I am fascinated by your absolute rejection of "atonal". I agree that it is kind of a "catch-all" term. Yet so is "classical", for that matter. 

As an American English speaker (not to be confused with British English), and in possession of a Music Ed degree, I have never heard of "thesis" and "arsis" as musical terms.

We all know that English is not a pure language, by any means. It is made up of so many different languages that we can't treat it like your Greek. Nor should we. So many words have, as you say, the opposite meaning now than they did a few short hundred years ago. To which I say "so what". That doesn't mean that I don't take language seriously. But I don't get to decide what words mean. 

Then there are words that even the dictionary can't define.  While performing in a Shakespeare production, I looked up the word "anon".  

1. now, straight away.

2. soon, presently.

3. later, sometime.

Or it was an inside joke. The character was saying " Yes, I will be there.....anon"  What he meant was "Yeah, right. see ya".

Just some thoughts.


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  • A few thoughts from someone with no Degree in Intelligence or Music.

      Tone - a fixed frequency designation;

        therefore, any music comprised of specific tones would be Tonal Music.

     It then follows that Atonal would/should refer to any 'unfixed' or modulating frequency.

      i.e. glissando  -  yet that is not the accepted definition, which makes atonal a more

     colloquial term, defined by usage.

     If tones are then grouped in 'families' of harmonic and complimentary frequencies, we have

    Tonal Music. This establishes a matrix, or grid - so to speak, of that theory and theme, and a

     focus for the construction and architecture of that 'style' of music.

    Can the same be said of Atonal Music?

    It seems to be a departure from the order established in the matrix of the Tonal Theory towards

    a more random and 'chaotic' form of composition.

    Maybe 'chao-tonic' or 'cata-tonal' would be a more fitting word for it.  LOL      Peace    RS

  • Language, like all other social protocols, is defined primarily by the agreement of those who use it. As such, it is not static, but something that changes over time as its users adapt to their ever-changing surroundings and find the need to express things previously not expressed, or to do so more efficiently than before due to changes in importance of the things being referred to.

    If today, everyone who speaks English decides that "blargh" refers to a "car", then we would be talking about blarghs rather than cars.  The word "car" is essentially arbitrary, a product of historical accidents that led to the association of that sound (and spelling) with automobiles.  Had English developed slightly differently, perhaps we'd be talking about "blarghs" instead of "cars".

    We can debate about what a word "ought" to have been, what it "ought" to mean, but ultimately, that means little unless there is general agreement by all English speakers as to what the word means.

    Consider, for example, the word "girl".  In Old English, it means the same thing as "child": of either gender.  In order to distinguish between genders, one would say "knave girl" for males, and "gay girls" for females.  Then language change happened, over the course of several hundred years or so, and "girl" lost the male part of its original meaning and became a word exclusively referring to females. Furthermore, "knave" also changed in meaning from its original, becoming imbued with negative connotations.  And needless to say, "gay" shifted over several different meanings and has completely different connotations today than even, say, 50 years ago.

    We can try to tell everyone to stop saying "boy" and say "knave girl" instead, but chances are, the only thing that would achieve is people laughing at us.

    Similarly, we can try to change the word "atonal" to whatever it is we consider more accurate -- and personally, I'm for such a change -- but we don't get to decide what word will ultimately be used.  Only general consensus and usage among musicians in general can decide that.  As long as it's only the few of us here on this little forum who decides on that change, not much will happen.  Most musicians "out there" will continue to use "atonal" with whatever unfortunate, wrong, meaning it carries today, and as long as that usage is used by the general populace, the word "atonal" will continue to mean what it means today.  Even if we on this forum decide that it's the wrong word, or has the wrong meaning.

    Of course, we can change the word by building consensus -- by finding a better word, and spreading its usage and convincing other musicians to use the new word.  Still, it isn't going to catch on unless it's compelling enough that the general music community accepts and adopts the term.  Until then, a little debate on this little forum isn't going to mean very much.

  • Hi Bob, Roger and Teoh. Thank you all for your ideas and thanks Bob for initiating this thread. I will try to participate as much as I can, through my limited time schedule.

    Bob, I like your mentioning of the ambiguity of the Shakespearean word "anon" and I totally agree with you as well as with Teoh that we don’t get to decide, but still I believe we are free to comment, and discuss our observations, as to the use or abuse of musical or literary terminology.

    I think that Roger raised a very valid point on the word "atonal" which seems to agree more with my use of the word "pan-intervalic".

    I agree with most of your opinions, especially on the word "atonal". It is, imo, a term beyond rehabilitation, and it is used in the same sense in English as it is used in Greek, though in Greek it has come from outside as a modern concept, because absence of tonal centre is not a Greek invention, though the term used is still Greek. 


    But my previous reference to "thesis" and "arsis", as widely used musical terms in English for both poetry and music, turns the universe upside down, not only to me, but to any Greek understanding person, and the antinomy, as I hope I have clarified, but maybe poorly, is not in Greek which continues the usage of ordinary meanings without question as to those meanings in the security of the pre-agreement to which Teoh referred, but in English, which borrows a Greek term from Latin (2nd hand) and somewhere in the historical development of language (I don’t know where or when), it ends up meaning the opposite. There would not be a problem if the term was not in use anymore in Greek, but it is and there is a big problem, as I hope I have illustrated with live musicians improvising together for example, and understanding those terms in direct contradiction to each other.

    The term "thesis" is alive and well in current Greek usage and it means the strong bit of the measure in both musical and poetical metres which (poetical) are almost identical in English, as well as in general, the taking of position, not the abandoning of any position. Because it is still in use, and now a days we would have a serious communication problem, in my opinion, as no Greek musician would accept that "thesis" is the weak beat of the measure and "arsis" the strong, either in music or in poetical metre, (cause we still speak Greek in this part of the world and hopefully we understand each other still). The antinomy in English, in a nutshell is, as I have pointed out previously: Thesis as a current English musical term means the leaving of position, but this is only in music, in an academic sense it still means correctly the taking of position (as in an academic PHD thesis or in "I view the world from the thesis of a communist, or atheist, or theist, or idealist, etc i.e. taking whichever of these positions-not rejecting them but accepting them).

    All this to me can only betray a sloppiness of translation (on the part of the original half-learnt medieval monks that did most of that kind of work) and a very bad knowledge of the original language and its musical/conceptual terminology.


    I also agree with Teoh's reference only to the sound of the words. We all agree to give that meaning to that sound. This though can only go so far, if the sound pre-existed (and still exists) in another language where people have agreed that it means the opposite the problem still exists and it is valid.

    Further-more, I take the Latin word "position" and the Greek word "thesis" which in ordinary usage mean exactly the same thing, and I think that the word "position" ends there, (please enlighten me if I am wrong) i.e. it is not conceptual, whereas the Greek word "thesis" has a further much more extended meaning connected with opinion or belief, with metaphysical speculation or with empirical knowledge, rather than a mere spatial indication as "position". This further meaning it lends to the Latin word and through Latin to the English and all other languages that use it. In other words it is a simple word (not even compound so far) but still conceptual and much more extended in meaning than its "positione" Latin counterpart.


    An ever bigger antinomy in my opinion exists in the Greek names of musical modes still in use. It consist in the fact that in ancient Greek originally those names meant something much more concrete than it has meant ever since in any language, including Greek. These names can mean nothing to no one anymore and I believe it would be more honest and musically correct to refer to them as the mode on C, D, E etc, rather than all these fanciful "Dorian", "Lydian" and so on. On That subject, as I view it rather complicated historically, and aesthetically, I may come back on another occasion.

  • I'm going to stumble awkwardly through this thesis thing. Being born and bred in Southern California, I cannot pretend to have any knowledge or understanding of Greek music. The only reference I have is a tune popular here in the late sixties called Zorba the Greek. I have no idea how authentic this tune is. As I think of it, it seems that beats one and three are the accented beats. Most popular music where I live accents what we call the back beat, or two and four. This would be most any rock, country or pop song. There are exceptions like Johnny Cash's Ain't No Grave. I play a drum set from time to time. While the back beat is paramount, as provided by the snare drum, I also have to provide the down beat on the kick drum. And there are tunes in witch all four beats are accented on the kick drum. 

  • Hi all, I'm not sure that there is much to 'debate' here. The main crux of language is communication. With all words

    there is the denotative meaning and then a variety of connotative meanings and usages, relative to context. For instance,

    the word 'blue' has many meanings and can be used in a myriad of contexts. Classical music, for me, is a generalization, referring more to a time period than a particular style. 'Atonal' music does not qualify as a time period, or even an era, of music. Therefore, it must be a style of music. History has already 'labeled' it and we will not change that.

    Can anyone elaborate on a theory for Atonal music? What is the basis for it?  Maybe, as Bob suggests with the word 'anon'

    it means... yeah right, see ya later.  ( just musing... in a good natured way)    RS

  • No need whatsoever to stumble awkwardly Bob. I hope I have clarified sufficiently: "Thesis" In poetry and music it is still used correctly in Greek and wrongly in English, denoting the strong (in Greek) and the weak (in English) bit of the measure. In English it is used wrongly (meaninglessly as far as Greek language is concerned) only in poetry and music, whereas in other fields of life and other disciplines it is used correctly.

    I only brought it up as an obvious example of mistranslation which can result in practical problems.


    Of far more interest it is to me the  subject you brought up on Zorba the Greek. As you may know this is the title of a very famous novel by Nikos Kazantzakis (his best in my opinion). In the sixties this novel was made into a film where Alan Bates played the role of Kazantzakis and Anthony Quinn played the role of Zorba. It was Directed by Cypriot director Michael Kakoyiannis and its music was written by the world famous (by now) Mikis Theodorakis. It was acclaimed as a film internationally almost immediately and it was a huge success in terms of viewing/money earning.

    Unfortunately for Greece, it gave the whole world the wrong impression about its traditional music, and everyone thinks that Greek folk music is only in 2/4 (of the um-pah, um-pah Zorba type) and that's all there is to it.

    The failure and the blame I put strait and without qualms both in Kakoyiannis and Theodorakis. They both failed to understand what Kazantzakis has written in his novel in plain Greek: Zorba was only dancing the zeibekiko dance (he was too proud to dance anything else), but the zeibekiko dance is almost always in 9/4 and rarely in 9/8 where it takes other names. So Theodorakis made it into a 2/4 fast butchers' dance and Kakoyiannis failed to check him.

    Kakoyiannis' responsibility probably ends there, but the composer's is still strong: Theodorakis became world famous because of this unimportant tune which he presented as his own invention. But it is not his.

    There was a relatively well known lute player, but only within his own county of Chania (Western Crete), named George Koutsourelis who in the 50's recorded a song with the title "Cretan Syrtaki".

    I don’t want to carry on trying to prove the obvious. I just give to video links with Koutsourelis and Theodorakis film version of Zorba the Greek. The same tune though.

    The dishonesty on Theodorakis part is to me manifold. First he stole a tune belonging to someone else (he later even won the legal battle concerning copyright-although then Koutsourelis was non-political and Theodorakis was a well-known communist composer and member of the Greek parliament-but money always goes with money) and secondly and far more importantly imo, he gave the whole earth the wrong impression (the one that you have) about Greek folk music, while at the same time misrepresenting Kazantzakis as an author and Zorba as an ethical stance of life. I am saying all this because on the one hand I feel strongly about them, on the other hand here we don’t have the mis-representation of a word like "thesis" which we can learn to live with, but the misrepresentation of a whole culture. 9/4 is a war dance and 2/4 is a friendly social dance. In the years about which Zorba is talking and for which he is doing his dance, that is 1905-1918, the Greeks had an endless war with the Bulgarians about possession of Macedonia, and Zorba by his dance is talking to God, blaming him for all wrongs in his and his nation's life-incidentally, his story is true but did not happened in Crete, his involvement with Kazantzakis took place in Messenia in the 30s.


    Strange how what is known about particular cultures is more often than not only a ghost of reality, a misrepresentation, a failure of understanding (and that by responsible artists) and sometimes an utter fallacy or completely dishonest stance.


    No, Greek folk music is not only in 2/4 as many people may think, although that rhythm is abundant. Because of the rhythmic freedom of Greek poetry, it can be in any odd metre, and thus how I grew up with it. 5/4 or 9/4 although may sound exotic to a westerner, I consider as a lullaby of my mother's.



  • Btw, Bob, I reject the term "atonal" but not as absolutely as I may appear to do. Only in a strictly grammatical/meaningful sense (and both English and Greek grammars can provide me only with a quite narrow scope, as they are not concerned with anything else apart from linguistic logic and pre-agreement). But the problem remains and it is one of feasible communication by using pre-agreed terminology. There is where we failed, I believe, and it is still up to us to agree again. Roger points out to another correct imo historical fact: "Tonal" has historical justification (although a poor one imo), but "atonal" has not. It cannot be recognizable as a style, or school of thought, or method, or technotropy, or anything else I can think of in music. At best to me it is only a caprice of practice and a half-educated guess at usage of candidate terminology, yet by now well established.

    God, I do sound conservative!

  • Indeed, we can't really define it, but we know what it means (mostly).

    Because I don't have a linguistic and musical culture that dates back thousands of years, this seems to me to be the reason I don't have much problem with changing definitions. Or made-up words with loose meanings

    As to your odd meter traditional music, I assume there are special dance steps.

    My parents sent us to dance classes where we learned waltz, fox-trot and the like. I'm not sure anyone learns those steps much anymore. I don't use them. The only odd meter tunes I recall that were popular were the Mission Impossible theme and....some other thing I don't remember. Otherwise, 4/4 back beat stuff. 


  • Socrates, I can image someone, a composer, sitting at their piano trying to find a unique voice. They are probably well schooled  in the 'art of tradition'. Yet, everything they attempt to compose sounds too much like everyone else. This can be frustrating, at the least. ( to someone who truly wants to be originally creative)- copy cats are a dime a dozen. So what does he do? What does he do? Could it be... break away from 'tradition'? Experiment... and 'run it up the flagpole' as the saying goes. Was the 'birth' of what is now labeled as atonal music merely for shock, like I think a lot of modern art is, or... was it a

    truly 'science of the art' venture into new aspects of music. From my perspective, (which is ever evolving) I side towards the

    first scenario. I am not judging it as either good or bad... that is each individuals choice, tho', I find it interesting that atonal music seems to deviate from a certain 'Natural' harmony and, lets say conformity, to an innate Nature of Universal structure and design. ps- As a subliminal side note, I ask you, how much of your life is now riddled with 'plastic'. ( If you don't get that, that's OK... the relationship between art and the future is merely 'theory'.    Peace           RS
    Socrates Arvanitakis said:

    Btw, Bob, I reject the term "atonal" but not as absolutely as I may appear to do. Only in a strictly grammatical/meaningful sense (and both English and Greek grammars can provide me only with a quite narrow scope, as they are not concerned with anything else apart from linguistic logic and pre-agreement). But the problem remains and it is one of feasible communication by using pre-agreed terminology. There is where we failed, I believe, and it is still up to us to agree again. Roger points out to another correct imo historical fact: "Tonal" has historical justification (although a poor one imo), but "atonal" has not. It cannot be recognizable as a style, or school of thought, or method, or technotropy, or anything else I can think of in music. At best to me it is only a caprice of practice and a half-educated guess at usage of candidate terminology, yet by now well established.

    God, I do sound conservative!

    Socrates, I'm up for some good-natured debate.
    I am fascinated by your absolute rejection of atonal . I agree that it is kind of a catch-all term. Yet so is classical , for that matter.  As an…

    Thanks for your replies Bob and Roger.

    Yes, Bob, there are special steps and you've got to know them in order to dance correctly and not make a cake of yourself, in all rhythms apart from 9/4 where you can improvise as the rhythmic cycle is too long. That said, you can still observe when you watch the dancers and make up your mind as to who has grace and who has not.

    Roger, "atonal" is almost not existing to me, (I dismiss here quite a few compositional practices-but there it goes-that's what I think), as my best composers of 20th century music (even Webern, when I analyse him) still prefers to stick to some mannerisms, which I would not call "tonal", but coherent, and that is much more obvious to me in the music of Debussy, Stravinsky, Bella Bartok, Britten, etc, all of whom are to me tonal composers. "Atonalism", thinking microhistorically, seems only to be a minor aberration which produced negative reaction (and negative results), see American minimalism and new simplicity movement. The questions posed by total serialism (Boulez, Adorno as a philosopher, Cage (in certain instances) etc,) have not in my opinion been answered yet, as compositional methods at least, although we may like or dislike the musical results produced.

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