woman playing piano using the Phrygian mode

How to harness the power of the Phrygian mode

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If you’re writing a dark and brooding song, or you simply want to add something a little different, consider dipping into the Phrygian mode.

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What do Wayne Shorter, Kelis, The Clash, Pink Floyd, and Lauryn Hill all have in common? They have all released iconic songs written in the Phrygian mode. This article will help you harness the power of this mysterious mode in your next song.

Phrygian is one of the oldest and most distinct modes in Western music. It has its roots in the music of ancient Greece and was later adopted by the medieval Christian church. Because of the dark textures this mode evokes — thanks to its characteristic flattened-second note — it has become a favorite in various genres, from classical and jazz to hip-hop and metal.

Understanding modes

To understand the Phrygian mode, we must first understand what a mode is. In Western music, modes are based on various scales. The diatonic scale gives us seven modes, including the Ionian (a.k.a. the major scale), the Aeolian (a.k.a. the minor scale), and the Phrygian. These modes are most easily played by sticking to the white keys on the piano:

C Ionian C D E F G A B
D Dorian D E F G A B C
E Phrygian E F G A B C D
F Lydian F G A B C D E
G Mixolydian G A B C D E F
A Aeolian A B C D E F G
B Locrian B C D E F G A

(I’ve previously written about the Lydian and Mixolydian modes.)

How to build the Phrygian mode

The intervals that build Phrygian include a minor second, a minor third, a perfect fourth, a perfect fifth, a minor sixth, and a minor seventh.

Phrygian is identical to the Aeolian mode (the minor scale), except that it has a flattened second scale degree.

A minor A B C D E F G
A Phrygian A Bb C D E F G

That flat-two note is what gives Phrygian its distinct sound. Going from the tonic to the flat-two is dark and immediately gives your music a dark, mysterious, and even menacing sound, which is why John Williams chose it for the Jaws theme.

Using Phrygian

Generally speaking, whenever you are writing a song in a mode, you want to take advantage of the note or notes that make that mode so distinctive. In Lydian, that’s the #4. In Mixolydian, that’s the b7. In Phrygian, that’s the b2.

Pink Floyd’s early classic, “Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,” is a great example of how that flat-two note can lend a dark and mysterious air to your songs. Roger Waters’ melody is very simple. He sings the notes E-F-E-D-E in E Phrygian and then goes up a fourth and sings A-Bb-A-G-A in A Phrygian.

Although Phrygian isn’t used very often in pop music, Kelis does so to great effect with her classic “Milkshake.” You can hear that flat-two to root movement in the melody during the first few notes of the “la-la la-la la” part of the song (at 0:45 in the video)

If Phrygian sounds “exotic” or “Middle Eastern” to Western ears, it’s because it originated in the ancient region of Phrygia, which is now part of modern-day Turkey, and it has been a part of that music ever since.

Many musicians use Phrygian to give their songs a “Middle Eastern” feel, which is why the ‘70s hard rock band Rainbow used it for “Gates of Babylon.”

(It’s perhaps worth noting that the Western Phrygian mode that we are discussing here is just an approximation of the scales used in Turkish music as that music uses microtonal notes, which we don’t have in our twelve-tone equal temperament.)

The flat-two chord

Having a flattened second note makes a huge difference in tone and in the chords available to you. Whereas in A minor, the chord built on the second scale degree is B diminished, in A Phrygian we have access to Bb major. Many songs written in Phrygian use the minor tonic to flat-major second (i-bII-i) progression.

The late, great saxophonist and jazz composer Wayne Shorter often wrote in Phrygian. The opening chords of “Speak No Evil,” use this i-bII progression as a short vamp.

Although punk isn’t a genre normally associated with Phrygian, The Clash use it in arguably their most famous song. I posted an article about that mysterious second chord in “London Calling.” And even though I wound up calling it a Cmaj7add4, it really functions as an F major — the flat-two chord in the song’s key of E Phrygian.

The minor-seven chord

Another chord that clearly indicates we are in Phrygian instead of Aeolian is the minor-seven chord. In Aeolian, the chord built on the seventh scale degree is major and is commonly used. In the key of A minor, this would be G major. This chord strongly pulls us back to the root, thanks to G major’s B natural note that wants to resolve up to the C in A minor.

But in A Phrygian, that B natural is now a B-flat, meaning that G chord is now G minor, giving us no strong pull to the A minor tonic chord. And while that may seem less useful, it really just creates a distinctive sound.

There are two classic hip-hop songs that use this vii-i progression: “Doo-Wop (That Thing)” by Lauryn Hill, and “Gin and Juice” by Snoop Dogg. In both cases, the chords form the basis of the song.

Passing Phrygian

As powerful as Phrygian can be, it’s a rather slippery mode. In other words, if you really want your song to be solidly in Phrygian, you really need to stick to the three chords we’ve mentioned (the minor root, the flat-major-two, and the minor-seven chords). The moment you start using the other chords is the moment your song starts to feel like it’s no longer in the Phyrigian mode.

Just for reference sake, here are the other chords in A Phrygian:

i bII bIII iv bVI bvii
Am Bb C Dm F Gm

Play around with the chords of Am, Bb, and Dm, for example, and you’ll see that D minor will start sounding like your new root.

This isn’t a problem if you don’t care what key your song is in. Most modal music doesn’t stay in any one key. Phrygian is a great mode to occasionally slip into if you just want to add a touch of spice or drama.

“Things We Said Today” by The Beatles is really in A minor, though Paul McCartney uses that Phrygian flat-two chord to add such spice. You can hear that Bb major chord in the words “so far away” at 0:23, and again at the end of the bridge at 1:13 in the video below.

A lot of metal bands like Slayer and Metallica use that flat-two Phrygian chord, although most metal bands tend to use so many chords, it’s often hard to say exactly what key a song is in, other than a generic form like “the key of E-something.” Metallica’s “Wherever I May Roam,” is perhaps the best example of one of their songs that’s mostly in E Phrygian. You can most easily hear that bII chord at the beginning of the chorus at 2:06 in the video below.

So, if you’re writing a dark and brooding song, or you simply want to add something a little different, consider dipping your toes into the Phrygian waters by splashing in the flat-two and minor-seven chords.

Scott McCormick is the author the Audible bestselling Rivals! series and the hit fantasy novel The Dragon Squisher. Scott can be reached at storybookediting@gmail.com.

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