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What is the ordering of modes (Ionian, Dorian, etc.) from least to most dissonant?

Intervals are dissonant/consonant so why wouldn't there be a way to measure the totality (or average?) of modes against the respective scale?

UPDATE: The ordering could start with the Ionian which must be the most consonant, least dissonant because the Ionian mode of a scale is the scale itself.

closed as primarily opinion-based by David Bowling, Tim, ggcg, Dom Jan 20 at 18:54

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  • Since the intervals are all identical, but displaced, what's it about? One can't say that all the intervals of Ionian (major, at the end of the day) are consonant. – Tim Jan 18 at 21:14
  • This is an interesting question. I agree with Tim, even Ionian is not altogether consonant, every one of these modes contains b2, 7, b5 intervals. But they do generate different "moods" when notes are played in that order. – ggcg Jan 18 at 23:00
  • I mean the ordering could start with the Ionian which must be the most consonant, least dissonant, because the Ionian mode of a scale is the scale itself. – Randy Zeitman Jan 19 at 2:22
  • @RandyZeitman "because the Ionian mode of a scale is the scale itself" - I don't think that quite works, because the definition of the Major scale/Ionian mode as the 'daddy mode' is somewhat arbitrary. As I mention in my answer, in some ways the Mixolydian mode is more consonant than the Ionian. – topo morto Jan 19 at 10:38
  • "ionian mode of a scale" that usage doesn't work. what is the Ionian mode of a minor scale? "First" mode of a scale, that's the wording to use. – Michael Curtis Jan 19 at 16:01
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I have never heard of any such ordering of modes by dissonance.

You need a combination of tones or at least a succession of tone to produce dissonance.

I suppose you could make some comparison of dissonance by comparing scale degrees to the tonic. Noting that the Locrian mode has a diminished fifth for the 5th degree, or the Lydian has an augmented fourth for the 4th degree (and those are both important tonal degrees) does seem to point to some inherent level of dissonance for those modes. But I don't know how exactly you would then quantify and rank all seven modes.

I have see the modes compared and ranked in terms or color or 'darkness' by the successive addition of lowered degrees. That would make Lydian lightest and Locrian darkest.

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Intervals can be thought of as either consonant or dissonant, but even those determinations aren't always set in stone. A perfect fourth is sometimes dissonant, but then other times it's consonant. Hindemith tried ranking the intervals from most consonant to least, but countless authors have disagreed with him.

I say this because any ordering of these modes, just like an ordering of intervals, is bound to be imperfect and subject to some disagreement.

But one possible way is to look at the total amount of change from the major scale:

  1. Lydian and Mixolydian both have only one difference from Ionian. Lydian has ♯4 compared to Ionian, whereas Mixolydian has ♭7. I'm not sure how you'd determine which is more consonant than the other.
  2. Dorian has two differences from Ionian: ♭3 and ♭7.
  3. Aeolian has three differences: ♭3, ♭6, and ♭7.
  4. Phrygian has four: ♭2, ♭3, ♭6, and ♭7.
  5. And Locrian, if you consider it a mode, has five: ♭2, ♭3, ♭5, ♭6, ♭7.
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    I was thinking something along these lines, but then saw a funny result comparing Major to Mixolydian: the difference being a M7 in major and a less dissonant m7 in Mixolydian. Wouldn't a m7 be considered less dissonant than a M7, and so Mixolydian less dissonant than major? – Michael Curtis Jan 18 at 22:48
  • I didn't realize that about the A4 v. m7/M7. That's interesting. I don't really buy into everything explained by the harmonic series. After the 'chord of nature' I figure a whole lot is up in the air! – Michael Curtis Jan 18 at 23:11
  • "any ordering of these modes...is bound to be imperfect and subject to some disagreement." I rest my case! :-) But yes, I could see how one would make that claim; the m7 is the first version of 7th that appears in the harmonic series. (I made a silly error in my prior comment, so I've now removed that.) – Richard Jan 18 at 23:14
  • But, am I understanding correctly? 11th harmonic is A4, then 14th m7, then 15th M7? – Michael Curtis Jan 18 at 23:16
  • @MichaelCurtis Conveniently, ♭7 is the seventh harmonic and ♯11 is the 11th. – Richard Jan 18 at 23:18
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To someone listening to the Ionian mode 400 years ago, it would have sounded dissonant. Even a hundred years ago, the tritone, used extensively in Blues, was considered dissonant. Dissonance requires minimum two notes played simultaneously - as does consonance. And the only real consonant interval is the octave.

The Ionian mode contained exactly the same notes as every other mode from that parent key, so the question is on a dodgy footing. The intervals for each are exactly the same! Some consonant (sort of), some dissonant (sort of). So listing an order - all equal!

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What is the ordering of modes (Ionian, Dorian, etc.) from least to most dissonant?

The modes of the diatonic scale (Ionian, Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian, Locrian) each contain exactly the same interval patterns - those of the diatonic scale. The only difference is the root note - so what must be meant by 'most dissonant' and 'least dissonant' here must in some way refer to the intervals that occur with respect to that root note.

As you can see from Dissonance: why doesn't the roughness curve have a dip for complex intervals like 7/6?, it is possible to come up with a graph of how dissonant certain intervals are perceived to be:

Plomp / Levelt curve

Plomp & Levelt 1965

So one way you could start to work towards some kind of dissonance ranking would be to rank how dissonant each interval created by the root and each other note in the mode is. However, you wouldn't be able to come up with an exact metric for each mode, for various reasons:

  • In real music, scales are used across more than one octave, so each degree in the scale produces a set of intervals from the root (not just one)
  • The dissonance curve is somewhat subjective, and also it depends on the timbre of the notes played (i.e. the strengths of harmonics in the sounds used, as mentioned in the linked question)
  • Perhaps most importantly, in a musical context, we don't only hear intervals between the root and every other note, but every note and every other note. So we would have to somehow consider how to 'weight' the relative dissonances of intervals produced by notes other than the root in terms of importance. (if we were to weight them all the same, then each mode would come out as sounding no more or less dissonant than the other - because, as we said at the start, all modes of the diatonic scale have the same interval pattern).

It's this problem of 'weighting' that means that we can't come up with an exact ordering, as we can see from your example:

The ordering could start with the Ionian which must be the most consonant

Actually, if we just consider intervals from the root, the Ionian mode wouldn't be the most consonant mode of the diatonic scale - because a major seventh is a more dissonant interval than a minor seventh, the Mixolydian mode would be measured as more consonant.

So why might we nevertheless consider the Ionian mode more consonant than the Mixolydian? it comes back to that idea about considering the intervals from notes in the mode other than the root. If we look at the most consonant note in the Ionian mode other than the octave - i.e. the fifth - the intervals based on that are those of the mixolydian mode - i.e. very consonant! However, starting on the fifth of the Mixolydian mode generates the intervals of the Dorian mode, which would be less consonant. So the Mixolydian mode 'wins' in terms of consonance from its root, but 'loses' to the Ionian mode in terms of consonance from its fifth.

Put another way, we can see that the Ionian mode can produce especially consonant-sounding music when using triadic harmony, for example, because you have the (consonant-sounding) intervals of a major chord available from both the (also consonant) IV and V of the mode.

(Personally, I feel that part of the popularity of the major scale/Ionian mode is not just that it provides many opportunities for consonance, but also because the major seventh is an 'aching' dissonance that 'wants to' resolve to the root).

So, TLDR: It's hard to come up with an overall ordering of modes by consonance / dissonance. It's probably more worthwhile to note the different opportunities for consonance and dissonance that each mode allows in a musical piece.

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Adam neely makes a great list of the modes ranked by a certain concept he calls "the Dorian Brightness Quotient" (but don't worry, he's making that name up). The idea is that each scale can be unambiguously defined by its brightness compared to the Dorian Mode, and therefore we can approach the idea of dissonance similarly. Now, Neely describes brightness as having a direct relationship with interval size, so brighter is not always more dissonant. However, it's definitely possible to say that in context, the farther apart the modes are, the more dissonant they'll be.

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