The Phrygian Mode

Phrygian Mode

This is the third mode out of the seven modes of a major scale. Since we have been using C major scale as our reference scale, therefore Phrygian mode of C major scale is E Phrygian that comes after D Dorian mode. Phrygian mode is very famously used by neo-classical guitarists like Yngwie J Malmsteen, Joe Stump and Vinnie Moore. This is a very commonly used mode in classical music. There are many musical pieces by Bach and Beethoven which have used this mode extensively. The interval structure is what defines a mode and the interval structure of the Phrygian mode is as follows;

R b2 b3 4 5 b6 b7 8

If you notice the above interval structure you will notice that it has four flat notes in it, i.e. flat 2nd, 3rd 6th and 7th. It means these four flat notes actually create the difference in tonal characteristics of Phrygian mode.  You need to apply this interval structure to C major scale while keeping the root note as E and the resultant scale will be E Phrygian. By now you must have understood how intervals are used to construct modes from a major scale therefore you must experiment the interval formula above on any other major scale. For example take G major scale and apply the above interval structure and see how it turns your natural G major scale into G Phrygian. The following image shows the position of E Phrygian on 12th fret but you should also learn to use this mode all over the fret-board;

 Phrygian Mode

As explained earlier, Phrygian mode has a Middle-Eastern sound quality; it also holds characteristics of Spanish music and is very frequently used in Spanish music. Phrygian holds very dark characteristics and is used in aggressive instrumentals or dark sounding music such as neo-classical music. If you listen to Yngwie J Malmsteen’s music you will notice how he uses the Phrygian mode and produces excellent instrumentals. The flavor of Phrygian mode is created by flat 2nd and the perfect 5th. Also other flat notes in the mode help to improve dark characteristics in the sound. However if we eliminate some of the flat notes and focus on only two of them, we will notice the scale has a sweet-dark sound. Otherwise it becomes difficult to control the sound produced by it.

Relative Chords of Phrygian

Let’s now consider the chords which can be used to come up with rhythms suitable for Phrygian mode. You can practically use any chords which are created by the notes within a mode but it is essential that you use the chords which create most of the flavor and emphasize on these chords more than others. You can also create rhythms by the help of a bass guitarist; he/she can play root note of the mode and you can focus on adding other relevant chords over the bass line. This will enable you to produce musically rich pieces and will also allow you to experiment while incorporating new ideas. The main chords that are to be used in addition to the root chord for the Phrygian mode are as follows;

  • bII major 7th
  • bVII minor 7th

Once again, you are not limited to the above chords and are always open to use other chords in the family and enjoy the diversity of this mode. Always use chords in a way that allows to first establishing the sound of a particular mode and then incorporating other chords along the way as you progress in your instrumental.

Famous Compositions in Phrygian

The Phrygian mode is a dark sounding mode and you can see many examples in classical music but following are some of the famous tracks in this mode;

  • Steve Vai – Building the church (Main melody)
  • Al Di Meola – Race with devil on Spanish highway
  • Joe Satriani – War
  • The Doors – Not to touch this earth

Once you have listened to the above tracks, it is better to practice covering some licks from these so that you develop a better understanding of how this mode can actually be used in your pieces.

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Ahmed is a regular contributor to GuitarChords 247 and brings you in-depth guitar lessons and music theory.
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1 comment

  • Hey Ahmed, you explain well. One caveat though that you might take note:

    Saying that the Phrygian modal scale in the key of C Major has four flat notes isn’t quite right. There are no accidentals in the key of C Major. That is, there are no flats nor are there sharps. Since every modal scale consists solely of the same tones as the natural scale of a major key, and the key of C Major consists of C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C’, it cannot be said that the Phrygian modal scale has flats.

    Within the E-root modal scale (aka Phrygian mode) of the key of C Major, there are four intervals with minor names: minor 2nd, minor 3rd, minor 6th and minor 7th. In our 12-tone music, those intervals are one, three, eight and ten tones (half steps) away from the E-root.

    What yields pleasing psychological effects is the size of the intervals between successive tones. If one plays E to F and then F to G, though the interval between E and F is a minor second, the interval between F and G is a major 2nd, even though the interval between the E and the G is minor 3rd. Anyone listening never experiences the effects of that latter interval when the run gets played as E, F, G in Phrygian mode.

    Let us take another example, this time a key with accidentals, Eb major.

    Any major key consists of tones from intervals that get named perfect and major. So in the key of Eb major, the tones are: Eb, F, G, Ab, Bb, C, D, Eb’. We should see at once that the key of Eb has three flats: Eb, Ab, Bb.

    The G-root modal scale, also known as the Phrygian modal scale for the key of Eb Major has the same minor intervals as the Phrygian modal scale for the key of C Major: minor 2nd, minor 3rd, minor 6th and minor7th. The corresponding tones to those intervals are: Ab, Bb, Eb ad F.

    Even though the key of Eb Major has flats, it is not those flats which cause the psychological effect when starting a G-root modal scale, it is the tone differences as measured by intervals played from the G as well the tones in relation to each other that yields the effect.