What is a Phrygian Mode?

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person playing brown violin during daytime

Cover Photo by Manny Becerra

This article is an excerpt from the course “Applinyg Modal Color to Your Music

– Third Mode of Major scale

– Mode Structure: 1 ♭2 ♭3 4 5 ♭6 ♭7 (Fig. G-1 & G-2)

– Character Note: ♭2nd Degree

Phrygian is the third mode of the major scale and the second darkest of the four minor modes. Phrygian is essentially  Aeolian (Natural minor scale) with a lowered second degree, which is the character note of Phrygian (see Fig. G-1 & G-2). This ♭2 note is only a half-step above the tonic, as opposed to the whole-step between the first and second degrees in every other mode we’ve studied. As a result, Phrygian often conjures dark, melancholic emotions. Flamenco music and heavy metal are two different examples of genres that tend to use the Phrygian mode.

Fig. G-1  C Phrygian Mode and its Diatonic Chords

Fig. G-2  G Phrygian mode and its Diatonic Chords

Ex. 3-9 Phrygian Composition Example #1 (C Phrygian) 

Phrygian

Analysis of Ex.3-9

We wrote Ex. 3-9 to demonstrate the dark color of the Phrygian mode. Throughout the piece, the chord progression frequently uses the character note (D♭) of C Phrygian. The D♭ chord (♭Ⅱ) is also a cadence chord in this mode. The piece is structured in three parts, or what we might call “A-B-A” form. The loud middle section distinguishes itself from the beginning and end. Let’s look at each section individually.

Measures 1–4

Rhythmically, we feel the 6/8 time signature as two “big” beats, each containing three eighth notes: 1 – 2 – 3 – 4 – 5 – 6. In the first half of m. 1, the bell synth outlines a C minor chord. On beat 4, it arrives at D♭ (♭2 character note), a trend that continues in each measure(❶). The bell synth melody sets the stage for our harmony to shift back and forth between C minor and D♭/C.

In the background, first violins quietly tremolo on C in octaves. Second violins also add Phrygian flavor by playing a short ostinato on D♭ and C (❷). Then, starting in m. 3, piano plays a two-bar pattern (❸), outlining chords ascending and descending through Cm, D♭, E♭, and D♭. Meanwhile, the piano bass notes maintain a low C pedal point. The E♭/C chord in m. 4 could also be analyzed as Cm7. 

Altogether, these instruments provide us with the lowered 3rd, 6th, and 7th of C Minor. However, by accentuating the character note (D♭) in the bell synth melody, piano chords, and the D♭-C violin pattern, we telegraph the sound of C Phrygian (as opposed to C minor).

Measures 5–12

In m. 5, our sound fortifies in dynamics and texture. We add low brass, horns, and winds to the arrangement. In addition, an extra synth part plays a scale-like run up and down the Phrygian mode (❹). We also layered drums in our production (not notated here).

Measures 13–16

In the final section, low brass, horns, and winds arrive on the tonic (C) and gradually fade out. We omitted the piano chords here to help accentuate the bell synth pattern, echoing the arrangement of the first few measures of the piece. In doing so, the first and last sections act as bookends that frame the middle section.

Overall, Ex. 3-9 is another good example of modal music. The bass maintains tonic C throughout, and the harmony moves up and down by step (Cm, D♭, E♭) instead of following conventional dominant-tonic resolutions. Next, let’s explore a piece with a changing bass line, this time in G Phrygian (see Fig. G-2 at the beginning of this section).

Summary

The Phrygian mode, often referred to as the “third mode,” has a rich background history. While its exact origins remain shrouded in some mystery, evidence suggests its presence in ancient Greek music. It was later incorporated into the Gregorian chants of the early Christian church, where it was assigned the name “Phrygian mode.” This name likely stemmed from the Phrygian people, a Thracian tribe known for their distinctive musical traditions.

From a theoretical standpoint, the Phrygian mode is built on the third scale degree of a major scale. Think of it as taking a major scale and starting on the “mi” note instead of the “do.” Here’s the breakdown:

  • Major Scale: C D E F G A B C
  • Phrygian Mode: E F G A B C D E (starting on E)

The key characteristic that defines the Phrygian mode is its flattened second degree (the “F” note in this case). This creates a unique interval pattern of 1-½-whole-whole-½-whole-whole, resulting in a sound that is often described as:

  • Minor with a twist: The presence of the minor third (E-G) and the minor seventh (E-D) lends a familiar minor quality.
  • Exotic or Eastern flavor: The flattened second degree adds a distinctive dissonance that differentiates it from the natural minor scale and evokes a sense of mystery or exoticism.
  • Spanish flair: The Phrygian mode is frequently encountered in Spanish folk music and flamenco, contributing to its cultural association with Spain.

The Phrygian Mode in Action: Hearing the Sound

Let’s look at how the Phrygian mode translates into musical practice. Here are some prominent examples of the Phrygian mode in action:

  • Classical Music: Composers like Claude Debussy and Igor Stravinsky employed the Phrygian mode for its evocative qualities. Debussy’s “Gymnopédie No. 1” showcases the mode’s melancholic beauty, while Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” utilizes its dissonance to create a sense of tension and unease.
  • Rock and Metal: The Phrygian mode has found a home in the world of rock and metal. Bands like Black Sabbath and System of a Down frequently incorporate the mode’s dark and powerful sound into their music. Listen to the opening riff of Black Sabbath’s “Black Sabbath” or the main riff of System of a Down’s “Chop Suey!” to hear the Phrygian mode in action.
  • Folk Music: As mentioned earlier, the Phrygian mode is a cornerstone of Spanish folk music and flamenco. The characteristic “Phrygian cadence” (movement from the first degree to the flattened second degree) is a hallmark of flamenco music.

These are just a few examples, and the Phrygian mode can be found sprinkled across various musical genres, adding its unique character to countless compositions.

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View complete editions of music scores (PDF), score analysis (PDF), and HD music examples used in this lesson.

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