[Smt-talk] Meaning of Diatonic

Nicolas Meeùs nicolas.meeus at scarlet.be
Tue Dec 3 08:02:17 PST 2013


Otto Gombosi wrote in his 1939 thesis:

    Nirgends im ganzen antiken Schriftum ist jemals von "phrygischen"
    oder "lydischen" Tetrachorden die Rede; es gibt eben nur eine Art
    von Tetrachord, die "dorische", die aber auch niemals so benannt
    wurde. Folglich ist auch niemals davon die Rede, daß die
    Oktavgattungen aus zwei Tetrachorden zusammengesetzt sind.
    (/Tonarten und Stimmungen.../, p. 14)

    Nowhere in the whole Antique literature is there ever question of
    "Phrygian" or "Lydian" tetrachords; there is only one form of
    tetrachord, the "Dorian" one, which however is never so named. As a
    result, there is also nowhere question that the octave genres were
    formed of two tetrachords.

'Tonos', in Greek, had several meanings, including 'pitch' and 
'interval' (the word generally refers to 'tension', say the tension in a 
string or that between two notes). The Greek, however, also had the term 
'hemitonos', 'semitone' (i.e. 'half a tone', obviously), which leaves 
little doubt about one meaning of 'tonos', 'tone' (major second) in our 
modern sense. 'Diatonic' refers to the mobile degrees between the outer 
limits of the tetrachord being a tone apart ('dia tonoi', 'through tones').

Your definition of diatonic as denoting a distance between two notes 
with different names is a correct _modern_ description (it corresponds 
to Gevaert's definition of 1906 that I quoted earlier). In the case of 
Ancient Greek tetrachords, were they diatonic, chromatic or enharmonic, 
the four degrees certainly had four different names: your definition 
cannot apply.

Medieval theory also knew only one form of the tetrachord, 
re--mi--fa--sol, and the various modes differed from each other in that 
they placed their final on another degree of the tetrachord: on re for 
the re modes, on mi for the mi modes, etc. (One tetrachord was the 
notorious "tetrachord of the finals", already in Hucbald, who may have 
been the earliest Western theorist to speak of finals.) Because modes 
could be either authentic or plagal, there were 8 modes in all. It is as 
simple as that.

The idea that octave genres, or scalar modes, are each formed of two 
tetrachords (be they Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian for the Greek modes, or 
Major, Harmonic, or whatever for modern scales) is a 19th-century 
mistake, that has been proved false in the case of Ancient and Medieval 
music and that it may be time we abandon for more recent music as well. 
It has proved extremely harmful in the case of Arabic music, when 
Western scholars went to the Cairo Congress of 1932 and 'reformed' 
Arabic theory which, they thought, should somehow duplicate their 
mistaken ideas about Ancient music.

Nicolas Meeùs
University Paris-Sorbonne

Le 2013-12-03 08:37, Ninov, Dimitar N a écrit :
> Dear Colleagues,
> I have a Greek colleague who translates dia-tonic as "between two tones", a tone having the meaning of a pitch, accent, melodic fragment, or even a scale.
> Diatonic is an affair between two tones with different names. For example, out of context, any whole tone or  semitone between two notes with different names will be diatonic, while, any such whole tone or semitone between the same note and its chromatic alteration will be chromatic. For instance, the spaces C-D and C-Db are diatonic by nature, while C-Cx and C-C# are chromatic. This is written in an elementary theory of Music by late Prof. Parashkev Hadjiev, which I studied some 35 years ago.
> As for tetrachords: Ionian has the semitone in the end; Dorian - in the middle, and Phrygian - in the beginning. By combining these tetrachords with the whole tone tetrachod (Lydian), one obtains the old modes.
> Thank you,
> Dimitar
> Dr. Dimitar Ninov, Lecturer
> School of Music
> Texas State University
> 601 University Drive
> San Marcos, Texas 78666
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