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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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Oh man. In college I could analyze Chopin (sort of). Now, I don't think I could analyze a donut. It sounds like you've already done a little ground work. I might be in. Let's think about it.

Hi Socrates, I've played in many Greek weddings and functions in London, and seen a great many zembekiko dances and I find it fascinating that you describe it as a 'war dance'.

Hi Michael, I was too drunk to respond the previous two nights (not that I'm any different tonight, but anyway), I am also a London, Cypriot wedding gigging musician (in winter time only), but also a scholar of Zeibekiko rhythm, which I find the most fascinating of all Greek rhythms. I have observed through all my life various mistakes both in the transcription of folk tunes and in the general cultural implications of this dance. I think the rhythm and its speed was grossly misunderstood by the first people who attempted to write down the music (either professional ethnomusicologists doing field work, or just irresponsible pianists without a clue of how a piece of music should be notated and knowing nothing about string instruments). Thus it ended up being notated in 9/8 rather than 9/4, but now a days this situation is improving a lot and it is notated properly in 9/4 which makes it a hell of a lot easier to read a prima vista. (quavers becoming crochets, semiquavers becoming quavers and so on).

Cultural connotations change all the time and I am the first to admit that. It is still considered by purists a male dance only, and within their definition I am not going to disagree. It is considered by them a war dance mainly due to its similarity with Karsilamas/Antikristos dance which is in 9/8 and quite faster. There it is a proper war or confrontation dance but it needs at least two dancers, whereas in proper zeibekiko 9/4 one person (male) can dance and improvise alone. I go along with what Zorba is saying in the novel to the author (Kazantzakis):

"Before the battle with the Bulgarians, we used to prepare ourselves by dancing the zeibekiko". I cannot be sure though that he understands the term/rhythm in the same way as I do, or he means the much faster Karsilamas, which by nature is confrontational.


I have had some discussions with other ethnomusicologists and linguists. Here are some opinions that I received:


Zei-Bek : War-like ethnic minority of Asia Minor very hostile to Ottomans.


Zei-Bek : Paraphrase of classical Greek "Zeus-Bitter". Here I can see the origin of the "zei" element, but the "bek" is completely Slavonic to me. But the "zei", meaning "double" conforms enough for me with the original nature of Zeus/Jupiter/Janus as a double faced god, which brings me back to the dance of Karsilama rather than zeibekiko. Therefore I prefer to think that Karsilamas in 9/8 was the original dance form and zeibekiko in 9/4 a later musical invention. Greek poetry imo cannot help us much here to understand better, but a speculative Swedish ethnomusicologist/analyser of Greek terms told me once that zeibekiko predates Karsilama, as more emphatic, slower and conforming perfectly to the Greek iambic 15sylable verse. There I have my objections as I know that 15syllable did not exist in antiquity and it is only a medieval Greek poetic formula.

Of course now a days zeibekiko can be melodised in any poetic metre (and can be danced by women in all decadence night clubs of Greece :-) )

Fascinating, many thanks for that Socrates. Personally I adore the faster 9/8 songs, they have such a punchy drive, such as a song called Levendobetho, dont know if u know it, but there's less of them than the slower speed zeimbekiko. I always wondered why this is.

Thanks for your thoughts< Michael!

I only know a song called "Leventopetho" (brave guy) by Yiannis Papaioannou, I don’t know if we mean the same. It belongs to the rebetiko tradition (putting its death at about 1955). I played it very often amongst friends, but rarely in a professional gig as I think its lyrics and spirit cannot be appreciated now a days.

But I would classify this as an ordinary 9/4 zeibekiko rhythm (on the faster side) rather than a 9/8 karsilamas rhythm. You see, the essential difference between these two dances (apart from speed) is the metrical division:

All zeibekikos except kamilieriko (which is like a slow karsilamas) can be:

( (with denominator always 4)




Whereas karsilamas is

(with denominator always 8 and much faster)






Anyway, did you mean this one? (if yes, it is a strait zeibekiko dance to all of us here in 9/4 and that is how we dance it over here. (dancers always taking account of strong and weak beats).

No sorry its the one by Giannis Kalatzis, sorry.

I abs love this song.

I copy-paste strait from Wikipedia's article on atonality:

Mostly I agreed with all criticisms expressed. My own idea/suspicion is that it has served to camouflage a lot of bad music and lack of real compositional skill. Any music that has an aesthetic appeal is in my opinion based in a well-organized traditional or modern system. Now, if some of us prefer to define their systems as "atonal", should not be a problem if the music steel sounds good though the term may seem nonsensical (as it does to me).

Milton Babbitt puts it in no uncertain terms imo, the use/meaning of the term "atonal" in no sense makes any sense to him, but anyhow, it needs some discussion.

The term "atonality" itself has been controversial. Arnold Schoenberg, whose music is generally used to define the term, was vehemently opposed to it, arguing that "The word 'atonal' could only signify something entirely inconsistent with the nature of tone... to call any relation of tones atonal is just as farfetched as it would be to designate a relation of colors aspectral or acomplementary. There is no such antithesis" (Schoenberg 1978, 432).

Composer and theorist Milton Babbitt also disparaged the term, saying "The works that followed, many of them now familiar, include the Five Pieces for Orchestra, Erwartung, Pierrot Lunaire, and they and a few yet to follow soon were termed 'atonal,' by I know not whom, and I prefer not to know, for in no sense does the term make sense. Not only does the music employ 'tones,' but it employs precisely the same 'tones,' the same physical materials, that music had employed for some two centuries. In all generosity, 'atonal' may have been intended as a mildly analytically derived term to suggest 'atonic' or to signify 'a-triadic tonality,' but, even so there were infinitely many things the music was not" (Babbitt 1991, 4–5).

"Atonal" developed a certain vagueness in meaning as a result of its use to describe a wide variety of compositional approaches that deviated from traditional chords and chord progressions. Attempts to solve these problems by using terms such as "pan-tonal", "non-tonal", "multi-tonal", "free-tonal" and "without tonal center" instead of "atonal" have not gained broad acceptance.

Criticism of the concept of atonality

Composer Anton Webern held that "new laws asserted themselves that made it impossible to designate a piece as being in one key or another" (Webern 1963, 51). Composer Walter Piston, on the other hand, said that, out of long habit, whenever performers "play any little phrase they will hear it in some key—it may not be the right one, but the point is they will play it with a tonal sense. ... [T]he more I feel I know Schoenberg's music the more I believe he thought that way himself. ... And it isn't only the players; it's also the listeners. They will hear tonality in everything" (Westergaard 1968, 15).

Donald Jay Grout similarly doubted whether atonality is really possible, because "any combination of sounds can be referred to a fundamental root". He defined it as a fundamentally subjective category: "atonal music is music in which the person who is using the word cannot hear tonal centers" (Grout 1960, 647).

One difficulty is that even an otherwise "atonal" work, tonality "by assertion" is normally heard on the thematic or linear level. That is, centricity may be established through the repetition of a central pitch or from emphasis by means of instrumentation, register, rhythmic elongation, or metric accent (Simms 1986, 65).

Criticism of atonal music

Swiss conductor, composer, and musical philosopher Ernest Ansermet, a critic of atonal music, wrote extensively on this in the book Les fondements de la musique dans la conscience humaine (The Foundations of Music in Human Consciousness) (Ansermet 1961), where he argued that the classical musical language was a precondition for musical expression with its clear, harmonious structures. Ansermet argued that a tone system can only lead to a uniform perception of music if it is deduced from just a single interval. For Ansermet this interval is the fifth (Mosch 2004, 96).

Ah, now we are getting somewhere.

I don't care for whatever it is that we might consider "atonal" music. Not by a long shot. But it seems to me that all these fellow's remarks are based on personal opinion rather that any real evidence. That's fine, but is rather meaningless. 

I went to a very Conservative college. The year I got there was the first year they decided not to be a Baptist school anymore. Probably because they couldn't get state funding. But very Conservative none the less. They had decided to not use Grout's text book on music history. I leave figuring out the reason up to the readers of this thread. Although if the rest of his history is anything like your quote from him, I can only sigh. And as for Piston, well, he is too rooted in traditional theory, having authored textbooks on it. 

And while there doesn't seem to be an "aspectral" category, there are "non-spectral" colors. Specifically "achromatic".

I suppose that if atonal is vague, than so is the word chord. We can all think of a piece of music that might fit the atonal mold. But there are a vast number of types of chords. I suppose there could be "achords". 

My point is that while the word "atonal" might go out of vogue. it won't be because any of the above folks don't like it. Words come and go. Their meanings change. It happens.

The idea that we can apply the term as long as the music sounds good seems odd to me. Every one of us has a different idea of "what sounds good". For example, I don't care for most piano music. Same goes for most jazz, easy listening, polka, Cage's 4'33, a piece I know of for 7 clarinets all playing overtones. and so forth. 

To me, all the folks above give the term legitimacy just because they used it.


To be frank, all this nitpicking over words bores me.

What would be more interesting to me is to discuss the idea of music composed without tones (i.e., "atonal" in a literal sense), i.e., purely made of portamento/smooth glissandi.  I've mentioned this idea many times, and how it has striking parallels with the inflections of human speech.  But nobody seems to be able to get past arguing about words.  One of these days I might just have to sit down and actually compose something this way.

But anyway, here's some food for thought:

(1) As a first step out of music based on tones, let's temporarily retain the existing frame of reference, i.e., the current pitch system, so that we can unambiguously specify where a glide would begin or end.

(2) In the same vein, let's for now keep the current metrical system, so that we can talk about rhythms clearly.

(3) Once we dispense with the idea of a fixed pitch for any note, the very concept of intervals stop being as important, unless we're talking about two parallel glides a fixed pitch distance apart.  Intervals will stretch and shrink as different glides modulate in different ways, and you wouldn't hear any specific, fixed interval.  Perhaps one could talk about the average distance between two glides, but it ceases to have specific meanings we associate with tone-based music, like the specific sound of 5ths, 3rds, etc..

(4) Continuing from (3), since specific intervals (between two simultaneous glides) are no longer so important, the exact starting and ending pitches of a glide also becomes less important. Within certain bounds, you could freely transpose one "voice" relative to another without changing the essence of the result too much.  Which is an interesting conclusion, because that's how human speech works too: we instinctively hear speech in a way that's independent of the exact pitch; rather what's important is the shape or contour of the voice, which in English is interpreted as "tone of voice" (in the sense of speech, not in the sense of music) , and in other languages like Chinese can be interpreted as an inherent part of a word or syllable that distinguishes its meaning from other similar-sounding words or syllables.

(5) Based on (3) and (4), one may conclude that in "glide music", exact pitches become less important, and contour or shape becomes more important.  This has interesting parallels with melodic shape in tone-based music, as it is well known in melodic writing that contour matters a lot in giving a melody its distinctive identity.  It is also significant that in so-called "tonal" languages like Chinese, it isn't the exact pitch that matters, but rather the pitch contour that distinguishes one syllable from another. It's the relative change in pitch that determines the contour, not the exact pitch. So one speaker may have a higher average pitch than another speaker, but they have no problems understanding each other because the contours are preserved, in spite of the pitches being different.

(6) Based on the foregoing, (1) is really just a crutch, not an essential part of glide music.  It can be dispensed with once we have established new frames of reference in the new system.

(7) Rhythm remains important, though.  Which also has interesting parallels with human speech and poetry.  Although languages like Chinese don't pay too much attention to rhythm, other languages do. Conceivably, there's some exotic language out there that pays attention to both (though I can't think of any specific example right now).

(8) So this leads to our first important conclusion: a melodic idea in glide music is primarily a matter of contour and rhythm (one could argue the latter is a part of the former). While I wouldn't say pitch is completely irrelevant, at the very least it's not as important. Or rather, exact pitch is unimportant; the important part is relative pitch, i.e. contour.

(9) Now, since pitch is mostly unimportant in glide music, we can freely transpose voices up or down without affecting their musical content. (Which, lo and behold, is true even in tone-based music when you transpose an entire piece!)  This means polyphony is a simple matter of juxtaposing two or more voices, possible transposed apart so that they don't cross each other.

(10) But crossing voices could be a source of interest in glide music.  Borrowing the idea of importance of voices in tone-based music, one could infer that the higher voice would be heard as more important, so having voices cross each other could be employed to give importance to other voices than the current top one.  In this respect, exact pitch may still play a role, since if you want to ensure one voice is higher than another, you have to at least constrain the pitch ranges in order to be sure of this.

(11) An interesting effect is parallel glides.  Once we dispense with an exact reference pitch, the difference between two parallel glides really becomes a matter of timbre: two parallel voices with the same contour will have a "chorus" effect, whereas two voices moving in opposite directions would be heard as independent lines.  So here there's a contrast between "togetherness" and "separation" that could be exploited as a basic ingredient in glide music.

OK, I ran out of time.  But maybe the above brainstorming should get us started on what might arguably be "real" "atonal music" (whatever that means).  To avoid confusion and endless wars of words, though, perhaps we should just call it "glide music" instead.

Well then, write some glide music.

Also, I for one, don't interpret atonal as music without tones.

Very interesting HS, I can hear how it would sound, maybe trio for trombone, voice and violin? Or steel guitar, ribbon controller and theremin? Or maybe just a chorus. 

So the notation could be same and live performance would work I guess but what about the holy grail of the unknown composer, midi mockups, how would that be accomplished?

H. S. Teoh said:

  To avoid confusion and endless wars of words, though, perhaps we should just call it "glide music" instead.

Theremin would be the perfect instrument for glide music. By controlling hand gestures you could generate an endless variety of pitch contours.

With midi mockups you could use pitch bend routed through a dial or something, and just use the dial to control pitch. Or maybe program it to follow a pitch contour drawn by mouse, or something like that.

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