This article is part of a series of articles on modes, which date back 1000s of years. If you are interested in the greater variety of ‘colour’ that modes can provide for song writers and improvisers, you might like to also explore this article on the Dorian Mode, which also includes a mix of classical and pop-rock examples.
The Phrygian Scale or “Phrygian Mode” is, put most simply, the white notes E-E on the piano.
Phrygian Scale Characteristics
This is one of my favourite modes for several reasons:
(1) The semitone step between the 1st two notes of the phrygian scale has great character.
(2) The minor 7th (the D at the top of the phrygian scale instead of D#) creates that sombre, melancholy bluesy flavour.
(3) The Phrygian cadence.
What is a Phrygian Cadence?
Everyone has to love a Phrygian Cadence! They are so exotically colourful! Here’s what it looks like and a phrygian cadence in context:
How do you label the Phrygian Cadence in Music Theory?
If you were to consider the key to be A minor: Chord ivb-V.
If you were to consider the Phrygian Scale: Chord viib-I.
If you were to consider the key to be C Major: Chord iib-III.
Context is clearly everything and, yes, the 3 options above are more than most theory books will tell you. Don’t be just presuming ivb-V!
Where can I find the Phrygian Scale in the “real world”?
Well, let’s start “way back when”. Here’s a famous chant found in churches for a special service called “Corpus Christi”. This plainsong chant is called Pange Lingua and dates back to the 6th Century.
More Modern Church Phrygian Scale
The church modes were hugely admired by Debussy and his followers, particularly in the French Organ tradition. Here’s the end of an improvisation by Tournemire on the Te Deum (transcription freely available here), which is usually considered to be in the aeolian mode. The end of this improvisation uses the Phrygian Scale.
Rock Pop Phrygian Scale
For me, the finest pop example of the Phrygian Scale is I Care by Beyoncé.
The lyrics to this song reveal Beyoncé’s feelings about an indifferent partner and many reviewers discuss the melancholy in her singing. There’s no doubt that she is an incredible vocalist, but I am also convinced that it’s the use of the Phrygian Scale in this song that enhances the lyrics.
Phrygian Scale Lick or Riff
Linkin Park created a brilliant phrygian scale lick in A Place for My Head:
Once more, the use of the Phrygian Scale reflects the emotions within the lyrics:
It makes me think of how you act to me
Favors then rapidly, you just
Turn around and start asking me about
Things you want back from me
I’m sick of the tension, sick of the hunger
Sick of you acting like I owe you this
Find another place to feed your greed
Can I Learn Pieces using the Phrygian Scale and improvise?
The Maestro Online has collaborated with the awesome celebrity musician Mick Donnelly, saxophonist to the stars, to create a piano modal masterclass par excellence! The point of this library digital course with Mick, is for a pianist to learn melodic improvisation from a melodic instrumentalist. Mick has performed with the likes of Shirley Bassey, Robbie Williams, Michael Jackson, Bruno Mars and endless more. His improvisations are exceptional. Here’s a teaser:
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