Issue: July-September 2011
Bandworld Magazine Page


20+ Years ago in Bandworld
Note Grouping

by James M. Thurmond Bio
Vol. 4, #1, p.20 (August-October, 1988)

“I just couldn’t put it down.” When I opened the cover of James Thurmond’s book, Note Grouping , that’s exactly what happened to me. It was like one of those exciting novels that you stay up all night to read. Here is a resource that everyone should have–yesterday! The short excerpts in the next two issues of Bandworld will hopefully pique your interest in this important work. Order through or Barnes & Noble.   Ed. 1988

In the first three chapters of Note Grouping, the important elements of basic rhythmic concepts underlying the study of musical expression (motives, arsis and thesis, and the barline) are detailed. Dr. Thurmond shows that in ancient Greece the importance of short syllables in verse (in music, the smaller note-values) was recognized.

His theory of note grouping is that the arsis or weak note (upbeat) of the motive or measure (in an iambic meter) is more expressive musically than the thesis (downbeat), and that by stressing the arsis ever so slightly, the performance of music can be made more satisfying and musical.

Importance of Arsis

A perception of rhythm or motion can be engendered in the mind of the listener by playing either alternating tones of different lengths or tones of unequal dynamic stress. In each case the motion-creating factor is the progression from short to long tones or from unaccented to accented ones or vice versa. When for a number of reasons the barline gradually developed, it was placed before the long or accented notes (theses), making each measure “thetic” in a sense–that is, beginning with a thesis and ending in an arsis.

As a result, this development has led to the notion that the first note in the measure (or beat) should be considered the most important and should be given the most accent; the principal reason being that this note is first! The consequence of this prominence has been that the theses are over-accented in performance and the arses neglected.

This practice is opposed to the principles of poetry and rhythm handed down to us by the Greeks and limits the progressive function of melody (the most important and necessary element of music) as it is illustrated in the compositions of the masters. In melody, the arsis, or in a larger sense, the anacrusis, is the most important part of this motive, rhythme, phrase, or measure; for it is this portion that “progresses” from one harmonic structure to another (passing notes), and usually contains the only notes that are different from the harmony. Moreover, the metric pulse normally gives a certain amount of stress to the thesis, or initial beat in the measure, and to increase this prominence by emphasizing it, solely because it is first, makes the musical result stiff, mechanical, and over-accentuated. Also, the harmonic pattern of the music usually falls on the thesis of each measure or beat, and any thetic accentuation of the melody tends to blend it into the harmony so that its true melodic role in the music is obscured, resulting in a loss of clarity and musical expression (movement). This is due principally to the fact that when the theses are accented, the true melodic mission of the arses is restrained and they fade into the valleys between the thetic “thumps.” Consequently their progressive function is not perceived by the listener.

Another factor besides the placement of the barline that has contributed to this “worship” of the downbeat is the method that has evolved of writing and printing the notes themselves in a thesis-arsis pattern. This puts a thesis not only at the beginning of every beat, but at the beginning of every beat, signifying to the uninitiated that this thetic note is important, only because it strikes the eye first!

Fundamental Theory

Arsis or anacrusis, whichever it may be, is the motion-creating factor in the motive or phrase; and the great composers must have felt this to be true, since the majority have written their music in a manner that highlights the importance of the anacrusis. Proper recognition of this importance by the artist will insure that in performance the composition will be phrased correctly and with ease; for if, with few exceptions, the true motives and phrases begin with anacruses, one has only to phrase from one anacrusis to the next thesis before the next “motive-beginning” anacrusis! Phrasing, or “punctuation” in music, in the opinion of the author, is almost synonymous with expression. Therefore, if proper significance is given to the anacrusis, and the thetic portions of the measure are not stressed, phrasing will be more correct and consequently the expressiveness of the music will be enhanced.

D.C. Turk in his Clavierschule (1789) gives the following interesting illustration:
  ‘He lost his life not, only his property.
  He lost his life, not only his property.’

Turk justifiably concludes that the same danger of wrong punctuation exists in music.

The problem of where to punctuate–where singers and wind players should breathe, where string instrumentalists should bow–is a never-ending one. The enigma is the location and immediate recognition of the proper boundaries of the motives and phrases, and the consequential task of executing the music so that these phrases are properly defined and are heard by the listener according to their relative importance in the passage as a whole. This is one of the most perplexing of the many hurdles that must be negotiated by the musical performer and one that the author believes is greatly clarified, if not solved, by the use of the note-grouping method.

In approaching the analysis of the problem of where to punctuate or phrase, it is important to remember that in music, as in literature, the perception of the art progresses from the motive (which is comparable to the syllable or word in prose) to the phrase; and then to the sentence, period, and finally to the work as a whole.
Vincent d‘Indy vividly reminds us of this in the following words:
In certain arts, architecture, sculpture, painting, the whole appears before the detail. In the others, literature, music, the detail strikes one first and leads to the appreciation of the whole.

If one were observing the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, he would first see the structure as a whole and then proceed to examine the famous stained glass windows and other of its noble features in particular; however, if one were listening to the Symphony No. 5 of Beethoven, he would necessarily hear the famous opening motive.

And only then would it be possible for him to progress to the next motive, the next phrase, theme, movement, and finally the complete work. It is, therefore, imperative in phrasing that attention be focused first on the smallest items, the figures or motives, and then on the larger ones.

The motive in its smallest form may consist of only two notes, the first usually being the arsis and the second the thesis. If these notes are examined more closely, it will be found that each has a particular function to perform: the former to create action or movement, the latter to be the result of that action–a point of rest, or relaxation. What is the explanation of this phenomenon?
Mathis Lussy believes that the factor generating the feeling that the upbeat or arsis pulsation has a life-giving characteristic, and the downbeat a quality of relief from tension, can be traced to the physiological mechanism of breathing. In breathing there are two movements–inspiration and expiration. Inspiration personifies action; expiration, repose. The former is symbolized by the upbeat and the latter by the downbeat.

Lussy also believes that respiration furnishes a key to the origin of binary and ternary rhythms. When a person is awake and in movement, the breathing is in binary rhythm:


And when he is asleep or at complete rest, the respiration is in ternary rhythm–the exhalation being approximately twice as long as the inhalation:


One has only to observe an individual who is in deep slumber to appreciate the significance of this observation.
It is clear from the above that a complete respiration (inhalation-exhalation) provides a prototype of the musical motive–or note group (arsis-thesis).

Unfortunately the system of writing and printing music in use today provides no means for showing the true outlines of the motive or phrase. It is necessary, of course, due to the complexity of modern musical compositions that the metric scheme be immediately apparent to the reader by printing music according to the meter and not the motive or phrase. For example:


Seldom, however, are motives recognized and played as show in (b), except by accomplished musicians. Note grouping provides a shortcut to immediate recognition.

Next time: Examples and application of note-grouping theory. 

Also go to Director's Guide to Note Grouping for young musician usage.

Cross-reference: In the January 2011 printed Bandworld, as well as the January 2008 online issue, we included excerpts from an outstanding project created by 2008 American Band College graduate, Kerrissa Silverthorne. In that presentation, she utilized the famous Note Grouping book by James M. Thurmond as a foundation to present those principles to young musicians.


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