Scale of the Day #4: The Phrygian Mode

This week we’re looking at one of the modes of the major scale, and as all the modes of the major scale have a long tradition of being named in western music theory we won’t need to get worried about what it ‘ought’ to be called – that flag was planted long ago.

While the Phrygian mode and last week’s scale both have the 2nd and 7th flattened they end up sounding nothing alike, and that’s because the Phrygian mode has another two notes flattened (the 3rd and the 6th), while last week’s scale had one note raised (the 4th), with the result that three notes in the pattern are not shared.

The Phrygian mode is actually only one note different to the natural minor scale, but that flattened 2nd has such an unexpected aspect to it that we tend to hear it as vastly different from the familiar natural minor pattern.

Here is the Phrygian mode starting on C:

Notice how in this permutation the pattern is symmetrical – white-black-black-white-white-black-black-white.  This makes it a joy to play in contrary motion, and is one of my contrary favourites, without a doubt.

There are two super-easy ways of finding this mode.  The first is to simply play all the white notes from E to E.  The other is to play F and C and then add all the black notes.  (I find this second method more fun).

I used this Phrygian on F in my Grade 1 standard piano piece Milli-Molli-Mandi-pede from the Faber/Trinity publication Creepy Crawlies (also available in Australia in the Hal Leonard publication Getting to Grade One New Mix). Here’s how that piece starts:

This ends up sounding reasonably ‘normal’ because the theme is so focussed on the F and the C, the same perfect 5th you would expect to hear in a major, melodic minor or harmonic minor scale.  So the Phrygian marker note (the flattened 2nd) doesn’t stand out so much as it is rapidly passed through as the melody moves between the dominant and tonic notes.

But try playing through the triads of the Phrygian mode.  The pattern goes like this:

i II III iv v° VI vii

minor-Major-Major-minor-diminished-Major-minor

Or, in notation, on C:

This combination creates a quite positive spin on the extremely minor pattern, as the minor key chord rises to two Major chords. And while in a major mode the chord a 3rd above and a 3rd below the key note are minor, in the Phrygian mode the situation is reversed, creating a background harmonic context of contentedness, even if the key chord is melancholic. On the other hand, the semitone distance between the tonic and the 2nd note of the scale creates a high degree of tension (maybe it’s just heightened alertness, or then maybe it’s just a kind of unease) which works against the contented vibe major chords normally communicate.

I described the flattened 2nd as imparting a sensual atmosphere to last week’s scale, but here that impact is mitigated by the 3rd also being flattened – or maybe it’s just that the flattened 2nd sensuality feels more everyday without the augmented 2nd interval following.

How do you respond to the Phrygian mode?  Does it have any predictable emotional connotations to you?  And do you have any favourite pieces of music in this most interesting of tonic-minor modes?

3 thoughts on “Scale of the Day #4: The Phrygian Mode

  1. My favourite mode/scale is the dominant phrygian. It’s the same as this with a majored third. What I like to do is playing the majored third when playing the 1st degree chord, hence C major, but then minoring it when playing all other degrees. There’s a beautiful major/minor contradiction. Think Radiohead’s Pyramid Song!

  2. You mention that you like to play Phrygian by utilizing C, F, and all black notes. That would lead me to believe you are in C phrygian for playing this…but F#/Gb is not available in C phrygian right (using it would put you in Bb Aeolian I think)? I just picked up piano and music theory a few months ago so please excuse me if I am being naive or anything. I also wondered why you call the interval between C and F a perfect 5th? I am sure this is actually a perfect 4th, which is of course thought of as an inversion of the 5th. Anyways I didn’t want to sprinkle too much hater-ade on the phrygian fun parade. I love the phrygian mode’s sound. Also, regardless of the technicalities of spoken language, I very much agree that this is a great mode, and that it sound particularly interesting the way you described it. Interestingly, much gospel and soul music is written in C# major/Bb minor, which is extremely close to C phrygian, and blending those with blues scale and jazz chordal voicing theory is very interesting! Cheers.

    • F Phrygian is the pattern you find when you use C and F and all the black keys. 🙂

      When you start on E with all the white keys the pattern is E Phrygian.

      Sorry for any confusion! These are just the three iterations of the mode I most enjoy playing – the C Phrygian as notated, and the E and F Phrygians as then described. I’ll go back and edit that sentence for greater clarity!!

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