How to Read Repeat Signs/Roadmap Symbols

Repeat Symbols. © 2015 by Jonathan Feist. All rights reserved.

Repeat signs and roadmap symbols are used to reduce the length of music notation and to clarify what material is played verbatim multiple times. They can also clarify the form of the music. Some of these symbols designate sections of measures that are played multiple times. Others are used to show that one or two measures repeats. Let’s look at all these symbols.

  • One-Bar Repeat (mm. 2–4 and 14–16): a slash mark with one dot to the left and one to the right, centered in the middle of the measure. Repeat the preceding notated single measure. It is also sometimes used to show that a chord symbol repeats, though this is generally not considered necessary. These are most commonly used by rhythm section instruments as they play repeating grooves.
  • Two-Bar Repeat (mm. 7–12): Two slash marks with one dot to the left and another to the right, and the numeral 2 above it, over a bar line. This means that two measures are repeated. It is particularly common in Latin jazz and related styles, where there is often a repeating two-bar clave pattern.
  • Repeat Bar Lines (m. 1, 4, 5, 12). These designate a group of measures that repeats, though it could be used for a single measure, particularly if it is a vamp (repeated ad lib). On the left (m. 1, 5), where the repeated section begins, there are a thick line the left and a thin to the right, and then two dots on either side of the staff middle line: thick/thin/dots. At the end of the repeated section (m. 4, 12) is a mirror-facing symbol: dots/thin/thick. There may be flared lines from the bar lines (as shown) pointing inward, which makes the repeats more visible though the page potentially more cluttered.
  • Repeat Endings (mm. 11–13). These are bracketed group of numbers that show a different group of measures to be played each time a section repeats. The numbers indicate which pass through those measures are to be played, and the brackets clarify which measures are in each repeated group.
  • DS (del segno): Jump back to the segno symbol (m. 5) and start playing from there.
  • DC (dal capo): Jump back to the very beginning and start playing from there. When returning to the start, use DC, not DS with a segno symbol.
  • Coda (m. 17). An ending, designated with the symbol. These are generally only marked when there is a direction to jump to it, as shown in measure 8.

Here is the order of measures in the example shown.

  • 1–4, playing that eighth-note figure four times
  • 1–4, so, the figure plays eight times in total
  • 5–12, playing the 2-bar clave pattern four times
  • 5–9, playing the clave pattern twice more
  • 13–16, playing the eighth note figure four times
  • 5–8, playing the clave twice
  • 17, the whole note

By using repeat symbols, we clarify that there are really only three rhythms to learn, in this piece: the eighth note pattern, the 2-bar clave pattern, and the whole note. If it had been fully notated, it would have been far longer, possibly forcing a second page of the score, and giving the impression that more music had to be learned. (In this simple illustration, it would have been 31 measures long.) So, repeat symbols are an efficient way to communicate ideas.

If you write music read by others, just be aware that many beginning musicians (and some more advanced players as well) are unaccustomed to reading them, and are likely to get confused.

If you use these symbols, walk your players through the score, before they play, so that you are certain that everyone understands how it works. While repeats can clarify the music, particularly multiple-repeat endings and coda/segno systems are frequent causes of “train wrecks,” even in concerts, where players get confused and it results in a cascading disaster. Make sure your ensemble is clear on what the symbols mean!