In a prior study (Temperley & Tan, 2013), participants rated the “happiness” of melodies in different diatonic modes. A strong pattern was found, with happiness decreasing as scale steps were lowered. We wondered: Does this pattern reflect the familiarity of diatonic modes? The current study examines familiarity directly. In the experiments reported here, college students without formal music training heard a series of melodies, each with a three-measure beginning (“context”) in a diatonic mode and a one-measure ending that was either in the context mode or in a mode that differed from the context by one scale degree. Melodies were constructed using four pairs of modes with the same tonic: Lydian/Ionian, Ionian/Mixolydian, Dorian/Aeolian, and Aeolian/Phrygian. Participants rated how well the ending “fit” the context. Two questions were of interest: (1) Do listeners give higher ratings to some modes (as endings) overall? (2) Do listeners give a higher rating to the ending if its mode matches that of the context? The results show a strong main effect of ending, with Ionian (major) and Aeolian (natural minor) as the most familiar (highly rated) modes. This aligns well with corpus data representing the frequency of different modes in popular music. There was also a significant interaction between ending and context, whereby listeners rated an ending higher if its mode matched the context. Our findings suggest that (1) our earlier “happiness” results cannot be attributed to familiarity alone, and (2) listeners without formal knowledge of diatonic modes are able to internalize diatonic modal frameworks.
In this experiment, participants (nonmusicians) heard pairs of melodies and had to judge which of the two melodies was happier. Each pair consisted of a single melody presented in two different diatonic modes (Lydian, Ionian, Mixolydian, Dorian, Aeolian, or Phrygian) with a constant tonic of C; all pairs of modes were used. The results suggest that modes imply increasing happiness as scale-degrees are raised, with the exception of Lydian, which is less happy than Ionian. Overall, the results are best explained by familiarity: Ionian (major mode), the most common mode in both classical and popular music, is the happiest, and happiness declines with increasing distance from Ionian. However, familiarity does not entirely explain our results. Familiarity predicts that Mixolydian would be happier than Lydian (since they are equally similar to Ionian, and Mixolydian is much more common in popular music); but for almost half of our participants, the reverse was true. This suggests that the “sharpness” of a mode also affects its perceived happiness, either due to pitch height or to the position of the scale relative to the tonic on the “line of fifths”; we favor the latter explanation.