Composing with Modes: Phrygian
Updated: Oct 1, 2022
I assume you’re reading this because you want to know more about the Phrygian mode. You’ve come to the right place!
Modes can be very complex in their construction, so if you want to start with the basics, you can read this blog post. And if after you’ve read this article, you'd also like to listen to a podcast on this topic (Phrygian Mode), you can find it here.
With that, let’s get into the mode of the article: PHRYGIAN.
MUSIC EXAMPLES: PHRYGIAN
This mode is based on a minor scale, and is used in diverse genres of music. Because of its special sound, it can be used to invoke different kinds of emotions from the composer/song writer. Here are seven examples of music written in the Phrygian Mode. Take a listen to get familiar with what it can sound like!
1. The first piece we have is Caput eius aurum optimum by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, written in 1584. (This piece also features Renaissance polyphony.)
2. The next piece we have is the in the Baroque period, Prelude in A Minor by Dietrich Buxtehude, written in 1875.
3. My personal favorite piece of these examples is Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis by Vaughan Williams, which was written in 1910.
4. One piece written in this mode by a very popular and famous artist today, Beyonce, is her song I Care.
5. Next we have Mysterons written by Portishead in 1994.
6. And A Place for my Head by Linkin Park, written in 2000.
7. And the last, but definitely not least, DEFINITELY worth mentioning is Prologue: One Ring to Rule Them All by Howard Shore, from Lord of the Rings.
Like I said, there’s a diverse use of this mode in diverse genres of music. Now that you’ve familiarized yourself with the possibilities of what can be written, let’s get down to its basics.
MODES IN EASTERN MUSIC
I think it’s worth mentioning here that a lot of the modes are used heavily in Eastern music. As western music has evolved and adapted to what it is today, we “hear” things in a certain way and associate certain sounding music to certain emotions because of its use in media- beginning in the early days of dances and performances.
Eastern music has its own sound and emotional attachment because of different cultures, meaning that certain sounds are associated with different emotions/situations than westerners might do. Eastern music also has its own set of music theory modes, which use microtones or micro-intervals, that don’t exist in western music.
All of this to say, you will find the modes all over eastern music (obviously with microtones rather than whole tones), but some of these are harder to find in western music- because we associate their sound with different emotions or experiences.
The pieces that I shared in this article are examples of western music in this mode, but you can find plenty of Eastern music examples as well, which may be more or less familiar to your musical ears depending on what you grew up with.
PHYRIGAN MODE QUALITIES
To break down the Phyrigan Mode, take a look at how the scale is written:
and here’s a video of what it sounds like:
Some of the words that I’d use to describe the quality of the mode are:
serious, but playful
despairing in a dramatic way
otherworldly, depending on its use
As you now know, things can get very dramatic with this mode. Phrygian is very similar to the natural minor scale, but what sets it apart is that the second scale degree of the scale is flat.
Here’s an example of a minor scale, then a Phrygian scale, side by side:
Very similar in what notes you play, yet so different in the sound they make. Let’s talk about how to build the scale using a few different methods.
BUILDING THE PHRYGIAN SCALE
There are three ways which we can use to construct a Phrygian scale.
1. The first method is using a pattern of half and whole steps. As with every scale in music, Phrygian has its own pattern, which is (H = half step & W = whole step):
H W W W H W W
You can start on any note you want and build a Phrygian scale if you know the right pattern to follow. I’m going to build one starting on E in this video, and explain the process as I go:
Here’s another example of using half and whole steps, this time starting on Bb:
If you memorize the pattern, you can build this scale starting on literally any note. It’s very useful!
2. The second method you can use works well if you already know your Natural Minor scales. You can play any Minor scale, and make one change to it: flat the second scale degree. Here are some examples of Minor vs. Phrygian scales in different keys: A minor, Db minor, and G minor:
3. The third method of finding Phrygian involves Major keys. You can pick any Major key, play its scale, but start on the third scale degree. For example, if you pick C major and play the scale starting on E (the third scale degree), you will find yourself listening to an E phrygian scale. In the example below, I explain the process using C major, F major, and Bb major.
All methods are important to know in order to understand where the mode comes from, but when composing, you can use whatever method is easiest for you.
After getting a feeling for what Phrygian sounds like and how to construct it, the next step is to practice building it and compose with it!
There is a pdf down below that has all of the Phrygian scales written in every key, then all with accidentals (these correspond to either constructing the Phrygian scale starting on the second scale degree of a Major key, or by simply using the whole and half step pattern).
Using it yourself will help you familiarize with its sound, and hopefully inspire you in your creativity!
Have fun and enjoy!