlines make their first tentative appearance. They appear as short lines or dots marking off the perfections, and sometimes double barlines were used to mark the end of a section. The striking thing is how modest they appear, not like the domineering grid of modern-day music. Occasionally you find almost modern-looking barlines, as in the 11th-century Codex Calixtenus. But the vertical alignment is very casual – there is a sense that the barlines aren’t part of the musical conception. They don’t govern the music’s unfolding, any more than the milestones on a country road govern the landscape. 

This separation of grid and ‘landscape’ is even more evident in the striking Lochhamer Liederbuch, a 15th-century collection of secular German song, where the barlines are printed in a different colour. The separation is further emphasised when the vocal parts are written separately rather than piled up in score format, a practice that continued well into the Renaissance; see for example the Vatican manuscript containing Josquin’s Missa Beata Virgine, where there’s hardly a barline in sight. With well-drilled singers able to count units, they’re not necessary. For a keyboard player, controlling the flow of several parts posed a bigger challenge, which was why barlines became commonplace in keyboard music earlier than anywhere else. 

It was in Baroque times, with the burgeoning of a new kind of busy, motoric instrumental counterpoint, that the barline  came into its own. If you’ve got a texture with slow-moving bass, some medium-paced middle voices and a pair of violins rushing along in semiquavers on top, barlines are a great practical help. Though older ways lingered in the sacred sphere, in secular music the familiar score layout of today became the norm. Separate parts were laid out under a regular procession of barlines which marked out the repeating metrical units – three minims, two semibreves, four quarter-notes, or whatever it might be. 

Not every aspect of musical practice became metronomically precise. Early French harpsichord composers such as Louis Couperin favoured an ‘unmeasured prelude’ in their keyboard suites, and there are unmeasured ‘speech rhythm’ sections in Italian madrigals and in Anglican service books (this latter practice still continues). And the practice of vertically aligning sounds that are meant to be simultaneous, which to us is second nature, took a long time to establish itself. The alignment in printed music through the Classical period is often lax. 

The notation of musical rhythm followed the same trend towards temporal precision we see in the wider world, reflected in such things as almanacs, watches with minute hands and railway timetables. With respect to barlines, this leads to a profound change. Instead of floating above the music, barlines settle onto the music’s surface and become part of it. Or sometimes they do. The fascination of barlines from the Classical period onwards is that their musical significance might vary during a single piece. A distinction emerges between the regular metre implied by the barlines, and a musical rhythm which may sometimes agree with the metre, and at other times fight it. 

Haydn provides innumerable examples of this tension. In the Minuet from the String Quartet in D, Op. 20 the barlines are temporarily vanquished by the irregular accents, but by the end of the phrase the triple-time metre has regained an upper hand. There are more remarkable examples in Beethoven. There’s a beautiful passage near the start of the Piano Sonata in E, Op. 109, where a procession of quiet chords struck just before the barline (rather than just after, where we expect them) makes us feel that time has been suspended. 

The Romantics weren’t interested in this witty interplay between metre and rhythm, which is why in the 19th century the barline began to chafe. Schumann often sought a smooth dreamy continuum, as in the lovely ‘Eusebius’ movement from his Carnaval. Here he subdivides the duple-time metre into seven equal parts in the right hand and two or four in the left. The result is that the right and left-hand notes hardly ever coincide, producing a watery vagueness where you can barely hear any pulse at all, let alone a pattern of strong and weak beats. Brahms in his late Intermezzos engendered a melancholy nostalgia by tying notes over the barline and blending one sonority with the next. 

All these were ways of subverting the barline. In the 20th century composers preferred a full-frontal attack. Their music was often built from patterns of irregular accents, so they took the most characteristic thing about barlines – their regular repetition – and abolished it. In the final ‘Danse Sacrale’ from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, the metre – and the spacing of the barlines – changes in almost every bar. 

Here the barline has acquired a brand-new function; it shows us where the true accents fall. Which is sensible, but what is lost is the tension between the implied ‘background’ metre of the barline and the heard rhythm. Perhaps that’s why Stravinsky notated the irregular accents of the ‘Dance of the Adolescents’ section of the Rite in a regular 2/4 metre. He felt these accents ‘against’ a regular metre, and wanted us to feel it too. 

Other composers have gone the other way. Messiaen gets rid of time-signatures in the slow movements of works like Vingt regards sur L’Enfant Jésus, and drops in a barline at times to break up the blank succession of durations. Perhaps the most thoroughgoing attack on the ‘tyranny of the barline’ has been mounted by Elliott Carter. At the densest moments of works like Concerto for Orchestra (1969) there may be two or three tempos expressed in different parts of the orchestra, and one of these may also be accelerating towards a ‘metric modulation’ into a new tempo. In this temporal maelstrom, the barline is like a buoy on a stormy sea – a sign of order disconnected from its surroundings. 

If the barline ever did exert a tyranny, it’s long since been deposed. But it’s time to stop maligning this temporal marker. As the example of my teacher and André Rieu show, it’s not the barline which makes for dullness, it’s the musicians
who misread it. 


This article first appeared in the March 2011 issue of BBC Music Magazine