What is the Phrygian Mode?

One of the most exotic sounding music modes is the phrygian mode. You might hear it in a few places, including music that sounds Egyptian, Spanish music, or even film music. It’s quite an unusual scale, but once you know what it is, the phrygian mode is pretty easy to understand.

So what is the phrygian (“fridge-ian”) mode in music? In this post, we’re going to cover modes, the degrees of the phrygian mode, and some examples of this mode in music today.

First, let’s start by talking about music modes.

What are Modes?

The greek modes are a series of diatonic scales, and they are all based on the major scale.

We have seven different modes in music today.

Each mode starts with the same combination of whole steps and half steps (or tones and semitones), but shifted one step higher. For example, the white notes on a piano from C to C is the Iconian mode, but if you shift it one step higher and start on D, then it becomes the Dorian mode.

The pattern of whole steps and half steps is different for each mode. Here’s a chart of the different music modes, including the notes in each mode and the pattern of whole steps (W) and half steps (H).

Iconian Mode (major scale)C – D – E – F – G – A – BW W H W W W H
Dorian ModeD – E – F – G – A – B – CW H W W W H W
Phrygian ModeE – F – G – A – B – C – DH W W W H W W
Lydian ModeF – G – A – B – C – D – EW W W H W W H
Mixolydian ModeG – A – B – C – D – E – FW W H W W H W
Aeolian Mode (minor scale)A – B – C – D – E – F – GW H W W H W W
Locrian ModeB – C – D – E – F – G – AH W W H W W W

Our focus today is obviously going to be the Phrygian mode, but if you’d like to learn more about some of the other modes, you can check out my post on the Dorian mode HERE and my post about Mixolydian mode HERE.

The Phrygian Mode

The phrygian mode is named after the ancient Greek kingdom of Phrygia, which reached its peak during the 8th century, over 3000 years ago. Many of the modes were named after ancient Greek regions.

The phrygian mode, as you can see in the chart above, is the third mode of the major scale.

To play an E phrygian mode, all you have to do is play the C major scale, starting on E.

So that’s the notes E, F, G, A, B, C, and D, like this:

Remember, each music mode has its own sequence of half steps and whole steps, or semitones and tones (if you live outside of the US). This pattern is what makes each mode unique.

To play the phrygian scale, you don’t always have to start on E. As long as you keep the same pattern of tones and semitones, you can start the scale on any note.

The whole step half step pattern looks like this: H – W – W – W – H – W – W.

If you’re using tones and semitones, it translates to: S – T – T – T – S – T – T.

So if you wanted to start on a different note, all you have to do is make sure to use the whole steps and half steps in the right spots. You could start at C, and then the notes would be C, Db, Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, and C. More on that later.

List of Phrygian Modes

For your reference, here’s a chart of all the different phrygian scales, depending on what note you start with. All of these scales follow the pattern of H – W – W – W – H – W – W.

KeyNotes
CC – Db – Eb – F – G – Ab – Bb – C
C#C# – D – E – F# – G# – A – B – C#
DbDb – D – Fb – Gb – Ab – A – Cb – Db
DD – Eb – F – G – A – Bb – C – D
D#D# – E – F# – G# – A# – B – C# – D#
EbEb – Fb – Gb – Ab – Bb – Cb – Db – Eb
EE – F – G – A – B – C – D – E
FF – Gb – Ab – Bb – C – Db – Eb – F
F#F# – G – A – B – C# – D – E – F#
GbGb – G – A – Cb – Db – D – Fb – Gb
GG – Ab – Bb – C – D – Eb – F – G
G#G# – A – B – C# – D# – E – F# – G#
AbAb – A – Cb – Db – Eb – Fb – Gb – Ab
AA – Bb – C – D – E – F – G – A
BbBb – Cb – Db – Eb – F – Gb – Ab – Bb
BB – C – D – E – F# – G – A – B
Pepe Romero

Degrees of the Phrygian Scale

Although the phrygian mode is a type of major mode, when you play it, it is actually in a minor scale.

How can we tell it’s in a minor scale? We can tell because of the scale degrees. In this case, the third note is a minor 3rd above the tonic (starting note). This makes it a minor scale.

If you want to learn more about the types of minor scales, check out this article HERE.

In addition to a minor 3rd, the phrygian mode has a minor 2nd. This means that the second note in the scale is only half a step above the tonic.

It also has a minor 6th and minor 7th.

Here are all of the degrees of the phrygian scale, in order.

  • 1. Root
  • b2. Minor second
  • b3. Minor third
  • 4. Perfect fourth
  • 5. Perfect fifth
  • b6. Minor sixth
  • b7. Minor seventh

This scale is very similar to the natural minor scale, except that in the phrygian scale, the 2nd note is minor instead of major.

Since so many of the notes in the phrygian mode are flattened, this mode has a dark and moody tone. If you have a scale, like the iconian mode, that has a lot of major intervals, the music will sound brighter. However, the phrygian scale has several minor intervals.

The more minor intervals in a scale, the darker the sound.

To see this sound in action, let’s take a look at some examples of music written in the phrygian scale.

Music Written in Phrygian Mode

You probably won’t hear the phrygian mode used too often in music, it’s a pretty rare mode. However, you might hear a slight variation, called the phrygian dominant scale (or Spanish gypsy scale) in some flamenco music.

The phrygian dominant scale is different from the original mode because the third note is raised from a minor 3rd to a major 3rd.

You can hear this unusual scale played in this Spanish guitar song:

Pepe Romero

Another place we can hear phrygian mode is in classical music, such as the organ music by Danish-German composer Dietrich Buxtehude.

Buxtehude may not be as well-known as some of the other classic composers, like Mozart and Beethoven, but in his time, he was extremely influential. In 1705, a young Johann Sebastian Bach traveled almost 250 miles just to study music under Dietrich Buxtehude.

His song, “Prelude in A minor,” is written in A phrygian mode. Listen to it and notice how the flattened notes give such a deep tone to this piece:

Prelude in A minor

Although the phrygian mode may not be the most popular mode in music today, there are still examples that we can listen to and learn from. And who knows? Perhaps someday, you will compose the next musical masterpiece using the phrygian scale!

Summary

To conclude, the phrygian scale is an underrated mode in music today. It has a very unique sound to it, and it isn’t very common, so if you’re a composer, try playing around with it and see what cool sounds you can get out of it.

I hope this helps you understand the phrygian scale and what it is. If you have any more questions about modes in music, send me your questions in the comments! I’d love to help answer some of your questions.

Jessica Roberts
Latest posts by Jessica Roberts (see all)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.