Composing in Phrygian Dominant Scale

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Cover Photo by Amy Gatenby

This article is an excerpt from the course “Scales in Action

Introduction

– Scale structure: 1 ♭2 3 4 5 ♭6 ♭7 (See Fig. A)

– Characteristic Note: ♭2

– Analogous to the fifth Mode of Harmonic Minor Scale (See Fig. A)

The Phrygian Dominant scale is common in the traditional Flamenco music of southern Spain (Andalusian region). However, we can also hear this scale in the traditional music of Eastern Europe, the Middle East, India, and Central Asia. Accordingly, this scale is identified by a variety of names based on its region of usage, including (but not limited to) Escala Andaluza, Hijaz-Nahawand, Freygish, and others.

If you’re familiar with the modes of the major scale, we can think of Phrygian Dominant as a mixture of two modes. It combines the ♭2 and ♭6th from Phrygian with the iconic ♮3 and ♭7 of Mixolydian. As a result, the ♭2 and ♮3 degrees of the scale yield a distinctive augmented 2nd interval (larger than a whole step). When writing music with this scale, if we feature the ♭2 and ♮3 degrees clearly in our melodies and harmonies, we can evoke some of the flavor of Flamenco music.

Musical Examples with a Strong Usage of Phrygian Dominant Scale

Ernesto Lecuona, “Malagueña,” The 6th movement of Suite Andalucía (1933)
Jefferson Airplane, “The White Rabbit” from the album Surrealistic Pillow (1967)
Howard Shore, “Prologue: One Ring to Rule Them All,” from the movie The Lords of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Hijaz, “Chemsi” from the album Chemsi (2011)

Incidentally, Phrygian Dominant is also equivalent to the fifth mode of a Harmonic Minor scale. For example, F Harmonic Minor and C Phrygian Dominant contain the same set of notes. The tonic of the latter scale (C) is the fifth note of F Harmonic Minor (see Fig. A). 

Fig.A


Composing with Phrygian Dominant Scale 

Analysis of Ex. 4-3-A

Ex. 4-3-A is inspired by Andalusian Flamenco music, and we composed it using the E Phrygian Dominant scale. Acoustic guitar and electric piano outline a simple chord progression between E (Ⅰ) and F (♭Ⅱ). The root of our second chord (F) showcases the characteristic ♭2 of the scale (❶).

Meanwhile, the electric guitar plays a lively melody up and down the scale. The guitar briefly fills in the ‘missing’ thirds of the E5 and F5 chords (G♯ and A respectively). The distinctive augmented 2nd interval between F and G♯ is one of the characteristic sounds of Andalusian Flamenco music (❷). The use of guitars, the melodic ornament at the end of measure 2, and the percussive hand clapping are also evocative of this musical style.

In measures 3, 5, 7, and 8, notice how the melody lands on the stable tonic chord tones E and B. In addition, the electric bass mostly plays the root (and occasionally the 5th) of each chord. These elements work together to help secure our sense of E as the tonic, as opposed to A and the related scale A Harmonic Minor.

Tips) Odd Time Signatures
This piece used a 7/8 time signature. Using an odd number, like 7, can bring a certain energy and personality to the meter of your music. Instead of thinking of 7 beats like “8 minus 1,” odd meters are usually felt as a combination of 2’s and 3’s. In this case, the accents in the acoustic guitar and electric piano reveal a 3-2-2 pattern (❸). 

Summary

  • Construction: Phrygian Dominant derives from the harmonic minor scale, specifically the fifth mode (hence the “dominant” in its name). Compared to a major scale, it has the following intervals: 1–♭2–3–4–5–♭6–♭7. The key difference is the major third (3) instead of a minor third in the standard Phrygian mode.
  • Sound: This unique construction with a mix of half steps and an augmented second between the second and third scale degrees creates a distinctive sound. Musicians often describe it as “exotic” or “tense.”
  • Application:
    • In jazz, it’s a go-to choice for improvising over dominant seventh chords (like C7) that resolve to minor chords (like Fm). The scale’s tensions add color and lead nicely to the resolution.
    • It’s also found in other musical styles like flamenco and Middle Eastern music, where it contributes to their characteristic sounds.

Here are some additional points to consider:

  • Alternative Names: You might encounter the Phrygian dominant scale under various names like altered Phrygian scale, dominant flat 2 flat 6 (in jazz), or Freygish scale.
  • Relationship to Mixolydian: The Phrygian dominant scale shares the same first, fourth, fifth, and seventh notes with the Mixolydian scale (another common jazz improvisation scale). However, the lowered second and sixth degrees in the Phrygian dominant give it its distinct character.

This post was brought to you in collaboration with our partner site Behind the Score. Discover the Harmony Secrets of Modern Film and Video Games.