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If you think of all the modes as having different levels of darkness and brightness, Phrygian is one one the darkest, second only to Locrian (which sounds downright disturbing lol).

Because it sounds so dark it’s often found in genre’s like Metal and Rock but can also be heard in all sorts of other music like Flamenco, Electronic music and movie soundtracks. 

As you can imagine this makes it great not just for melodies, solos and riffs but also for ambiences and chord progressions. 

The sort of words you might hear associated with this mode are “dark”, “cold”, “tension”, “flamenco-sounding”. It just creates a very tense sound which makes it great to add more variety to your sounds. 

To write songs with the Phrygian mode, songwriters will use a minor key but change the Diminished second chord (iio) for a Major ♭II chord. This highlights the flat second scale degree that makes it different from the Natural Minor scale.

The Sound & Moods of the Phrygian Mode

The Phygian mode, like all modes, has its own unique sound and mood to it. Many would describe it as cold sounding, dark, and tense. 

What makes the Phrygian mode sound tense is the flattened second (♭II) chord. This is because it is just a half step away from the root note of the scale. It’s what gives it its signature sound and makes it different from a Natural Minor scale.

It’s important to remember that music is a game of tension and release, so this mode is helpful in this regard. 

What is the Phrygian Mode?

The Phrygian mode is essentially a scale derived from the Major scale. Every note (scale degree) in a major scale has a mode assigned to it. The first note in a scale is associated with the Ionian mode, the second with the Dorian mode, third with Phrygian and so on. 

  1. Ionian
  2. Dorian
  3. Phrygian
  4. Lydian
  5. Mixolydian
  6. Aeolian 
  7. Locrian

Checking out the Major scale we can see it has a formula created by a series of whole steps and half steps. Let’s use the key of C as an example. 

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C

W – W – H – W – W – W – H

Formula for the Phrygian Mode

If we start the C Major scale but play it starting on the third note (the E note) then what we are playing is E Phrygian. The Relative Phrygian mode of C. 

Relative Phrygian of C

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E

H – W – W – W – H – W – W

This pattern of whole steps and half steps are what create Phrygian.

But what if you want to play C Phrygian and not E Phrygian?

In that case just start the Phrygian pattern from C and voila! You’re playing C Phrygian. 

So you might’ve noticed an important difference between Relative and Parallel Phrygian. 

  • E Phrygian is the Relative Phrygian mode of C. This is the Phrygian mode within C Major.
  • C Phrygian is the Parallel Phrygian of C. This is the Phrygian mode starting from C.

C Major: 

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C

W – W – H – W – W – W – H

C Phrygian: 

1, ♭2, ♭3, 4, 5, ♭6, ♭7

C, D♭, E♭, F, G,A♭, B♭, C

H – W – W – W – H – W – W

If you look at C Major and C Phrygian the notes are different when you play the Phrygian pattern starting on C. The 2nd, 3rd, 6th, and 7th notes are flattened. 

Parallel vs Relative Phrygian

We say a mode is Parallel because if you put the C Major scale and the C Phrygian pattern side by side (meaning parallel to each other) you will notice they sound very different. C Phrygian sounds like a different scale.

Since Phrygian has its own formula of half and whole steps, it’s helpful to think of it as its own scale with its own sound even though it comes from the Major scale. 

When you play the Major scale, but start on the third note (the E note), you are also playing the Phrygian pattern but it is within the context of the C Major scale, not C Phrygian. This is a Relative Mode because it’s the Phrygian pattern as relative to the C Major key.

This can seem a bit confusing at first but it’s much simpler than at first glance. If you want to read more about the difference between Parallel and Relative Modes check out this article for more info Defining Parallel VS. Relative Modes.

How to Write Phrygian Melodies

As you can imagine, since the Phrygian mode has its own pattern, it can be used to create melodies. 

To create melodies with the Phrygian mode you must highlight the notes that make it different from the Major and Natural Minor scale. These notes would be the ♭3 to distinguish it from Major and the ♭2 which makes it different from Natural Minor. 

Let’s look at C. 

C Major: 

C, D, E, F, G, A, B

C Minor: 

1, 2, ♭3, 4, 5, ♭6, ♭7

C, D, E♭, F, G, A♭, B♭

C Phrygian: 

1, ♭2, ♭3, 4, 5, ♭6, ♭7

C, D♭, E♭, F, G,A♭, B♭

As you can see from the notes above, the E♭ gives the Phrygian mode a Minor sound and the D♭ is what gives the scale its unique Phrygian sound. 

Since Phrygian is a Minor mode however, you can play Phrygian over individual Minor chords and it will fit because they both have a Minor scale quality. However, if you want to play Phrygian over an entire chord progression make sure all the chords are taken from the Phrygian key. Also be careful about when you play the ♭2 so it doesn’t create a nasty dissonance. 

How to Write Phrygian Chord Progressions

Now that we know how writing melodies with Phrygian works, let’s talk about getting that sound using your chord progression without a melody over it. 

To write chord progressions in Phrygian all the chords need to be from the Phrygian key, and the Major ♭II chord is especially important to include because it strongly highlights the Phrygian sound.

Let’s start off saying you have a C Minor chord progression. Given that Phrygian is also a Minor mode, it makes it much easier to mingle chords from C Minor and C Phrygian. They already sound similar. We’re going to change that C Minor progression into C Phrygian.

TIP: Borrow chords from modes of the same scale quality. Major modes for Major keys and Minor modes for Minor keys.

Here is our C Minor chord progression:

C Minor Chord Progression

i, v,  iv, i

Cmin, Gmin, Fmin, Cmin

Now, Phrygian is a Minor mode, so let’s compare the chords of C Minor with C Phrygian.

C Minor 

i – iio – ♭III – iv – v – ♭VI – ♭VII

Cmin, Ddim, E♭maj, Fmin, Gmin, A♭maj, Bbmaj

C Phrygian

i – ♭II – ♭III – iv – vo – ♭VI – ♭vii

Cmin, D♭maj, E♭maj, Fmin, Gdim, A♭maj, B♭min

As you can see there are some differences in C Phrygian from C Minor. 

  • Ddim is a D♭maj in Phrygian
  • Gmin is actually an Gdim in Phrygian
  • B♭maj is a B♭min in Phrygian

So the D♭maj (♭II) has the ♭2 as the root of the chord which dramatically highlights the note that makes Phrygian unique and defines the chord. 

Gdim (vo) uses the ♭2 note as its fifth, so while the note is in there, it gives a bit of an ugly dissonant sound against the G bass note (because diminished chords have a ♭5 interval) so you may not want to use this chord, most people probably wouldn’t if there is a better option.

B♭min (♭vii) has the ♭2 as the third of the chord which is pretty good as it will define the chord more than the fifth. However, it’s not as strong as if the chord’s root was the ♭2, so while it is a good option, your best bet is going with the ♭II (D♭maj) to get the Phrygian sound. 

In the key of Phrygian, the ♭II chord played in Major (as opposed to Diminished) is what adds the tension to get the cold sound of Phrygian. This is because since the ♭II chord has the ♭2 scale degree as its root note which dramatically highlights the scale degree that makes Phrygian different from Minor. 

TIP: If you have a minor chord progression and want to add a Phrygian sound, use a Major ♭II chord.

So to give it a Phrygian sound, our progression could change from this:

i, v,  iv, i

Cmin, Gmin, Fmin, Cmin

To this:

i, ♭II, ♭VI, i

Cmin, D♭maj, A♭maj, Cmin

Songs with Phrygian Mode and their Sound

Alright, now that we’ve gone through all the theory, the best way to understand the sound of Phrygian is to check out some songs that use it. 

Some words that might come to your mind as you listen to these songs might be “cold”, “dark”, or “tense”. This sound will come from stressing the ♭2 of Phrygian. 

Passenger Deftones

This song is riff driven so it’s a bit different than a song that focuses on chords. However, the riff they play is VERY Phrygian, and so is the Verse that comes after it. It works great with Chino’s voice as it is so ghostly sounding already. 

For a more complete analysis of this song you can check out this article Songwriting Analysis Deftones “Passenger”

Symphony of Destruction by Megadeth

As mentioned earlier, Phrygian is a mode that is often found in Metal and the Verse of Symphony of Destruction by Megadeth is a good example of this even though it is in powerchords and not full chords. 

The guitar switches between the F and E powerchords which represent the ♭2 and root note of E Phrygian. 

Space Oddity by David Bowie

Here is a more laid back example using full chords on an acoustic guitar. The two chords he is moving between in the Verse (when the vocals start) are Fmaj7 and Emin, which just like Symphony of Destruction above, represent the ♭2 and root note of E Phrygian. 

The chords give a cold spacey feeling which I can only assume is meant to mimic the cold emptiness of space, since the song is called Space Oddity. 

Hunter by Bjork

The verse of this song is incredibly Phrygian. It just moves back and forth between the i chord and the ♭II chord, giving off an aggressive sounding atmosphere.

Wrapping it up

As you can see the Phrygian mode can be a great scale to use if you want to add some darkness into your music but also give it a different sound than just a regular Minor key. 

Its cold and tense atmosphere can sometimes even sound psychedelic at times, and this versatility is something that many modes have, where depending on the context, they can give slightly different moods within their range of mood. 

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