The Phrygian mode: A comprehensive guide

Illustration: Nhung Lê

The Phrygian mode is one of the seven common diatonic modes.

While it’s best known for its intense sound, the Phrygian mode can be used in an incredibly wide range of musical contexts. In this article, let’s discuss what exactly the Phrygian mode is, some popular tracks that make use of it, and how to apply it to your own music.

Feel free to use the table of contents below to quickly navigate to a specific section.

What you’ll learn:

Let’s get started!


What is the Phrygian mode?

The Phrygian mode is a mode that’s in many ways similar to minor, but features a flattened second (♭ˆ2) as its distinguishing feature. If we started on E, then its ascending scale would consist of E, F, G, A, B, C, D, and E.

The E Phrygian scale

The E Phrygian scale

The history of the Phrygian mode

The Phrygian mode gets its name from the ancient kingdom of Phrygia in Anatolia, where it was believed to have originated. It saw many early iterations including the chromatic genus and enharmonic genus, which featured quarter tones, or intervals that are even smaller than semitones. The medieval Phrygian mode developed by the early Catholic Church dropped these intervals, and over the course of many more years, we gradually arrived to the modern Phrygian mode we know today.

Today, the Phrygian mode is used to create melodic and harmonic interest in various genres spanning metal and EDM to jazz and folk music. It’s also commonly featured in film and video game soundtracks to achieve feelings of intensity, mystery, and otherness.


The Phrygian scale formula

As you can decipher from the previous example, the Phrygian scale consists of the following intervals:

  • Root
  • Minor second
  • Minor third
  • Perfect fourth
  • Perfect fifth
  • Minor sixth
  • Minor seventh

If you were to sequence an ascending scale, the intervals could be expressed in shorthand as HWWWHWW (‘half whole whole, whole half whole whole’).

Once you familiarize yourself with this pattern, you can apply it to construct a Phrygian scale off of any other root note. For example, here are the notes for a C Phrygian scale using this formula:

  • C
  • D♭
  • E♭
  • F
  • G
  • A♭
  • B♭
  • C

Transposing the root to A, here are the notes for an A Phrygian scale:

  • A
  • B♭
  • C
  • D
  • E
  • F
  • G
  • A

If you’re a guitarist, you can refer to the following tablature for a transposable scale:

Guitar tabs for the A Phrygian scale
What’s the difference between the Phrygian and Phrygian dominant scales?

The Phrygian dominant scale is a lot like the Phrygian scale, but features a major third instead of a minor third.

The C Phrygian dominant scale

The C Phrygian dominant scale

It can also be seen as the fifth mode of the harmonic minor scale, as it shares all of the same intervals. For example, a C Phrygian dominant scale features all of the same pitches as an F harmonic minor scale, just in a different sequence, and with an emphasis on C as the root note instead of the F.


The Phrygian mode in all “keys”

While familiarizing yourself with the sequence of intervals is far more valuable (and easier) than memorizing every scale one-by-one, here’s a table outlining the Phrygian scale associated with every root note for easy reference:

RootNotes in the Phrygian scale
CC – D♭ – E♭ – F – G – A♭ – B♭ – C
C♯C♯ – D – E – F♯ – G♯ – A – B – C♯
D♭D♭ – E♭♭ – F♭ – G♭ – A♭ – B♭♭ – C♭ – D♭
DD – E♭ – F – G – A – B♭ – C – D
D♯D♯ – E – F♯ – G♯ – A♯ – B – C♯ – D♯
E♭E♭ – F♭ – G♭ – A♭ – B♭ – C♭ – D♭ – E♭
EE – F – G – A – B – C – D – E
FF – G♭ – A♭ – B♭ – C – D♭ – E♭ – F
F♯F♯ – G – A – B – C♯ – D – E – F♯
G♭G♭ – A♭♭ – B♭♭ – C♭ – D♭ – E♭♭ – F♭ – G♭
GG – A♭ – B♭ – C – D – E♭ – F – G
G♯G♯ – A – B – C♯ – D♯ – E – F♯ – G♯
A♭A♭ – B♭♭ – C♭ – D♭ – E♭ – F♭ – G♭ – A♭
AA – B♭ – C – D – E – F – G – A
A♯A♯ – B – C♯ – D♯ – E♯ – F♯ – G♯ – A♯
B♭B♭ – C♭ – D♭ – E♭ – F – G♭ – A♭ – B♭
BB – C – D – E – F♯ – G – A – B

As we mentioned in our article on the Dorian mode, we use the term “key” loosely to refer to these because modes don’t follow the same functional behaviors of traditional major and minor keys, which are a requisite of the term in its strictest definition. Also note that several of these are enharmonically equivalent—for example, the modes built off of F♯ and G♭ share all of the same pitches, but are simply expressed differently in writing.


Songs that use the Phrygian mode

While scales are a necessary starting point, they don’t paint a complete picture of the Phrygian mode’s sound by themselves. Let’s begin to familiarize ourselves with the mode by listening to a few pieces of music from varying genres and contexts that feature its sound.

1. “Trainer Battle Music” by Junichi Masuda (from Pokémon) (1996)

The iconic trainer battle theme from Pokémon Red and Blue makes extensive use of the Phrygian mode’s distinctive flattened second via the use of the ♭II chord. Check out the section that occurs exactly one minute into the above rendition, for example—the oscillation between the i (A minor) and ♭II (B♭ major) chords creates a constant wave of tension, which wonderfully underscores the back-and-forth action of two Pokémon exchanging moves.

While each subsequent Pokémon game features a new trainer battle theme, they somehow all feel consistent with one another—and their shared use of the Phrygian mode plays a major role in that. For more insights on how the series’ music leverages modes, be sure to also check out our article on the most important chord progression in Pokémon.

2. “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” by Lil Nas X (2021)

For a more contemporary example, look no further than Lil Nas X’s “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name).” The track features a similar oscillation between two chords, but with one key difference—the first chord (D♯) is also major, establishing a palette that’s specifically Phrygian dominant.

In an interview with Vulture, production duo Take A Daytrip highlight some of the cultural influences they were looking to channel via the mode. “The song is in Phrygian,” Denzel comments. “I think every song that we’ve had in the top ten, oddly, has been Phrygian mode. It has almost a Middle Eastern or Morrish or Spanish sound.”

3. “The Rumbling” by SiM (2022)

The Phrygian mode is also regularly used in heavier styles to achieve a bold and aggressive sound. Take a listen to the guitar riff in SiM’s “The Rumbling,” one of the opening themes for the renowned anime series Attack On Titan. The flattened second adds a ton of weight to the riff, as it repeatedly pulls down towards the root.

However, as soon as we enter the verse, we find that the vocal melody exclusively uses the major second over the Phrygian mode’s minor second. This reflects the idea that you don’t need to adhere to a single mode for an entire composition—rather, you can leverage its color to achieve a desired emotion in a single section or moment.


When to use the Phrygian mode

There’s no finite set of rules for when and how to use the Phrygian mode in your own music. That said, if you want to experiment with it but aren’t sure where to start, below we’ve highlighted a few ideas that you can try out to develop your own unique applications and associations.

1. Add an extra dose of intensity to your music

Most commonly, the Phrygian mode is used to introduce some sense of intensity or darkness to music. Despite its signature chord (♭II) having a major tonality, its strong tendency to resolve towards the minor root (i) often helps it hit even harder than it might in natural minor keys. You can also try voicing the minor second interval directly against the root to achieve even more dissonant sounds.

2. Achieve a passing moment of intrigue

As we mentioned in our discussion of “The Rumbling,” the Phrygian mode (and any other mode, for that matter) doesn’t need to be used as the sole harmonic backbone of your music. Whether you’re composing an orchestral score or soloing on your guitar, consider introducing a moment of Phrygian color before pivoting back to major, minor, or perhaps even a different mode of your choosing. Although it only differs from natural minor by a single note, that can be more than enough to introduce some unexpected variety and re-engage a listener’s attention.

3. Reference the sound of a particular style of music

Finally, as Take A Daytrip commented in their discussion of “MONTERO,” the Phrygian mode can be used as an effective ingredient to suggest the influence of certain styles and regions. For example, Flamenco music regularly uses the Phrygian mode, along with unique variations such as the Major-Phrygian mode. If there’s a particular style of music that you’re drawn to, try analyzing its melodies and chords to see if it utilizes a specific mode.


Conclusion

While there’s no one way to use it, the Phrygian mode provides a distinctive color that’s a great addition to any composer’s toolkit. Hopefully this article gave you a foundation for how it’s structured, and provided you with some initial ideas for using it that you can apply to create your own unique musical settings.

Do you have any questions around using modes in your music? What other topics in music theory would you like to see us cover next? Start a conversation with us and other music creators via the Splice Discord.


Continue your exploration of modes in music:

April 24, 2023

Harrison Shimazu

Harrison Shimazu is a composer, content strategist, and writer who’s passionate about democratizing music creation and education. He leads the Splice blog and creates music as Namaboku.