Phrygian Mode

Recall that we defined scale as:
a group of notes within an octave (and any octaves of those notes) usually played one at a time.

We can describe (define) a scale in any of these ways:
- by letters (representing specific pitches)
- by numbers (representing specific intervals)
- by step pattern (describing intervals from note to note)

So for example the major scale (ionian mode) can be described/ defined as/by:
C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C (in the key of C), 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,
and W-W-1/2-W-W-W-1/2.

We define a minor scale as a scale containing the notes (intervals) 1,b3,5.
(In other words, using the notes in the scale we can construct a minor chord off the root note)

What is a mode? (of a scale)
- I will have a lesson on modes next time, but for now...

Let us define a mode as a scale within a family of scales that are related by their step patterns. We can derive the modes of a scale by moving the first step of a step pattern to the end, and repeating until we return to the first scale we started with.

As a practical example we will derive the modes of the major scale (major scale = WW1/2WWW1/2). We remember that we sometimes call the major scale the ionian mode (or ionian scale), and we sometimes call the minor scale the aeolian mode.

WW1/2WWW1/2 = Ionian
W1/2WWW1/2W = Dorian
1/2WWW1/2WW = Phrygian
WWW1/2WW1/2 = Lydian
WW1/2WW1/2W = Mixolydian
W1/2WW1/2WW = Aeolian
1/2WW1/2WWW = Locrian

So we note that the phrygian mode is the 3rd mode of the major scale, and that its step pattern is 1/2WWW1/2WW.

Another way to explain modes (more commonly seen) is to rotate through the pitches to derive modes.

In the key of C:
C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C = C-Ionian
D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D = D-Dorian
E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E = E-Phrygian
F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F = F-Lydian
G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G = G-Mixolydian
A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A = A-Aeolian
B-C-D-E-F-G-A-B = B-Locrian

So we note that the phrygian mode is the 3rd mode of the major scale. We also note that the pitches (letters) are the same, so the modes share the same key (and key signature).

From either phrygian = 1/2WWWW1/2W, or E-Phrygian = E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E we can find the intervals (from the root note) to be 1,b2,b3,4,5,b6,b7.

Looking at the numbers, we can deduce that the phrygian mode is a minor scale (not THE minor scale everyone talks about - that would be the aeolian mode, but a minor scale none-the-less). that is, it contains the notes 1,b3,5.

We also note that it is very similar to THE minor scale. The aeolian mode (THE minor scale) has the intervals 1,2,b3,4,5,b6,b7; and the phrygian mode has the intervals 1,b2,b3,4,5,b6,b7. So we could view the phrygian mode/scale as an aeolian scale with a minor second (a minor second in place of a major second). We can use this idea as a stepping stone to learning the scale. If you already know the aeolian scale (THE minor scale), then you could play those patterns , replacing the 2 with the b2. This idea of thinking of one scale as being another scale with altered notes (e.g. ionianb7, lydianb7, etc.) or with missing notes (e.g. pentatonic major, etc.) occurs from time to time, and may give some perspective/context/comfort in learning new scales.

Recall that the pentatonic minor scale is made of the notes 1,b3,4,5,b7. we could use the pent. min. scale to substitute for both the phrygian mode (1,b2,b3,4,5,b6,b7), and the aeolian mode (1,2,b3,4,5,b6,b7). It's a possibility, but we will lose some of the flavor (which is probably why we're using dorian in the first place).

So lets look at some patterns (moveable shapes) with which we can play the phrygian scale.


phrygian mode "E-shape" (root note on the 6th string)

phrygian mode "D-shape" (root note on the 4th string)


phrygian mode "C-shape" (root note on the 5th string)


phrygian mode "A-shape" (root note on the 5th string)


phrygian mode "G-shape" (root note on the 6th string)


We recall, that we can derive chords by harmonizing scales. We've previously harmonized the major scale in thirds to get triads, and seventh chords (see August 19th's, and august 16th's lessons)

We found for the major scale (ionian mode) The following triads:
and 7th chords:

Recalling from above that the phrygian mode contains the same notes (pitches) as the ionian mode, it also contains the same chords (starting with the 3rd chord of the ionain mode). So we have the following triads for the phrygian mode:
and the following 7th chords:

We can create "phrygian" progressions. Doing so will give us a framework to analyze songs, and find good opportunities to employ the phrygian mode. it's also good practice for songwriting, etc.

We see above the following chords for phrygian:
in triads: i-bII-bIII-iv-vo-bVI-bvii
in 7th chords: i7-bIImaj7-bIII7-iv7-v7b5-bVImaj7-bvii7
(in 9th chords: i7b9-bIImaj9-bIII9-iv9-v7b9b5-bVImaj9-bvii9)
(in 11th chords: i11b9-bIImaj9#11-bIII11-iv11-v11b9b5-bVImaj11-bvii11)
(in 13th chords: i11b13b9-bIImaj13#11-bIII13-iv11b13-v11b13b9b5-bVImaj13-bvii13)
I've not covered the extensions in parenthesis yet, but I've listed them for those who would find such info useful.

So we could take any of the chords in the above paragraph and create a phrygian progression out of it. We really should include some type of I chord (i, i7, i7sus4, i7b9, etc.) and it should be the predominant chord in our progression, with a feeling of resolution when we come back to it.

Take a minute to compare and contrast the chords from the aeolian, and phrygian modes.
Aeolian = i-iio-bIII-iv-v-bVI-bVII
Phrygian = i-bII-bIII-iv-vo-bVI-bvii

They share the following chords (triads) in common: i,bIII,iv,bVI.
Creating a progression using only these chords would be slightly ambiguous, and could be interpreted as either Aeolian or Phrygian. In fact, such a progression would be a good one to record (or have a friend play) and solo over to uderstand the subtle differences between Aeolian and Phrygian (try switching from i-Aeolian to i-Phrygian and back, etc. over such a progression and see what different moods are created).

If on the other hand, you want to create a progression that has a more Phrygian character, you should include at least one of the other 3 chords (bII,vo,bvii) not found in aeolian.

Where/when does one usually decide to use phrygian?
- some would use it over the iii7 chord in the major scale/key context (play iii-phrygian over iii7)
- many jazz players use phrygian over any m7b9 chord that pops up (ex. play C-phrygian over Cm7b9, etc.)
- over several chords that fit within a phrygian context (see above chords for phrygian). ex. over Em-F-G (i-bII-bIII) you could play E-phrygian.
- over a related modal progression, use the relative phrygian scale
(ex. over an ionian progression i.e. I-ii-iii-IV, play the iii-phrygian)

As easy as it would be to think of phrygian in a key context (i.e. that it's the major scale with emphasis on a different note). I would make a plea that you take the time to get to know the phrygian scale for its own sake.

Likewise there are times when you want to use aeolian or phrygian. Make sure you become familiar with the subtleties between the two. It takes time to breed familiarity with any scale/chord/rhythm/progression/effect/genre.

We can increase our familiarity by singing every note as we practice our scales/soloing. In previous lessons on scales i've given some basic pointers on starting to solo. Those things transfer here too. Just replace the scale in question with the phrygian scale (see lessons from May 24th, june 7th, july 5th, and august 2nd).

Just an aside...

One most often hears the phrygian mode in musics deriving from the classical tradition in Spain (which was undoubtably influenced by local spanish folk traditions and the moorish invasions).

The corresponding mode from the harmonic minor scale is also used interchangably with the phrygian mode in such musics. It is actually a major mode, sometimes called Spanish major, the harmonic dominant, or harmonic phrygian , amoung other names. It's intervals are:
Spanish major = 1,b2,3,4,5,b6,b7
In Am it would be: (E-spanish major = E-F-G#-A-B-C-D-E)
Building triads off the scale produces the chords:
in 7th chords:

Some very common progressions come about by mixing the chords from the two scales together.

The most common progression is I-bII, and I-bII-bIII.
(try E-F, and E-F-G)
extending a little, try playing with the chords E (I), F6/maj7/E (bII), G7 (bIII), Am9 (iv)
E = 022100, F6/maj7/E = 033230, G7 = X5546X, Am9 = 5X5505.

More on Spanish musics and other genres coming up at an appropriate time.

Christopher Roberts

How do I change all those numbers to letters (for notes, chords, etc.)? Here's a transposition chart

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Previous lesson - Lydian scale

Last updated January 1, 2003
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