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The Phrygian Mode is Quietly Changing the Sound of Loudness

The Phrygian mode is not as uncommon as you might think. When we dig into how it actually shows up in pop and hip hop, there are some patterns, and some surprises.

Note: The musical examples in this post contain adult themes and language.

If the only scales you know are major and minor, there’s an enormous number of melodies at your fingertips. If you’ve dug a little deeper, you may have heard of “modal” tunes—perhaps the ones penned by jazz musicians and Medieval monks. I’m here to tell you that one of the modes used by those monks—Phrygian—has made the pop mainstream. I’m not just talking about Björk here, I’m talking Beyoncé, 50 Cent, Kendrick Lamar, The Fugees, Sam Smith, BLACKPINK, Lil Nas X mainstream. This is not new, but oddly, it’s also not talked about.

How could a set of notes named after an ancient Anatolian kingdom enter the pop vocabulary right under our noses? I’ve been thinking about this, and I have some ideas.

Major and the “natural” form of minor are two ways to create a center of gravity within the seven notes that can be found on the white keys of the piano. You can play a major scale by starting on a C and playing all the white keys up to the next C. You can play a minor scale by doing the same on an A. These are indeed the most common scales in much of the music we hear.

Yet even if we stick with the seven white keys, we have seven possible centers of gravity, or modes, which leaves five more besides major and minor. Here we’re going to focus on one of those five: Phrygian. Playing the white keys, starting and ending on E, produces the Phrygian mode.

The following video walks you through how that works and sounds. Throughout this post I use the Keyring for illustrations. Here’s a primer on how to read the Keyring if it’s not already intuitive for you.

If the word Phrygian sounds obscure to you, many would agree:

The Phrygian mode is less commonly used in pop music

It’s quite an unusual scale that isn’t very common but pops up in Spanish music and lots of film music.

Phrygian is dark, exotic, and mysterious. It isn’t used often in pop music but can be heard often in hip-hop, metal, jazz, and film music.

So if I mentioned Phrygian to a producer who has put out multiple chart-topping songs, I’d probably just get a blank stare, right?

I think every song that we’ve had in the top ten, oddly, has been Phrygian mode.

…Or we’ve just been sleeping on this.

It turns out that it’s not that hard to find Phrygian in popular music, and while this list is hip-hop heavy, we’ll see that it doesn’t stop there. Here’s a small cornucopia:

And the source material:

You may have noticed a certain intensity or loudness in these songs. This use of Phrygian brings grit and bravado with it, which probably comes from its decades-long prevalence in trap music:

In the last track we heard a common calling card of the Phrygian mode: an alternation in the bass between the home note and the note a half step above it. If we’re in E, this would mean moving back and forth between E and F.

You can also hear that in this Phrygian trap song:

And moving back to the mainstream, here’s the same bassline concept in “Sexy Back”:

Daddy Yankee’s international Reggaeton hit “Gasolina” uses the same approach to bass motion, but in this one you can hear harmonies emerging from each bass note. Since we’re in Phrygian, we might expect the lower chord to be minor and the higher chord to be major. Instead, we hear something else: both chords are major.

While this may not sound like a big deal, it kind of throws a wrench in the way chords tend to behave within scales. Chords tend to adapt to the scales they’re in: in a major key, the home or “one” chord is major, and in minor it’s minor. In Phrygian, that home chord should be minor. So what are we doing with a major one chord?

Let’s listen to how the same artist treats these chords melodically:

That’s right, we’re mostly in Phrygian, but the third of the scale is major on the way up, and then minor on the way down. We’ve basically added a note to the scale: we now have two “versions” of the third to choose from in the same scale.

(Side note: Since the third is supposed to be the most information-heavy note of a scale, classical theory does not have room for a “por qué no los dos” approach that accepts both versions. However, listen to any boogie woogie music, or its more popular cameos in the piano parts of blues rock songs like “Sweet Home Alabama”—and you’ll hear a very similar approach to the third scale degree. Is it minor? Is it major? Eh.)

We hear the same thing in the hook to Sam Smith’s “Unholy:” it’s all Phrygian except an expressive use of the major third that then reverts back to minor on the way down.

Lil Nas X’s “Montero” uses alternating major chords in the harmony, but then sticks strictly to Phrygian in the melody, so we actually have both versions of the third present on different layers.

Here are all of those songs back to back in E, with the major and minor 3rd scale degrees pointed out specifically on the Keyring:

In the guitar of “Montero” we hear a reference to Spanish music, one of the more well-known homes for the Phrygian mode. Here’s a transfixing Flamenco example, where we can hear a major third hammered in on the home chord, but the minor third used expressively both by the vocalist and the guitarist, such as when walking back down to the one chord at 0:56.

So not only is Phrygian relatively common in popular music, it gets there by at least two different roads—trap and Spanish music—that sometimes even combine, as in “Montero.” And those possibilities have created distinct ways of using it, including a whole practice of expressively raising the third scale degree.

Standard theory textbooks usually gloss over Phrygian because it’s more or less absent from notated Western music between the Baroque and Romantic—the “common practice era” that overshadows all others in a great deal of music education. There are exceptions, such as the Phrygian passages in Anton Bruckner’s symphonies, but we hear a lot more Phrygian in the West before the 17th century and after the 19th. The American composer John Adams entered the minimalist scene in 1978 with his piano piece Phrygian GatesHere in the 21st century, those gates remain open.

Let’s end in Zambia, where we find a specialist in the stepwise alternating bass notes that we heard in “Gasolina,” “Montero,” “SexyBack,” etc.: the kalumbu. The kalumbu is a gourd bow instrument related to the berimbau known in Brazillian capoeira circles, played by striking the string with a stick in one hand, and stopping it with a stone in the other. When those bass notes are a half step apart, as in this song performed by Chris Haambwiila, we hear a glimpse of yet another expressive use of Phrygian.

The featured image on this post contains a photo by Raph_PH and has elements generated by Adobe’s AI.

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Synthase is an online school for music creators. We’re specialists in creative music education and we offer lessons, classes, workshops, and curricula for students of all levels.

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