Phrygian mode

Phrygian mode

The Phrygian mode can refer to two different musical modes or diatonic scales: the ancient Greek Phrygian mode and the Mediaeval Phrygian mode. The modern form of the Phrygian mode in use is based on the latter. It is also known in Arabic and in the Middle East as the Kurdish mode.

Ancient Greek Phrygian mode

The Phrygian mode is named after the ancient kingdom of Phrygia in Anatolia. Confusingly, the ancient-Greek Phrygian mode is the same as the mediaeval and modern Dorian mode.

In Greek music theory, it was based on the Phrygian tetrachord: a series of rising intervals of a whole tone, followed by a semitone, followed by a whole tone. Applied to a whole octave, the Phrygian mode was built upon two Phrygian tetrachords separated by a whole tone. This is the same as playing all the white notes on a piano keyboard from D to D:

D E F G | A B C D
Placing the two tetrachords together, and the single tone at bottom of the scale produces the Hypophrygian mode (below Phrygian):
G | A B C D | (D) E F G
Placing the two tetrachords together, and the single tone at the top of the scale produces the Hyperphrygian mode (above Phrygian), which is effectively the same as the Hypodorian mode:
A B C D | (D) E F G | A

Mediaeval and modern Phrygian mode

The early Catholic church developed a system of eight musical modes (octoechos) that mediaeval music scholars based on ancient Greek modes. However, due to a misinterpretation of the Latin texts of Boethius, mediaeval modes were given the wrong Greek names. In mediaeval and modern music, the Phrygian mode closely related to the modern natural minor musical mode, also known as the Aeolian mode.

The following is the Phrygian mode starting on E, or E Phrygian, with corresponding tonal scale degrees describing how the modern major mode and natural minor mode can be altered to produce the Phrygian mode:

E Phrygian
Mode:  E  F  G  A  B  C  D  E
Major: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1 Minor: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1

Modern uses of the Phrygian mode

Phrygian dominant

A Phrygian dominant scale is produced by raising the third scale degree of the mode:
E Phrygian dominant
Mode: E F G A B C D E Major: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1 Minor: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 1 The Phrygian dominant is also known as the Spanish gypsy scale, and is often used in flamenco music. Flamenco music uses both Phrygian and Phrygian-dominant often alternating between the two.

"Sus4" chord

In jazz and other popular styles, the Phrygian mode is used over chords and sonorities built on the mode, such as the sus4(9) chord. (See Suspended chord.) Esus4(9) chord
E-F-A-B (typical voicing)
Even though the Phrygian mode contains a minor triad (E-G-B), the unique characteristic of the Phrygian mode, 2 or F, is utilized in this chord instead. In order to distinguish itself from the minor mode and Dorian mode which are closely related, the third degree of the Phrygian mode, G in this case, is considered an avoid tone. Use of E Phrygian mode over Esus4(9) chord
avoid tone


Mediaeval and Renaissance

  • The following compositions of Josquin are written in the Phyrgian mode:

* 4-part setting of Mille Regretz
* Missa Pange lingua
* 6-part motet Praeter Rerum Seriem

Classical and Romantic

  • The horn call that begins and ends the slow movement of Brahms' Fourth Symphony is based on the Phrygian mode, out of which the main theme of this movement emerges.
  • Possibly influenced by flamenco, the 11th movement of Isaac Albéniz's Iberia, "Jerez", has substantial passages near the beginning which can be seen as pure E Phrygian, including later on instances of the tonic triad being changed to the major. (It's a little ambiguous, because the same passage could be seen as A Aeolian, followed by A minor when the dominant major triads enter the music.)
  • Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis


See also

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