Phrygian Mode: Everything You Need to Know About Phrygian

The Phrygian Mode is the third mode of the Diatonic Major Scale. Let's look and listen to it with a bit more detail.

The Phrygian mode is often described as the white keys on the keyboard from E-E'. This gives us the following intervallic series:


*w=whole step // h=half step*

And the notation looks like this:

everything you need to know about the phrygian mode

That's the notes E F G A B C D E' with no alterations (sharps or flats).

However, since we base a mode's scales degrees on the Major Scale, and the Phrygian mode has a different intervallic series than the Major Scale, we alter the scale degrees, giving Phrygian the following:

1     ♭2     ♭3        4        5     ♭6     ♭7

Another way to write the scale degrees are:

  • Root (as is always the case)
  • Minor Second (1 semitones above the root)
  • Minor Third (3 semitones above the root)
  • Perfect Fourth (5 semitones above the root)
  • Perfect Fifth (7 semitones above the root)
  • Minor Sixth (8 semitones above the root)
  • Minor Seventh (10 semitones above the root)

Let's listen to the E Phrygian mode against a droned E:

If you happen to be coming from the article on the Ionian Mode or the Dorian Mode, you may realize that the white keys from C-C' (Ionian) are the same notes as the white keys from D-D' (Dorian) and the white keys from E-E'.

Ionian, Dorian and Phrygian are all modes of the Major Scale. This means that, yes, they have the same notes. But their starting points (roots) are different. And this means a lot:

  • Their intervallic series are different
  • Their scale degrees are different
  • Their qualities (minor/major/diminished/augmented) are different
  • Their inherent chords are different
  • Their functionalities are different

So even though C Ionian, D Dorian and E Phrygian are made up of exactly the same notes, they are different! This is the beginning of modal study.

The Modal Chords Of The Phrygian Mode

The Phrygian mode yields one triad and one tertian seventh chord. And much like the Dorian mode, they are:

  • Minor triad                       1    ♭3        5
  • Minor seventh chord    1    ♭3        5    ♭7

Other common chords include:

  • Sus♭2                                 1    ♭2        5
  • Sus4                                     1        4        5
  • Min7sus4                           1        4        5   ♭7
  • Sus♭9                                 1        4        5   ♭7   ♭9

Along with all the extensions beyond the major seventh chord, notably:

  • Min11                                    1     ♭3        5     ♭7        11
  • Min♭13                               1     ♭3        5     ♭7    ♭13


The Phrygian Mode shows up with the iii chord in diatonic harmony. We call the iii chord the Mediant chord because it's halfway between the tonic and the dominant.

I like to use the iii chord as a substitute tonic I chord. This works because the iii chord shares many of the same notes as the I.

The iii (minor triad), as an example, has the same notes as the I seventh chord (major 7 chord). Let's take E Phrygian for example as we had above.

E minor has the notes E G B

C major seventh, the I chord of E Phrygian/C Major, has the notes C E G B

So this “rootless” C major seventh chord that E Phrygian provides makes it a good, functional substitution!

The Phrygian mode has the Minor pentatonic scale within it. Adding in the minor sixth and especially that minor second turns our minor pentatonic into a Phrygian mode.

The Inner Gravity Of Phrygian

If we are to rank the modes of the major scale from brightest to darkest, Phrygian would be the darkest “useable” scale (Locrian is darker, but since it lacks a perfect fifth, it is difficult to write modally with it)Another way of describing this darkness is by talking about Phrygian's gravity.

The 1 (root) and the 5 (perfect fifth) create the most consonant interval within any scale or mode. The presence of this interval makes a scale “stable” whether it's major or minor.

We can say that dark scales have a gravity pulling down to the root and down to the fifth.

By the same token, bright scales have a gravity pulling up to the root and up to the fifth.

Keep in mind that half steps have stronger resolutions than whole steps.

Phrygian is dark.

1     ♭2     ♭3        4        5     ♭6     ♭7

The ♭2 wants to resolve down a half-step more so than ♭7 wants to resolve up a whole-step. This creates a downward gravity toward the tonic.

The ♭6 wants to resolve down a half-step to the 5. This creates a downward gravity toward the perfect fifth.

The ♭3, which gives Phrygian its minor quality, tends to resolve down to the root rather than up to the perfect fifth, although this isn't really a strong argument. Rather, we will say that minor is darker than major.

I hope that makes sense and helps to explain why Phrygian is our darkest “useable” mode of the Major Scale!

Phrygian's Characteristic Tone

When looking for a mode's characteristic tone(s) (the tone that give it its flavor and differentiates it from other modes), it's a good idea to first look at the tritone intervals and half step intervals. It's also very important to look at the quality of the third (is it minor or major?).

Relating a mode to either Ionian (Major Scale) or Aeolian (Natural Minor Scale) can help us to determine characteristic tones as well. The reasoning here is that these two scales are so common they're almost expected. Altering them in any way peaks our attention and tell us we're in a different mode.

The Major Scale's modes each have two half step intervals and one tritone interval.

One tritone interval could mean two tritone intervals. For example, B-F is a tritone and F-B is a tritone. Most of the time we'll look for the [one] tritone interval in the Major Scale modes.

Phrygian's tritone is between its minor second and perfect fifth. The half step intervals are between the root/minor second and perfect fifth/minor sixth.

So, the minor third tell us that Phrygian has a minor quality. And the minor second differentiates it from our natural minor, Aeolian.

Phrygian's most characteristic tone is its minor second! I like to think of it as a natural minor with a lowered second degree.

Phrygian's Modal Chord

Phrygian's modal chord could simply be formed by its root and tritone interval, creating what I call a “phrygian triad:”

1       ♭2        5

Phrygian is the only mode of the Major Scale that has that chord built on its root. However, let's dive a bit deeper to build another chord that is “more Phrygian.”

So the minor second (or flat nine) is Phrygian's characteristic note. Since we'll be looking at an extended chord, let's call it the flat nine.

We could simply create a min♭9 chord and call it “Phrygian.” But there's a bit of an issue in practice here.

Minor and major triads (and seventh chords) are nice and consonant. And so altered ninths and thirteenths sound a bit jarring and are therefore often avoided in practice.

The ♭9 is actually Phrygian's “avoid note!”

However, chords with more tension (take the dominant seventh chord for example) have alterations to the ninth and thirteenth all the time in order to add more flavour, tension, and character.

So how can we make our min♭9 less jarring? Well, by altering the third to make it more tense and unresolved and therefore less consonant. We do this by suspending the chord. Since we can't suspend the ♭2 (it's already in the chord as♭9), we will suspend the 4, creating a widely accepted “Phrygian chord!”

The sus♭9 chord:

1        4        5   ♭7   ♭9

When dealing with heptatonic modes, we can only truly get an absolutely “modal chord” when all seven of the notes are present within it. But the sus♭9 chords gives us a strong sense of the mode Phrygian!

Practicing Phrygian And Modal Harmony

As with all modal practice, I prefer the pedal point method.

Pedal (drone a constant tone) the root of Phrygian, if you have a polyphonic instrument. And go through each of the scale degrees to hear the intervals they create against the root.

1   ♭2   ♭3       4       5   ♭6   ♭7

If you have a monophonic instrument, try alternating between the root and each scale degree, one-by-one, to get a sense of each distinct interval.

Once again, pay special attention to the characteristic tone (minor second).

Next, try droning the “modal chord.” In Phrygian's case, the sus♭9 chord. Of course, this is only possible on a monophonic instrument. Although, arpeggios could work on monophonic instruments.

Go through the same exercise of relating every scale degree to the chord and listen to how each one compares.

Next, cycle through all possible intervals while still droning the root note. Pay special attention to the half step intervals against the root and the tritone intervals against the root.

Finally, have some fun creating modal chords with any of the Phrygian notes played with its root.

An example could be stacking fourths. Stacking fourths a common way to express openness and modality. In Phrygian's case, a stacked fourth tetrad would be:

1       4    ♭7   ♭3

Writing And Composing With Phrygian

A quick note on tonal harmony vs. modal harmony.

When composing with tonal harmony, we have “circular cadences.” Resolutions that often happen while moving around the circle of fifths (or fourths, depending on how you look at it).

For example, the iii-vi-ii-V-I chord progression in C Major would be:

  • Emin7
  • Amin7 (or A7 as a common alteration)
  • Dmin7
  • G7
  • Cmaj7

Those chords' roots move circularly counter-clockwise through the circle of fifths.

This is tonal (functional) harmony.

Modal harmony has linear, or lateral cadential movement. Often times the best cadential chord is built on the second or seventh scale degree of the mode.

In modal harmony, we must take great care as to not seek out the dominant V chord, or to play too many chords other than the tonic. Doing so will result in our ears hearing tonal harmony, as it's so commonly used in music.

We must reference the tonic chord very often to ensure that we are indeed in that specific mode!

In modal harmony, we don't absolutely need to use all the notes in the mode, but it helps to further specify, unambiguously, which mode we're in. For example, Phrygian without the minor second is the same as Aeolian without the major second.

Phrygian's Modal Cadences

We want to look step-wise to find the most cadential chords. The more cadential chords are chords that:

  • are major in quality.
  • contain the characteristic note.
  • do not contain a tritone interval (making them sound dominant)

Note that chords a third away from a modes root do not provide much tension and are often merely heard as “changes of color” (especially in tertian harmony).

Note also that chords a fourth/fifth away tend to lead us out of modal harmony and back toward the circular nature of tonal harmony.

So the most cadential chord in Phrygian modal harmony is the II(maj7) (Lydian chord).

  • It's a half step away (lateral movement)
  • It has a major third
  • And it contains the characteristic tone as its root!

The♭vii(min7) (Dorian chord) would also be a good choice.

  • It's a whole step away (lateral movement)
  • The minor third weakens its cadential strength
  • But it contains the characteristic tone as its minor third degree

Note that Dorian ♭viimin7  is the relative minor of Lydian IImaj7

Of course, this is all just for your information and not set in stone, if it sounds good, play it!

In Closing

I invite you to write a song based on the Phrygian mode. For more information, check out my article on writing and playing modally.

Chances are, even if you don't know the mode, you've been using it plenty in writing and playing music.

Let me know what you come up with while writing with the Phrygian mode! And if there's anything else you'd like to add to the discussion of the Phrygian mode, please leave a message in the comment section!

As always, thank you for reading and for your support.

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