Everyone into hip hop has heard the phrase 16 bars. This refers to the length of the standard rap verse, but can you answer these questions? What’s a bar? Can you count them properly? Why 16 in the first place? In this post I will answer these questions for you.
I’ve heard the bar described from the emcee’s prospective. This description is, with one rhyme….
(i.e. “I stabbed moments of idle and got time on my hands.
its dripping down my arms as I try to make a plan”)
a bar would be half of the rhyme or one line ( I stabbed moments of idle and got time on my hands = 1 bar). While this is true it is not completely accurate. The length of rap lines can vary. A rhyme can occur within a bar, meaning half a rhyme is half a bar. Listen to some Tribe Called Quest for excellent examples of this kind rhyme scheme.
What is a bar? Simply stated a bar is one complete measure of music. Just like a ruler can measure the size of your shell toe Adidas with inches, we can measure music with beats. Just like 12 inches equals a foot, well in hip hop 4 beats equals a bar. There are exceptions of course. Music can be measured by 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 beats per bar and so on, but most common “boom bap” hip hop is measured by 4 beats per bar. If you are listening to music right now, I want you to try something. Just nod your head in sync with the music. If you are doing this right, your head is moving at an even pace and certain sound patterns begin to emerge. When you feel the beginning of the pattern, begin counting to 4 starting with 1 every time your head nods, then repeat after you reach 4.
The next time you listen to a rap verse, start counting the bar. After you complete the count of the first bar, instead of repeating with 1
, 2, 3, 4, repeat with 2
, 2, 3, 4, then 3
, 2, 3, 4 and so on. The first number represents the bar you are on. A 16 bar verse counted would look like….
1,2,3,4 2,2,3,4 3,2,3,4 4,2,3,4
5,2,3,4 6,2,3,4 7,2,3,4 8,2,3,4
9,2,3,4 10,2,3,4 11,2,3,4 12,2,3,4
13,2,3,4 14,2,3,4 15,2,3,4 16,2,3,4
This is the same technique used by orchestras, brass, and marching bands to count measure rest in a piece of music. I teach this method to my freestyle students because it is effective for understanding what a bar is from the prospective of music, not just the emcee. I know rappers like to think they are the center of the world.
Speaking of music, why is “16 bars” the standard for rap music? There are many theories behind this formula. Some feel it’s a music industry influence on hip hop meaning shorter, catchier songs equals more radio play. So they apply a song writing formula to hip hop. 16 bar verse, 8 bar hook, but why 16? Why 8? Does the industry just have a fetish for multiples of four?
Nas’ father said it best it all comes from the blues. Really, it all comes from the negro spiritual, but the blues is a good place to start for hip hop and the discussion of 16 bars. The 16 bar format comes from the blues. I doubt there was a man, who spoke like Moses read the commandments and declared “From this forward, all rap verses shall be 16bars (Throws a mic down and parts the seas)!” It is true that hip hop needed a shorter format. The original version of “Rapper’s Delight” is over 14 minutes long! Hip hop borrowed from the same sources it always borrows from (jazz, Latin, funk, rock, which all have roots in the blues) and the 16 bar formula is born.