What Is A ‘Bar’ In Rap? Hip-Hop Bars Explained

In hip-hop and related music genres, it’s common to refer to ‘bars’ or ‘spitting bars.’ So what is a bar in rap? A bar in rap and hip-hop is a unit of measurement that means 4 crotchets (or 4 single beats) worth of lyrics. However, bars can also refer more generally to a rapper’s lyrics.

 A typical rap verse will comprise at least 8 bars, and will often be as long as 16 or 32 bars.

What Does ‘Bar’ Mean In Rap?

The meaning of a ‘bar’ in rap is simply a line of lyrics delivered vocally by a rapper. ‘Bars’ refers to multiple rap lines, for example, a verse (which would typically contain 8 to 36 bars). Bars can also be used more broadly to refer to a rapper’s general catalogue of lyrics.

The word ‘bar’ is used in music theory across all genres of music. Put simply, the technical definition of a bar is a single unit of time containing a specific number of beats, played at a specific tempo. The length of a bar depends on two things: the time signature, and the speed or ‘tempo’ of the music (BPM).

In hip-hop and rap music, the time signature is almost always 4/4, which means there are four beats in each bar. Typically, the bass drum or kick drum falls on beat 1 of every bar, with a snare hit on beats 2 and 4.

A common instance when a rapper might  talk about bars is if they are working with a producer or another artist. The producer or other artists might say ‘I want you to write 16 bars for this verse.’

In theory, they could ask for a verse that’s, for example, 48 seconds long. But that wouldn’t really help the rapper who is writing the bars. This is because just knowing how long a verse is in seconds doesn’t tell a rapper anything about how their lyrics should fit in terms of rhythm.

However, if a rapper knows how many bars are required, and also knows the BPM of a track, they can write bars that will roughly fit the beat. In fact, these bars can likely be reused on different beats.

That said, the same bars won’t necessarily sound good with any beat. Depending on the details of how the beat has been produced – for example, where hi-hat hits, or bass notes fall – certain syllables in the bar might need to move.

A line of rap verse will often be longer than a single bar. This is not a surprise, considering that in an average 90 BPM hip-hop track, a 4 beat bar might only last around 3 seconds.

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How To Count Bars In Rap

To count the length of a bar in a rap or hip-hop beat, try saying 1, 2, 3, 4 out loud in time with the beat. As you say ‘2’ and ‘4’ you should find the numbers lining up with a snare drum hit.

If your 2 and 4 are not lining up with the snare, then you probably need to count either twice as fast or twice as slow.

In rap music, the beat will typically repeat a one bar phrase, over and over.

The easiest way to count bars in rap is to focus only on the kick drum and snare drum. Almost every beat in hip-hop music features a kick drum on the first beat of the bar, and a snare drum on beats 2 and 4.

It is fairly common to find a kick drum on the third beat of the bar (as in the notated example below), but this is by no means a guarantee. So if you are not experienced in counting beats in a bar, focus on finding the first beat of the beat, and the snare on 2 and 4.

The same technique should work for most rap-related genres, including trap, drill, and so on. Although the hi-hat patterns may be quite different, you can expect to find a kick drum on beat 1, and a snare hit on beats 2 and 4.

An Example of Rap Bars

Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ is a simple example of how rap bars can be written and structured. However, rap bars can be far more complicated.

The following image shows roughly how the lyrics in the first 2 bars line up with the beat. This is only a rough illustration and it’s not completely accurate. However, if you listen closely, you will hear the following:

In the first bar, the word ‘walk’ falls on beat 1 or the bar. The first syllable of ‘valley’ falls on beat 2. The first syllable of ‘shadow’ falls on beat 3.

In the second bar, the word ‘look’ falls on beat 1. The third syllable of ‘realise’ falls on beat 3.

You should notice that not every syllable sound falls precisely on the beat.

what is a bar in rap

The simplest form of rap verse is the rhyming couplet, which is when the last word of a line is rhymed (or half-rhymed) with the following line. The first four bars from Coolio’s ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ provide a good example:

As I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I take a look at my life, and realize there’s nothin’ left
‘Cause I’ve been blastin’ and laughin’ so long
That even my momma thinks that my mind is gone

This opening stanza is four lines of rap verse. Each line is the length of a single bar. The final word of each bar forms a half-rhyme.

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The opening stanza of the third verse of ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ gives another nice example of a simple rap verse:

Power and the money, money and the power
Minute after minute, hour after hour
Everybody’s runnin’, but half of them ain’t lookin’
It’s goin’ on in the kitchen, but I don’t know what’s cookin’

Again, each line forms a single bar. In these bars, the final word of each line forms what’s called a ‘true,’ ‘perfect,’ ‘exact,’ or ‘full’ rhyme.

How Long Is A Verse in Rap?

A rap verse is typically between 8 and 36 bars in length. A rap song may contain multiple verses of varying length, with some longer and some shorter. However, the number of bars in a rap verse will almost always be a multiple of 4.

Song structure in rap is typically similar to song structure in other genres of popular music. In rap music, there will often be 2 or 3 verses, interspersed with a hook or chorus.

Once again, ‘Gangsta’s Paradise’ gives a fairly simple example.

Instrumental intro (4 bars)
Verse (12 bars)
Chorus/hook (8 bars)
Verse (16 bars, including 4 bar ‘sung’ bridge)
Chorus/hook (8 bars)
Verse (8 bars)
Chorus/hook (8 bars)
Outro (including (8 bar ‘sung’ bridge)

The song basically comprises three rap verses of varying lengths, and a chorus. It also features a sort of ‘bridge’ (Tell me why are we so blind to see/That the ones we hurt are you and me?), which appears before the second chorus, and after the final chorus.

Whichever way you want to define the ‘bridge’ section, the important thing to note is that each section is made up of multiples of 4 bars.

The multiples of 4 create a predictability that is really a requirement of popular music.

Rhythm, Flow, and Cadence

Understanding bars is very much just the beginning of rap music theory. 

Fundamentally, bars are nothing more than a basic measurement of time within music. They don’t tell you anything about rhythm.

The next level of understanding rap bars is to understand rhythm, cadence, and flow. This is about how the lyrics fit within the rhythm.

A great flow is what makes the difference between average rap verses, and top quality rap bars.

Header image credit: Kanye West by NRK P3

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