The Phrygian Mode: What Is It?

If you’ve ever heard a piece of music that sounds a bit Egyptian, then it’s likely that it was using a type of scale called the phrygian mode. It’s quite an unusual scale that isn’t very common but pops up in Spanish music and lots of film music.

In this post, I’ll take a look at what the phrygian mode is and how we play it but first let’s take a look at what the music modes actually are.

What is a mode?

The modes (also known as the greek modes) are a series of seven diatonic scales based on the major scale.

Each mode is the same series order of semitones and tones (half steps and whole steps) but shifted one note higher.

For example if you were to play all the notes from C major starting on C you would be playing C ionian mode, but if you were to play all the notes from C major starting on G you would be playing G mixolydian mode.

Modal scalesNotes of the mode
C Ionian modeC – D – E – F – G – A – B
D Dorian modeD – E – F – G – A – B – C
E Phrygian modeE – F – G – A – B – C – D
F Lydian modeF – G – A – B – C – D – E
G Mixolydian modeG – A – B – C – D – E – F
A Aeolian modeA – B – C – D – E – F – G
B Locrian modeB – C – D – E – F – G – A

What is the Phrygian mode?

The phrygian mode, which is pronounced ‘fridge-ian‘, is the third mode of the major scale.

It’s named after the ancient greek kingdom of Phrygia who were around over 3000 years ago. Back then scales were named after the regions of Greece where they were prominent.

To play an E phrygian scale all you have to do is play all the notes of C major but starting on E.

E Phrygian Mode

The phrygian mode uses the formula of semitones and tones: STTTSTT

Which in half and whole steps is: HWWWHWW

Degrees of the Phrygian scale

Even though the phrygian scale is a mode of the major scale, it’s actually a type of minor scale. This is because the 3rd note is an interval of a minor 3rd above the tonic.

As well as the minor 3rd it also has a minor 6th, 7th and a minor 2nd (the only other mode to have a flattened 2nd is the locrian mode). This means the 2nd note of the scale is a semitone (half step) above the tonic.

Here are the different scale degrees of the phrygian mode.

  • 1. Root
  • b2. Minor second
  • b3. Minor third
  • 4. Perfect fourth
  • 5. Perfect fifth
  • b6. Minor sixth
  • b7. Minor seventh
C Phrygian scale

The phrygian mode is one of the darkest sounding modes as so many of the notes are flattened (lowered a semitone). The more notes in the scale that are minor intervals the darker the sound and the more that are major the brighter the sound.

It’s also very similar to the natural minor scale except the 2nd note which is minor rather than major.

Music written in the Phrygian mode

The phrygian scale is one of the least common scales in music and so isn’t used a lot. You’ll often find the phrygian dominant scale (which is also known as the Spanish gypsy scale used a lot in flamenco music.

Side note: the phrygian dominant scale is almost the same except the 3rd note is raised from a minor 3rd to a major 3rd.

Check out this piece of Spanish guitar to get a feel for it.

Malagueña – Pepe Romero

The phrygian mode is also used in one of my favourite all time classical pieces: Samuel Barber’s Adagio For Strings.

As you’ll hear in the video below, it’s very melancholic and dark sounding and represents the sound of the phrygian mode well.

It’s in the key of F phrygian and so uses the recognisable minor 2nd (Gb) but also alternates between the phrygian and the phrygian dominant scale (as it uses A naturals too).

Samuel Barber’s Adagio For Strings

List of Phrygian modes

Just for reference, I’ve included below a list of all the phrygian modes with the notes too.

KeyNotes in the Phrygian mode
CC – Db – Eb – F – G – Ab – Bb – C
C#C# – D – E – F# – G# – A – B – C#
DbDb – Ebb – Fb – Gb – Ab – Bbb – Cb – Db
DD – Eb – F – G – A – Bb – C – D
D#D# – E – F# – G# – A# – B – C# – D#
EbEb – Fb – Gb – Ab – Bb – Cb – Db – Eb
EE – F – G – A – B – C – D – E
FF – Gb – Ab – Bb – C – Db – Eb – F
F#F# – G – A – B – C# – D – E – F#
GbGb – Abb – Bbb – Cb – Db – Ebb – Fb – Gb
GG – Ab – Bb – C – D – Eb – F – G
G#G# – A – B – C# – D# – E – F# – G#
AbAb – Bbb – Cb – Db – Eb – Fb – Gb – Ab
AA – Bb – C – D – E – F – G – A
BbBb – Cb – Db – Eb – F – Gb – Ab – Bb
BB – C – D – E – F# – G – A – B

That’s it for the Phrygian mode

I hope that helps you understand the phrygian mode a bit better. It’s a very unusual scale and isn’t very common but if you’re a composer I’d highly recommend getting to know it as there’s a lot of very unique sounds you can get from it.

If you have any questions that I haven’t covered here post a comment below.

Dan Farrant

Dan Farrant

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 10 years helping thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. Since then he's been working to make music theory easy for over 1 million students in over 80 countries around the world.

3 thoughts on “The Phrygian Mode: What Is It?”

  1. Good morning, Dan,
    I really like your website. I’m going to be teaching some friends of mine to sight-read for our choir and there are some really helpful ideas here.
    I’ve wandered into the section on modes as my brother was talking to me about these the other day. Looking at the phrygian mode, I was wondering what the key signature would look like and how you would recognise that is was phrygian?

  2. Dan @ Hello Music Theory

    Hi Stephanie,

    Glad you like it and so happy it’s helping.

    So modes! They’re a little more advanced and I definitely need to revisit my posts to make them more succinct but to try to answer your question….

    Think of the modes as a type of scale like a major scale or a minor scale. Major and minor scales don’t have one key signature, they have 12 as it depends on what key you’re in.

    It’s the same with modes, for example E phrygian scale would have the same key signature as C major as it’s the third mode of that key. But C phrygian scale would have the same key signature as Ab major as it’s the third mode of that key.

    I’ll update this post soon with details on modes and key signatures as I haven’t covered it but hope that helps. Email me if it doesn’t and I’ll write a better explanation!

  3. Thanks for these clear explanations, Dan. The slightly difficult and simultaneously flexible aspect of modes concerns their transposability. The C major scale is just that: C to C1 at any C to C1 pitch. But the phrygian mode, for example, can start on any note and any pitch – as you partly show in your table, above.

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