Numbering Measures

February 11, 2020, 9:43 PM · Is there anywhere a nice set of guidelines for numbering measures in orchestra parts? Questions include but are not limited to:

(1) Do you start numbering again at 1 for each movement of a concerto or other multi-movement work?

And other questions that I'm guessing will arise organically in the ensuing discussion thread ...

Replies (22)

Edited: February 11, 2020, 10:12 PM · As I understand it, it's generally printed measures excluding any partial measure at the beginning. (This means a second ending gets the measure number after the first ending.) Always start over at 1 for every movement, unless something different is printed in the part.

At least this would apply if everyone has repeats and first and second endings in the same places. It gets confusing in editions where different parts are printed differently.

February 11, 2020, 11:45 PM · Andrew is correct. Beware of partial measures at the ends of lines.
February 12, 2020, 2:41 AM · I agree with the above. Just makes more natural sense that way
February 12, 2020, 3:50 AM · First and second endings in different places in different parts may save ink and, occasionally, paper, but it wreaks havoc with bar numbering. You'd have to solve it by putting two sets of numbers above the affected bars, or even numbering something like "58a" and "58b" in the parts where the 1st and 2nd endings are the same and not printed separately.
February 12, 2020, 5:00 AM · If this is for music in an ensemble, you should ask your conductor how he/she wants the endings numbered. There is no universally accepted system for doing this, although I tell the members of my ensembles to number straight through so the first measure of a 2nd ending gets the number immediately after the number of the last measure of the 1st ending, as others have said.

Also in my ensembles if I have asked everybody to number their measures I go through the movements/pieces to tell them my numbers and be certain that everybody has the same numbers in the same places.

The only thing worse than movements where some people have 1st/2nd endings while others simply have a repeat sign is when people in an ensemble don't all number their measures the same way.

For such pieces I will often also add rehearsal letters in key places so that it's even easier to get everybody to start in the same place.

Also to be considered is whether you should write a small number under/over each individual measure (some school music directors ask for that) or whether you can get by simply by putting the correct measure number at the start of each line, in the margin.

Depending on the music, it can get quite crowded and harder to read if a measure number is over or under every single measure.

February 12, 2020, 7:34 AM · Thanks so far ... I'm kind of taking charge here because our director is not super communicative.

During a recent rehearsal we discovered that his score is a different edition that has a DC al fine, whereas the parts all have the recap written out. He said "let's play from B to the end" and we're all wondering why he's going back so far...

Obviously it's imperative to see what is going on in the score before numbering the parts.

And yes -- partial measures, etc., I know about that stuff, but I appreciate the advice anyway. Keep it coming.

February 12, 2020, 8:31 AM · I agree with Paul about numbering parts from a previously numbered score. I have played chamber music in which one of the parts is written out where others have repeats - BEWARE of those.
February 12, 2020, 10:31 AM · I think Paul is waiting for the conflicting advice to start coming in as usually happens. Mine would be to use your common sense and, if in doubt, your fingers
Edited: February 12, 2020, 12:41 PM · Haha Steve I might be an evil troll but hopefully not bad enough to hope that my own thread will turn into a dumpster fire.

I think most parts I have seen just have the first measure of every line numbered, unless that measure is a half-measure. Then the new measure number appears at the start of the first full bar. But even this number can be written in the margin and then it's just understood that it applies to the measure after the first barline.

Also with starting the numbering at "1" for each movement, my guess is that there are exceptions such as "Minuet and Trio" which is really a single movement. Is that right? (This is important because one of the pieces my community orchestra needs to number is Mozart 15, which, in case anyone cares, is the worst drivel Mozart ever wrote).

February 12, 2020, 1:10 PM · Minuet and Trio can be numbered either way successfully -- Calling out "Measure 17 in the Trio" works fine, just as does numbering from the start of the minuet continuously through the trio.
February 12, 2020, 2:03 PM · I think trios are usually numbered separately but it doesn't make any difference as long as everyone does it the same way.
Edited: February 12, 2020, 5:21 PM · I prefer rehearsal numbers to rehearsal letters because there are conductors who do not speak clearly enough when enunciating rehearsal letters B, C, D, E, G, and other letters ending in the "ee" sound. This causes confusion to those of us of the "Silent Generation", and even its successor Generation X, whose ears can easily misinterpret the subtle high-frequency start of the consonant in the letter name, and hear "B" instead of "D", for example.

There are some conductors who are aware of this possibility of confusion and will say "C for Charlie", "D for David" etc, but they seem to be in the minority. I once played under a conductor who had a sense of fun coupled with a knowledge of English Literature. When he wanted to refer to rehearsal letter "O" he would say "Oh for a muse of fire" (that's from Shakespeare's Henry V, btw).

A trap to be aware of, which I fell into a few weeks ago, was when the conductor was using a score fitted out with rehearsal numbers and we in the orchestra were using a German edition with rehearsal letters. The conductor would call out "rehearsal number 12", so we count through to the 12th rehearsal letter on our fingers - and get it wrong. In an English edition that would be rehearsal letter "L". However, the German edition didn't use rehearsal letter "I" but jumped from "H" to "J". Consequently, not noticing the missing "I", we would finger count up to 12, ending up at rehearsal letter "M", the conductor's rehearsal number "13".

February 12, 2020, 5:22 PM · As has been said, the thing that matters most is matching to the conductor's score. Whatever choices have been made for numbering in the score should be made for the parts.

When we don't have numbered parts, we generally send out a list of the rehearsal letters in the piece, and what measure numbers they correspond to in the conductor's score, so that people numbering their parts can make sure they are doing the right thing.

February 12, 2020, 6:30 PM · Lydia, yes, that's what we did in the case of our contretemps. We replaced the German rehearsal letters in our parts with numbers corresponding to those in the conductor's score.
February 13, 2020, 2:48 AM · Somewhat like Trevor's experience, it always annoys me when a conductor calls out "14 after C"; half the orchestra then starts in the fourteenth bar and the rest at the fourteenth barline, not including the barline of C. From my strategic position underneath his left nostril I'd ask "Do you mean "the fourteenth bar of C?"". This of course would annoy the conductor who would then find something trivial in our playing to whinge about.

But have you ever noticed that conductors count bars much more quickly than you (or most of the orchestra) do? This is because they've discovered that it's quicker to count the music than the barlines.

February 13, 2020, 8:14 AM · The correct way to call this--or so we were instructed by one of our conductors--is like this: the conductor would call out: "From C (or "before C" as the case may be): one, two, three...(counting loud)., fourteen". The musicians were expected to count right along as the conductor counted the measures (silently, with a finger pointing at the counted measures) so that at the end everybody would know simultaneously where to start. There were of course always a few who only began counting measures when the conductor stopped speaking, causing the conductor to whinge about wasting time.

Measure numbers facilitate this sort of proceedings and I prefer them vastly over rehearsal marks.

February 13, 2020, 11:26 AM · "From C count one two three ... fourteen" ... that works just fine unless that "fourteen" lands you somewhere in the midst of an 8-bar rest and there are meter changes (Respighi!). If the counting is deliberate enough then it's not that hard to count out a portion of the multi-measure rest, but it's also easy to be wrong.
February 13, 2020, 11:54 AM · Surely you don't mean Respighi planted meter changes in the middle of a rest block without marking them? The only composer I've encountered who did that was Emile Jaques-Dalcroze. He also invented "Eurhythmics" but we don't play that Euro-stuff any more on this side of the Channel
Edited: February 13, 2020, 2:47 PM · Steve -- no, all the meter changes are properly marked. Respighi was likely smoking something but not enough to become uncivilized.

PS I just had an email in which a student, in the process of asking for a professional reference, started a sentence with the word "So." I'm not making this up.

February 13, 2020, 3:18 PM ·
PS I just had an email in which a student, in the process of asking for a professional reference, started a sentence with the word "So." I'm not making this up.

I feel your pain, Paul. Unfortunately, the practice is becoming widespread. Listen to any radio interview; it's amazing (and depressing) how many people start off a response with either "So" or "Yeah", spoken in a way that suggests they were busy playing with their smartphones and have to drag their attention back to the interview now that the interviewer has stopped talking. It sounds very disrespectful.

But we digress...

Re: "Oh for a muse of fire" - sounds like the conductor is edging toward Cockney rhyming slang. Our conductor uses the "A for apple" approach to rehearsal letters - being a pilot and a nitpicker, it irritates me that he doesn't use the ICAO phonetic alphabet. But I found it amusing that when we were rehearsing Dance of the Hours he would call out "E for elephant", which put us at exactly the point where the elephants enter in the rendition in Fantasia.

As for calling out something like "8 bars before C", I figure that since our conductor doesn't bring a printed score but works entirely from memory, keeping up with him on my printed score is the least I can do.

Oh all right... while we're drifting off topic, why do they call it a "trio"? There are usually a lot more than three instruments playing...

Edited: February 13, 2020, 4:57 PM · Traditionally, there were only three instruments playing. (Most typically two oboes and a bassoon.) Haydn moved away from that.
Edited: February 13, 2020, 5:09 PM · Our conductor uses modern composers. "S for Stockhausen."

I've had one conductor with a penchant for using non-phonetic words... "G for gnocchi", "J for jalapeƱo", and "P for psychology" come to mind.


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