Phrygian mode

The Phrygian mode (pronounced /ˈfrɪiən/) can refer to three different musical modes: the ancient Greek tonos or harmonia sometimes called Phrygian, formed on a particular set of octave species or scales; the Medieval Phrygian mode, and the modern conception of the Phrygian mode as a diatonic scale, based on the latter.

Ancient Greek Phrygian

The Phrygian tonos or harmonia is named after the ancient kingdom of Phrygia in Anatolia. The octave species (scale) underlying the ancient-Greek Phrygian tonos (in its diatonic genus) corresponds to the medieval and modern Dorian mode.

In Greek music theory, the harmonia given this name was based on a tonos, in turn based on a scale or octave species built from a tetrachord which, in its diatonic genus, consisted of a series of rising intervals of a whole tone, followed by a semitone, followed by a whole tone.

In the chromatic genus, this is a minor third followed by two semitones.

In the enharmonic genus, it is a major third and two quarter tones.

A diatonic-genus octave species built upon D is roughly equivalent to playing all the white notes on a piano keyboard from D to D:

This scale, combined with a set of characteristic melodic behaviours and associated ethoi, constituted the harmonia which was given the ethnic name "Phrygian", after the "unbounded, ecstatic peoples of the wild, mountainous regions of the Anatolian highlands" (Solomon 1984, 249). This ethnic name was also confusingly applied by theorists such as Cleonides to one of thirteen chromatic transposition levels, regardless of the intervallic makeup of the scale (Solomon 1984, 244–246).

Medieval Phrygian mode

The early Catholic Church developed a system of eight musical modes that medieval music scholars gave names drawn from the ones used to describe the ancient Greek harmoniai. The name "Phrygian" was applied to the third of these eight church modes, the authentic mode on E, described as the diatonic octave extending from E to the E an octave higher and divided at B, therefore beginning with a semitone-tone-tone-tone pentachord, followed by a semitone-tone-tone tetrachord (Powers 2001):

The ambitus of this mode extended one tone lower, to D. The sixth degree, C, which is the tenor of the corresponding third psalm tone, was regarded by most theorists as the most important note after the final, though the fifteenth-century theorist Johannes Tinctoris implied that the fourth degree, A, could be so regarded instead (Powers 2001).

Placing the two tetrachords together, and the single tone at bottom of the scale produces the Hypophrygian mode (below Phrygian):

Modern Phrygian mode

In modern western music (from the 18th century onward), the Phrygian mode is related to the modern natural minor scale, also known as the Aeolian mode, but with the second scale degree lowered by a semitone, making it a minor second above the tonic, rather than a major second.

The following is the Phrygian mode starting on E, or E Phrygian, with corresponding tonal scale degrees illustrating how the modern major mode and natural minor mode can be altered to produce the Phrygian mode:

E Phrygian

Therefore, the Phrygian mode consists of: root, minor second, minor third, perfect fourth, perfect fifth, minor sixth, minor seventh, and octave. Alternatively, it can be written as the pattern

half, whole, whole, whole, half, whole, whole

In contemporary jazz, the Phrygian mode is used over chords and sonorities built on the mode, such as the sus4(9) chord (see Suspended chord), which is sometimes called a Phrygian suspended chord. For example, a soloist might play an E Phrygian over an Esus4(9) chord (E–A–B–D–F).

Phrygian dominant scale

A Phrygian dominant scale is produced by raising the third scale degree of the mode:

E Phrygian dominant

The Phrygian dominant is also known as the Spanish gypsy scale, because it resembles the scales found in flamenco music (see Flamenco mode). It is the fifth mode of the harmonic minor scale. Flamenco music uses the Phrygian scale, together with a modified scale resembling the Arab maqām Ḥijāzī (like the Phrygian dominant but with a major sixth scale degree), and a bimodal configuration using both major and minor second and third scale degrees (Katz 2001).


Ancient Greek

Medieval and Renaissance



Modern classical music

Film music


See also


  • Adams, Doug. 2010. The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films: A Comprehensive Account of Howard Shore's Scores. Van Nuys, CA: Carpentier/Alfred Music Publishing. ISBN 0-7390-7157-2.
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  • Benward, Bruce, and Marilyn Nadine Saker. 2009. Music in Theory and Practice: Volume II, eighth edition. Boston: McGraw-Hill. ISBN 978-0-07-310188-0.
  • Braatz, Thomas, and Aryeh Oron. 2006. "Chorale Melodies used in Bach's Vocal Works Es woll (or wolle/wollt) uns Gott genädig sein". (April) (accessed 24 October 2009)
  • Carver, Anthony F. 2005. "Bruckner and the Phrygian Mode". Music & Letters 86, no. 1:74–99. doi:10.1093/ml/gci004
  • Karp, Theodore, Fabrice Fitch, and Basil Smallman. 2001. "Requiem Mass". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Karstädt, G. (ed.). 1985. Thematisch-systematisches Verzeichnis der musikalischen Werke von Dietrich Buxtehude: Buxtehude-Werke-Verzeichnis, second edition. Wiesbaden. French online adaptation, "Dietrich Buxtehude, (c.1637–1707) Catalogue des oeuvres BuxWV: Oeuvres instrumentales: Musique pour orgue, BuxWV 136–225". Université du Québec website (Accessed 17 May 2011).
  • Katz, Israel J. 2001. "Flamenco [cante flamenco]". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Ottaway, Hugh, and Alain Frogley. 2001. "Vaughan Williams, Ralph". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Otten, Joseph. 1913. "Aurora Lucis Rutilat". Catholic Encyclopedia, vol. 2. .
  • Partsch, Erich Wolfgang. 2007. "Anton Bruckners phrygisches Pange lingua (WAB 33)". Singende Kirche 54, no. 4:227–29. ISSN 0037-5721
  • Pelletier-Bacquaert, Bruno. n.d. "Various Thoughts: Sus Chords", accessed December 10, 2009.
  • Pesic, Peter. 2005. "Earthly Music and Cosmic Harmony: Johannes Kepler's Interest in Practical Music, Especially Orlando di Lasso". Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music 11, no. 1
  • Pöhlmann, Egert, and Martin L. West. 2001. Documents of Ancient Greek Music: The Extant Melodies and Fragments, edited and transcribed with commentary by Egert Pöhlmann and Martin L. West. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-815223-X.
  • Pollack, Howard. 2000. "Samuel Barber, Jean Sibelius, and the Making of an American Romantic". The Musical Quarterly 84, no. 2 (Summer) 175–205.
  • Powers, Harold S. 2001. "Phrygian", The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell, 19:634. 29 vols. London: Macmillan Publishers. ISBN 978-1-56159-239-5; ISBN 978-0-19-517067-2. OCLC 46516598
  • Rifkin, Joshua, Eva Linfield, Derek McCulloch, and Stephen Baron. 2001. "Schütz, Heinrich [Henrich] [Sagittarius, Henricus]". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Solomon, Jon. 1984. "Towards a History of Tonoi". Journal of Musicology 3, no. 3:242–51. JSTOR 763814 (Subscription access).doi:10.1525/jm.1984.3.3.03a00030
  • Solomon, Jon D. 1986. "The Seikilos Inscription: A Theoretical Analysis". American Journal of Philology 107 (Winter): 455–79.
  • Snyder, Kerala J. 2001. "Buxtehude, Dieterich". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.
  • Strickland, Edward. 2001. "Glass, Philip". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers.

Further reading

  • Franklin, Don O. 1996. "Vom alten zum neuen Adam: Phrygischer Kirchenton und moderne Tonalität in J.S.Bachs Kantate 38". In Von Luther zu Bach: Bericht über die Tagung 22.–25. September 1996 in Eisenach, edited by Renate Steiger, 129–44. Internationalen Arbeitsgemeinschaft für theologische Bachforschung (1996): Eisenach. Sinzig: Studio-Verlag. ISBN 3-89564-056-5.
  • Gombosi, Otto. 1951. "Key, Mode, Species". Journal of the American Musicological Society 4, no. 1:20–26. JSTOR 830117 (Subscription access)doi:10.1525/jams.1951.4.1.03a00020
  • Hewitt, Michael. 2013. Musical Scales of the World. [S.l.]: The Note Tree. ISBN 978-0-9575470-0-1.
  • Novack, Saul. 1977. "The Significance of the Phrygian Mode in the History of Tonality". Miscellanea Musicologica 9:82–177. ISSN 0076-9355 OCLC 1758333
  • Tilton, Mary C. 1989. "The Influence of Psalm Tone and Mode on the Structure of the Phrygian Toccatas of Claudio Merulo". Theoria 4:106–22. ISSN 0040-5817
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