Phrygian Mode Explained – A Complete Guide In Theory And Practice

The Phrygian mode is the 3rd mode of the major scale. It has a ‘flat 2’, ‘flat 3’, ‘flat 6’ and ‘flat 7’. In this post we are going to look at how to construct the phrygian mode and explain what it is.

To understand the Phrygian mode, just like any other mode, you need to understand the concept of major scales. This means you need to know what a major scale is, what it sounds like and how to construct it. Read the post on major scales if you need to brush up on any of this theory.

If you have read the post on guitar modes explained, you will already have a good idea of how modes work and this post will consolidate your knowledge by applying the relevant theory to the phrygian mode.

In this post, we will revisit some theory theory already discussed in guitar modes explained and then provide links to the Phrygian mode in every key.

What is the Phrygian Mode?

There are 2 ways of looking at any mode, including the phrygian mode. The simplest  way is to look at it as a mode of a major scale. It is in fact, the 3rd mode of a major scale. That means that if you play any major scale and start on the 3rd note, you are playing the phrygian mode. Let’s look at a few examples using this approach:

The 3rd note of C major is E. Therefor if we play the notes of C major and start on E, we are playing E Phrygian.

The 3rd note of Bb major is D. Therefor if we play the notes of Bb major and start on D, we are playing D Phrygian.

What if we wanted to play (for example) A phrygian? We would need to ask ourselves, what major scale produces A as the 3rd note? The answer is F major. A is the 3rd note of the F major scale. Therefor, to play A phrygian, all we need to do is play the F major scale, and start on A.

Parallel vs Derivative.

In all of those above examples, we have used the Derivative approach. This basically means that we were accessing the phrygian mode by deriving it from a major scale. We were basically asking, which major scale do I need to play?

There is another way to construct the exact same mode. That is to use the Parallel approach. With the parallel approach, we look at the properties of the mode as if it exists in isolation, ignoring the major scale that it is derived from. As I mentioned at the start of this post, the phrygian mode contains the following:

b2, b3, b6, b7

If these are the properties of the phrygian mode, we can construct the phrygian mode by altering notes in the major scale to achieve these properties. Again, let’s look at some examples.

The D major scale has the following notes.

D – E – F# – G – A – B – C#

If we lower or flatten the 2nd note (E becomes Eb), 3rd note (F# becomes F) 6th note (B becomes Bb) and 7th note (C# becomes C) we get the following notes:

D – Eb – F – G – A – Bb – C

What we now have is D phrygian. Let’s look at another example:

C major has the following notes:

C – D – E – F – G – A – B

If we flatten the 2nd note (D becomes Db), 3rd note (E becomes Eb), 6th note (A becomes Ab) and 7th note (B becomes Bb) we get the following:

C – Db – Eb – F – G – Ab – Bb

We have just produced the C phrygian mode. Both of these examples use the parallel approach to construct the phrygian mode. It’s important to remember that both the parallel and derivative approaches achieve the same results. They are really just alternative ways of getting the same result. Let’s explore this a little further. We will construct a few more Phrygian scales using both the parallel approach and the derivative approach to demonstrate how they yeild the same results.

Example 1:

Let’s say we want to play a G phrygian mode. The derivative approach tells us that the phrygian mode is the 3rd mode of the major scale. Therefor what we really want to know is, which major scale is “G” the 3rd note of? The answer is E flat.

Root note = Eb, 2 = F, 3 = G, 4 = Ab, 5 = Bb, 6 = C, 7 = D

Since we know that G is the 3rd note of the Eb major scale and we know that the derivative approach means we can construct the phrygian mode by playing a major scale and starting on the 3rd note, we can play G phrygian by playing Eb major and starting on the 3rd note:

G – Ab – Bb – C – D – Eb – F

We have just constructed G phrygian. Let’s prove that both approaches work by playing the exact same mode using the parallel approach. The parallel approach requires us to know the properties of the mode itself (b2, b3, b6, b7) and then alter the appropriate notes to construct the desired mode. Therefor, in this case, we need to take the G major scale and alter the 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 7th notes. G major has the following notes.

Root note = G, 2 = A, 3 = B, 4 = C, 5 = D, 6 = E, 7 = F#

If we flatten the 2nd (A becomes Ab), 3rd (B becomes Bb), 6th (E becomes Eb) and 7th (F# becomes F) we get the following scale.

G – Ab – Bb – C – D – Eb – F

As you can see, both approaches have produced the exact same results.

Let’s do one more example.

Example 2:

Suppose we want to play F phrygian. Let’s use the parallel approach first and then follow up with the derivative approach. Using the parallel approach, we need to know the notes of F major:

F – G – A – Bb – C – D – E

Now let’s flatten the 2 (G) , 3 (A), 6 (D) and 7 (E) to determine F phrygian:

F – Gb – Ab – Bb –  C – Db – Eb

We have just constructed F phrygian using the parallel approach. Let’s also construct the same mode by using the derivative approach. Of course, we need to know which major scale produces F as the 3rd note. It is in fact D flat.

Db – Eb – F – Gb – Ab – Bb – C

If we play the Db major scale and start on the 3rd note, we get the following:

F – Gb – Ab – Bb –  C – Db – Eb

As you can see, again, both approaches produce the same results.

It should be pretty clear by now that being familiar with major scales is a strong requirement for playing modes, regardless of the approach you are taking. The parallel approach requires altering the major scale and the derivative approach requires starting on a different note of the major scale. Either way, knowledge of major scales is very important.

Using the Phrygian Mode:

Because the phrygian mode has a flat 3 in it, it is a minor scale. This means that in a nutshell, it works well over minor chords. We’re not going to go into too much detail in terms of the practical application of the phrygian mode in this post. This post is more about understanding it from a theoretical perspective. However, knowledge and practical application go hand in hand so you should start practicing the mode, just like any other mode and get familiar with the practical side of it.

A very defining feature of the phrygian mode is the flat 2. This gives the scale a much ‘darker’ sound than a less altered minor scale such as the aeolian mode or the dorian mode. Again, we will look at the practicality of the mode in more detail in a future post but for now understand the theory and get started on playing the phrygian mode in different keys.

Here is a list of all the phrygian modes:

Free Ebook And Lessons!

The book contains 22 essential scales, written using beautiful diagrams.

It could be the only scale book you ever need.