Songwriting basics and tips 16: Modes – Freaky Phrygian

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Bob Leslie is an Independent Scottish Songwriter, Singer, and Recording Artist

 

freaks

Why “Freaky”? …

Well, Phrygian seems to be mainly associated with jazz and hippy bands, with  a sprinkling of metal and new-wave/punk. It’s a very uncommon mode in other genres.

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The brothers Phryge …

phyrge.gif

There are two types of mode generally called Phrygian: the standard one which, if we’rebased over a scale of C major, runs from the third note upwards,

  • E  F  G  A  B  C  D  E

and the so-called Phrygian-Dominant  or Flamenco-Phrygian which adds a sharpened 3rd note as follows:

  • E  F  G  G#  A  B  C  D  E

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Building blocks …blocks.gif

The I, IV, and V chords in a scale are usually the “go-to” ones because they include between them every note in the scale. In a standard C major scale, for example, those chords would be C majorF major, and G major.

In a standard E Phrygian mode (based on the notes of the scale of C), the equivalent chords would be

  • E minor – E  G  B
  • A minor – A  C  E
  • B diminishedB  D  F

Diminished chords are not awfully popular as resolving chords, ie the 2nd-last chord moving onto the tonic chord in a phrase. In E Phrygian, that would be a move from B diminished to Em.

In fact, they’re the sort of shape that makes for a good passing chord, but not one that you’d care to hold for long.

They’re also kind of painful for guitar-players who aren’t gifted with Jimi-Hendrix-length fingers!

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In Phrygian, both the II and the VI chords are major – F major and C major respectively – and either of these makes for a good resolution onto the tonic, ie the E minor chord.

Of course, neither of these includes the 7th note: D.  It’s common in Phrygian to use the G major chord for this – and you also have the lesser-used option of D minor.

Thus, there are 5 principal chords used in E Phrygian:

  • E minor – E  G  B
  • F major – F  A  C
  • G major – G  B  D
  • A minor – A  C  E
  • C major – C  E  G

Play around with the following two progressions, and you’ll get a fair idea of the Phrygian sound:

  • Em  G  Am  C  Em
  • Em  F  G  F  Em

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 Phrygian-Dominant is more commonly heard, it’s the basis of most Flamenco and has also been picked up by many jazz players.

Its main difference is that the tonic chord is major – in E Phrygian-Dominant that chord is therefore E major.

The main chords would be as follows:

E major bailaora.gif

F major

G major 

A minor

Just play around with those chords and you’ll soon recognise that Spanish feel.

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Whodunnit? …

look

Phrygian isn’t all that common as a songwriting medium, but there are a few well-known examples:

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Phrygian-Dominant is a more familiar mode – even if it’s just from your Spanish holidays!

A couple of great songs that use this form arebun.gif

White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane (in F# Phrygian-Dominant)

Alone Again Or by Love (if it sounds familiar, it may be you spot it as the playout on the last episode of Netflix series Russian Doll).

It’s also in F# Phrygian-Dominant.

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Bob Leslie – Scottish – Traditional – Songwriter

 

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