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The Modes of the Major Scale - The Phrygian Mode
Published November 12th, 2002. © Chris Juergensen/chrisjuergensen.com. All Rights Reserved.

The Phrygian mode - This lesson will deal with the next minor mode of the major scale; the phrygian mode. Like the dorian mode, the phrygian mode is minor. While the dorian mode is bright sounding, the phrygian mode is dark and exotic. While the dorian mode is easy to understand and apply, the phrygian mode has its challenges.

 
Like I said in the last lesson; you better have all the major scale patterns under your belt, so once again, if you don't have them together yet, do it now. Roots in black.
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Pattern 1
Pattern 2
Pattern 3
Pattern 4
Pattern 5

Let's review a bit here. These are all the modes of the major scale. This lesson will deal with the third one, the phrygian mode.
 
1. Ionian mode (the major scale)
2. Dorian mode
3. Phrygian mode
4. Lydian mode
5. Mixolydian mode
6. Aolian mode (the natural minor scale)
7. Locrian mode
 
By using the chart below you can determine what major scale to play to get the mode you are looking for and what chord the mode works over, Ex: the C phrygian mode is the same as the Ab major scale and works over a Cmin7 chord.
 
Key
ionian
dorian
phrygian
lydian
mixolydian
aolian
locrian
C
C
D
E
F
G
A
B
G
G
A
B
C
D
E
F#
D
D
E
F#
G
A
B
C#
A
A
B
C#
D
E
F#
G#
E
E
F#
G#
A
B
C#
D#
B
B
C#
D#
E
F#
G#
A#
F#
F#
G#
A#
B
C#
D#
E#
C#
C#
D#
E#
F#
G#
A#
B#
Cb
Cb
Db
Eb
Fb
Gb
Ab
Bb
Gb
Gb
Ab
Bb
Cb
Db
Eb
F
Db
Db
Eb
F
Gb
Ab
Bb
C
Ab
Ab
Bb
C
Db
Eb
F
G
Eb
Eb
F
G
Ab
Bb
C
D
Bb
Bb
C
D
Eb
F
G
A
F
F
G
A
Bb
C
D
E
 
maj7
min7
min7
maj7
7
min7
min7b5

The Phrygian Mode
The phrygian mode: how to find it and how to use it. First of all, let's examine it closely. If we compare it to the C major and C dorian scale below it we can see the difference. It looks a lot different than both scales. Right off the bat, it has a minor 2nd. After that it has a minor third. Like both the major scale and dorian scale it has a natural 11th and 5th. The 6th is minor, making it different than both the major and dorian scales and giving it its super minor sound. The 7th is minor. I think the combination of the minor 6th and 2nd is what gives this mode its exotic flavor.
 
C phrygian scale
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C dorian scale
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C major scale
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Making chords from the phrygian scale: If we start harmonizing chords from the phrygian scale, by stacking it by the root, third, and fifth we first get a minor triad. If we add the seventh, we get a min7th chord. If we continue, we'll get some pretty strange chords; a min7b9 chord and to be honest, you don't come across one of those very often. Besides working over a static minor chord, this mode also works over a iii - IV chord progression very well. Ex. Cmin7-Dbmaj7. A lot of heavy metal players like to use this chord progression to go crazy with the phrygian mode.

Chords from the phrygian mode: min, min7, min7b9, 7susb9, b9sus, min11(b9)

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More often than minor chords, the phrygian mode gets used over sus4 chords. The reason is because sus chords don't contain 3rds, the minor 3rd of the scale gets nuturalized in a way. You may want to even consider the min 3rd as an aug 9th which makes it seem compatible with dominant chords. Jazz guys like Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock used to like to use the prygian mode over a b9 sus chord. I talked a little about the phrygian mode and its relationship with dominant chords in one of my previous lessons: Everything You Wanted to Know About Dominant Chords.
 
The b9sus chord, sometimes known as the "Phrygian" chord:
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Playing the Phrygian Mode
OK, the next step here is to get you to be able to play any phrygian scale anytime you want quickly. The point is; just like the dorian mode, to figure out on the spot what major scale you need to be playing. Remember what I said before; it's not where you start or stop, it's what chord you are playing over that counts. On the chart you are reading, it tells you that you have to play a solo over a C(b9)sus chord (a typical "phrygian" chord). All you have to do is determine what major scale you have to play to get the phrygian mode. This is what you do; you use the phrygian mode rule which is: phrygian mode = major scale down a maj3rd. Remember how this works? If C is on the eighth fret, Ab is a major third down from that note. All you have to do is play a Ab major scale over the C(b9)sus chord and you'll get the phrygian sound.
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Test time. Get out your pencil and paper and then check your answers down at the bottom.
 
Test
1. E phrygian = ? major 6. Bb phrygian = ? major
2. B phrygian= ? major 7. D phrygian = ? major
3. G phrygian= ? major 8. A phrygian = ? major
4. C phrygian = ? major 9. F phrygian= ? major
5. F# phrygian = major 10. Eb phrygian = ? major
 
Now that you should be able to play the phrygian scale at the drop of a hat, it's time to get you improvising over some different chord progressions. The C phrygian mode can be used over the first eight bars. What major scale are you going to play to get the C phrygian mode? Remember you need to play the major scale that is down a major 3rd from C. The answer is? Ab major. For the next two bars you will need to play a D dorian scale. D dorian is the same scale as C major. For the last two bars you should go back to the C phrygian scale (which is, by the way, the same as Eb mixolydian. Remember to pay special attention to chord tones:
 
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You also may want to try playing over a Cmin - Db chord progression with a hard rock feel, if that is the kind of music you are into.

Phrygian video. If you can't view this video, go here >>
 

Test Answers
1. C major 6. Gb major
2. G major 7. Bb major
3. Eb major 8. F major
4. Ab major 9. Db major
5. D major 10. Cb major

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