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Welcome to my Harmony and Theory Bible series.

These articles will aim to teach you how to approach theory and harmony,in a fun and creative way. Here you will find everything from beginners' areas like intervals, chords, scale construction and modes, to more complex harmony analysis and soloing approaches. Whether you are total beginner or somebody looking to recap on some knowledge, this is the place for you.

In today’s article we are focusing on the 3rd mode of the major scalePhrygian mode



Phrygian Mode

Last time we discussed Dorian mode and its harmony. Today we are focusing on Phrygian mode which is original major scale/Ionian played from 3rd scale degree! We will cover formula of this mode as well as cadences (chord progressions) that describe Phrygian mode. By the end of this article you will have improvisation example of my approach over E Phrygian mode. Let’s get started now.

E Phrygian mode is C major scale played from the 3rd scale degree. For example, C major scale has following notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, B and C (as octave). E Phrygian mode in C major scale is the 3rd mode starting from 3rd scale degree. We therefore end up with C major scale starting on the 3rd note - E F G A B C D and E. Notice how E Phrygian mode has different order of half and whole steps. This is what essentially makes each mode unique and interesting! E Phrygian mode is associated with minor type chord (minor triad or minor7th chord) simply because these chords exist on the 3rd scale degree of any major scale. Mode itself has very dark sound and is used in all styles of music. Very important thing to remember here is to associate Phrygian mode with minor type chords. Why? Simply because it is mode built of 3rd scale degree in major scale and our chord on that same scale degree is minor triad (if you harmonise the mode into 3 note chords) or minor 7th chord (if you harmonise the mode into 4 note chords). Se the picture below. So remember, every time you see minor chord, or minor7th chord with tensions b9, 11 or b13 (in modal situations b9 and b13 could work but in regular chord progressions they are avoidable), you can play Phrygian mode! Let’s now move onto construction formulas of Phrygian mode.


Here are 3 types of formulas for Phrygian mode:


  • Interval formula from Root of the mode: Root, Minor 2nd, Minor 3rd, Perfect 4th, Perfect 5th, Minor 6th, Minor 7th and Octave.
  • Formula using whole and half steps: Root, H, W, W, W, H, W and W.
  • Formula using numbering system: 1, b2, b3, 4, 5, b6, b7 and 8 (same as 1).


Phrygian Cadence

In one of the previous articles we have covered importance of cadence. For those of you who missed that, short and quick version is following: Cadence is a chord progression that describes the given scale or mode. We have also covered 3 chord families where everything falls in. Those families are Tonic, Subdominant and Dominant. Any chord from major scale falls under one of those 3 chord families. In order to have a strong cadence, we have to use chords that contain Tonic, Subdominant and Dominant sound. If we want to just have simplified version of the cadence we would have Tonic and Dominant sound. When you think about Tonic functioning chords, your ear should tell you it feels like "home harmony". Subdominant functioning chords go a little but out while Dominant functioning chords are really out there and have tendency to resolve back to Tonic functioning chords. Think of those 3 chord families as different levels of consonance and dissonance. The Tonic being most consonant and pleasant, to the Subdominant which is in the middle, while the Dominant is the most dissonant of all.

One final thing worth mentioning is following: Every mode has characteristic note or notes! Those notes must be contained in the chord progressions (cadence) as they give complete sound to given scale or mode. Phrygian mode has minor 2nd (minor 9th or b9) and minor 6th (minor 13th or b6) as characteristic notes. How do we know this? Well simply by checking interval formula for all minor type modes. Dorian, Phrygian and Aeolian are all minor type modes (minor triad is assigned to all of them). Difference between those modes lies in the type of 6th or 9th they have. Dorian has major 6th and major 9th, Phrygian has minor 6th (or b6) and minor 9th (or b9) while Aeolian has minor 6th (or b6) and major 9th (or 9). All the other notes in those modes are common or the same. For example, difference between C Phrygian and C Aeolian is the fact that one has Db (minor 9th) while the other has D (major 9th). By using this method, we came to know characteristic note(s) of the mode.


Now we will look at E Phrygian cadence using Tonic type chord and chord containing tensions with characteristic note(s) of the mode. Characteristic notes of E Phrygian mode are F and C (b9 and b13) so our characteristic chord should contain F or C or both of those. Here are a couple of examples using Tonic type chord with characteristic chord.

Example 1a (3 part harmony)

//: E min / F maj ://


Example 1b (4 part harmony)

//: E min7 / F maj7 ://

Both examples 1a and 1b use Tonic type chord first (E min chord describes that we are using some sort of minor mode in E) while the chord with characteristic notes gives us the rest of important information of that mode (F maj or F maj7 both contain F and C note which are characteristic notes of E Phrygian mode). Let’s look at two more examples now:


Example 2a (3 part harmony)

//: E min / D min ://


Example 2b (4 part harmony)

//: E min7 / D min7 ://

Here we see how D min or D min7 both contain F and C notes (minor 9th and minor 13th) which fully describe the sound of our E Phrygian mode along with E min or E min7 chord. Notice how these were all chord progressions using only two chords! Feel free to mix them up or extend them by adding more active harmonic rhythm.


Improvisation and Assignment

Now we reach final chapter where I am providing you with my improvisation in E Phrygian mode. Notice how I used example 1b as backing track and improvised using E Phrygian mode. Perfect assignment for all of you is to:

  • Transcribe my improvisation and analyze what I did
  • Record your own improvisation, transcribe it and analyze what you are doing right or wrong.

My improvisation example

With all this information I will leave you to enjoy audio examples of E Phrygian cadences and my improvisation. Study each cadence carefully and try to apply it in your playing/improvising/accompanying/composing.

Feel free to leave comments, ask any questions you might have or simply share your opinion regarding this article. I will be happy to respond and help everybody.

Have fun studying this material and I will see you in part 8 where we will focus on F Lydian Mode!

Pedja Simovic


Related articles:

Harmony and theory bible (part 6) - Dorian Mode

Harmony and theory bible (part 5) - Ionian Mode

Harmony and theory bible (part 4) - Major Scale modes

Harmony and theory bible (part 3) - Major Scale

Harmony and Theory Bible (part 2) - Chords (Triads and 4 Note Chords)

Harmony and theory bible (part 1) - Introduction to intervals and chromatic scale