According to research, humans innately prefer consonance over dissonance, with dissonance possibly causing a slight “pain” in the ear as the two tones vibrate either too closely together or out of phase. (see research of Sacks, Levitin, Fink, Kagan, and Zentner; AMAZING STUFF). Some of these studies were done on infants, which means I don’t have to add that to my list of curiosities; we innately DO prefer consonance.
The Greek modes, upon further research, may have been used much differently than some early musicologists proposed. Fink (The Origin of Music,1970) reports that perhaps the tonality preferences aren’t so much about the individual tones or consonance/dissonance but actually about the transition of one to the other; he compares this to an analogy of a still frame of a bird vs the bird’s action in reality: flight, thus referencing music as a process, not just some reductionistic/objective interpretation of intervals (my words). So, although the research is slightly inconclusive, it seems that we prefer consonance and that we also prefer a transition from dissonance to consonance; resolution.
This is quite beautifully uplifting, (pun intended), however, the Greeks may have used their favorite mode (The Dorian) in a downward pattern, where the transition of the leading tone produced the same affect of the leading tone in our major scale, but in the opposite direction. This find was indeed a highlight of my weekend 🙂
Here’s a little sample of Phillip Glass’ Opera, “Einstein on the Beach” which uses numerics and solfege syllables more than actual “text” for the libretto. It seemed appropriate for this discussion of process over reductionism.