Understanding Arsis and Thesis in Music

James Thurmond’s book Note Grouping changed my life. It is a very small book (it can be read in around an hour), but its principles and brilliance last long after you finish the last page. Since reading this book several years ago, I have never looked at music in the same way.

Thurmond describes the concept of Arsis (upbeat) and Thesis (downbeat) in music. He takes these terms from the ancient Greeks, who used the raising (upbeat) and lowering (downbeat) of the foot for the timing of the Greek chorus.

By emphasizing the notes on upbeats (in a 4/4 measure this would be the second and fourth beats of the bar) the performer gives greater momentum and forward motion to the musical line.

Greater expressiveness requires this emphasis on the upbeat or Arsis. It can be done either by lengthening the note somewhat OR by stressing it dynamically. When music STARTS on a Thesis/strong beat, there is always an understood Arsis. For the singer, this Arsis is the intake of breath – which should be taken rhythmically and expressively in anticipation of the sung text.

Arsis_and_thesis
An example of Thesis (T) and Arsis (A) in music in relationship to the strong and weak beats of the measure.

 

Many times singers are told to sing with ‘more line’ or ‘more legato’ but aren’t told in most cases how to accomplish this. A singer that understands Arsis and Thesis in music making can render any song in a musically ‘moving’ way. The singer can break apart the music, understanding the ebb and flow of every phrase, and give each an expression that far outpaces ‘singing the notes.’

When you understand Arsis and Thesis, you begin to understand that the arrangement of upbeat/downbeat reflects so many patterns of duality in our lives. The first act of life is an intake of breath (Arsis). Our last act here is the final sigh of death (Thetic). Everything that comes between is the music of our lives.

In popular and contemporary music, there is a very strong emphasis on the FIRST and THIRD beat. This is in no small part due to the fact that much of this music is connected to dance forms, which require a highly distinct pulse. Classical music requires a different approach to rhythm.

Musical notation exists for ease of READING and is structured from Strong (Thetic) to Weak (Arsic) structure. However, note grouping requires the singer to re-group what they see into more cohesive patterns (Arsis/Thesis). Written in an Arsis/Thesis structure, it would be very difficult to read.

Arsis/Thesis can lead the way to more successful music making, and performances of rare expressive and emotional quality.

In a future post, I will explore Arsis/Thesis within the framework of a classical aria and a musical theater song. The reader will gain a greater understanding of how their inherent musical properties can be brought out from a rhythmic perspective and lead to more expressive performance.

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3 thoughts on “Understanding Arsis and Thesis in Music

  1. Excellent post, Justin. Yes, Thurmond’s book is a “must have.” Also, folks, check out David McGill’s “Sound in Motion” as well as any material related to the work of Marcel Tabuteau. Read anything and everything ever written by the late, great Robert Shaw, and so as to HEAR note grouping applied, listen to recordings of the Robert Shaw Chorale and other groups prepared and conducted by Mr. Shaw. “Integrated Practice” by Pedro de Alcantara and “The Dynamic Performance” by Donald Barra are excellent texts, as well.

  2. I have read Note Grouping 3 times now in the past 4 years. I agree with much of it, but one glaring contradiction keeps popping up on my mind: if the arsis must be emphasized over the thesis, this destroys the phenomenon of the feminine cadence (resolution on an arsis/weak beat). Also, a strong beat is a strong beat and unless in the case of a hemiola, written accent, or offset harmonic rhythm, the subtle emphasis (not accent) must fall on the strong bear thesis, not weak beat arsis. I’ve tried so hard to apply Thurmond’s concept of “bring out” the arsis in a phrase over the thesis, but it feels unnatural and against the unwritten rules of what arsis/thesis are all about. It’s like saying from now on all highlighted passages in a book need to be ignored and allowed the non- highlighted words to be noticed more. Lastly, the barline is not merely a convenience to the performer, but a hierarchical representation of the strongest beat in a measure. Again, a true musician know not to accent string beats, but they require a subtle emphasis and therefore weak beats require a little backing off (just like in a feminine cadence).

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