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I tried to compose in the Phrygian mode which seems to be harder than the natural, harmonic and melodic minor.

The biggest challenge was to end my piece in its tonic chord. My song was intended to be E Phrygian, so I started that song with the note E, used a lot of E notes and ended with the note E only to find that Am suits better as the ending chord of my song, rather than Em.

So far I have had a better success if i use a B major chord (or B diminished triad) right before the last chord, to "force" it to resolve to Em. Has anyone experienced a similar success with this strategy, or do you have some other strategies to ensure that your written song is really Phrygian?

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    If you hear Am as the final chord, then you hear the scale as A aeolian (which has of course the same notes as E phrygian). Try to use an F or a Dm before the Em chord. Also note that there is no B major chord in E phrygian (because you don't have a D#).
    – Matt L.
    Feb 3, 2015 at 19:31
  • Thanks @MattL. As for the use of B major - perhaps i should have used B7 (either way the mode is slightly altered). To me the resolution sounds nicer than that of B dim triad, not sure if that is just my subjective feeling, or it is really the case.
    – mey
    Feb 3, 2015 at 19:37
  • I should probably also try Bm7b5. What do you think? ☺
    – mey
    Feb 3, 2015 at 19:50
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    Try everything to learn about the possibilities, but you'll probably find out the functional harmony doesn't work so well in phrygian. Phrygian compositions are often based on riffs, either as a single note melody line, or in perfect fifths.
    – Matt L.
    Feb 3, 2015 at 20:14
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    But not always, eh? conquest.imslp.info/files/imglnks/usimg/a/a9/…, youtube.com/watch?v=LDN4uznAtv0. (This ends with viiᵒ/I-I.)
    – user16935
    Feb 4, 2015 at 8:12

6 Answers 6

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You can use V-I, although you need to prep it well. A not-unusual formula is to end with a standard Phrygian cadence (♭vii6-I), and then close it off with V-I or viiᵒ-I (often over over a tonic pedal). Also, less conventional, but using a formula that actually arose from the Phrygian cadence, is to use an augmented sixth as your dominant. (I've closed off a number of preludes on Phrygian chorales using this.) See the following:

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A & B start with a Phrygian cadence then either use either viiᵒ/I (A) or V7 (B). C uses a French 6th to lead into I. The lack of a fifth in the final harmony is fairly common. Any of these methods avoids the kind of inconclusiveness that the bare Phrygian cadence has to modern ears.

The important to thing to watch, though, is what you write before you get to the final cadence. There is more to stabilising a mode than emphasising the "mi-fa" interval: dwelling on A will tend to wreck the sense of E as tonic. You can't avoid it entirely, but ensure that A sounds inconclusive - try to set A melody notes with D minor or F major. C tends to act as a melodic dominant in this mode as the fifth of B is diminished (B-F).

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Each mode has it's own unique harmony associated with it and Phrygian is no different. The most notable thing about Phrygian harmony is the II chord which in E Phrygian is F. It's really strong and it is very commonly borrowed and used as what is known as a Neapolitan chord. You would want your chord progression to utilize the II chord like a dominant since the root of the chord has a strong pull back to the tonic chord. You would not want to use v(V) in general for this function because like you've noticed it has a more minor like feel to it.

A very simple Phrygian sounding progression I use all the time is i - II - III - II which in E Phrygian would be Em - F - G - F. Along the same lines, but slightly different you could utilize an altered version of the Phrygian mode (Phrygian Dominant) to get a slightly different I - II - III - II in E Phrygian Dominant would be E - F - G - F and could even be E7 - FM7 - G7 - FM7 if you wanted it to be.

That's just one common example that really defines the Phygian mode there are a ton of others. You really just have to keep in mind what defines the mode and utilize it to your advantage when creating a progression.

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  • Pelog on Western instruments, @mey?
    – user16935
    Feb 4, 2015 at 23:08
  • @Patrx2 Kind of. ☺ as far as i know, it consists of notes from the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 7th degree of the major scale, so the only minor chord that can be built from this scale is "iii". In retrospect i think this might be another reason why pelog goes well with phrygian. as an aside, i also love to compose in a minor pentatonic scale.
    – mey
    Feb 4, 2015 at 23:23
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    Ah. Ironically, the topic of Colin McPhee came up in my circles a couple of days ago. He was a composer of my grandfather's generation from my old hometown (Montreal) who was thoroughly taken with Bali and Balinese gamelan. You might find his adaptations to Western instruments of some interest. youtube.com/watch?v=J3PacNDMneE
    – user16935
    Feb 4, 2015 at 23:55
  • That was really creative. i think such combinations between East and West will enrich world music... and so will the use of various modes.
    – mey
    Feb 7, 2015 at 17:17
  • @Patrx2 i have just listened to that beautiful " Balinese piano" play again- seems that it ended at major tonic ie. Some sort of picardy third? Do you think so?
    – mey
    Feb 10, 2015 at 14:24
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For what it's worth; I've found this mode to work best in lead lines.. not necessarily in composing harmony around an actual "key" based off it.

It has some odd chords; the V chord is Diminished; so V-I sounds odd (Diminished doesn't want to "go" that way). It makes convincing music somewhat difficult.

But playing an E Phrygian scale over an E minor chord is a workable plan. Use the "F" as a passing tone :)

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This is probably why the Ionian and Aeolian modes have become the most oft used. Both will resolve more easily, using the same 7 notes available to each.the Ionian because the V gives a convincing resolution to I, the Aeolian because the V is not a bad resolution. This of course spawned the harmonic minor, with the raised 7th, which then gives a far more convincing resolution, V-I.

The other modes have a tendency to use the same harmonic structure, as in the same underlying chords, and somewhere along the line, the Ionian or Aeolian V-I occurs.This pushes the key more towards Ionian/Aeolian than Phrygian or the others, which don't have such strong resolutions.

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You say that you've emphasized E in your melody, which is important. Other answers have pointed you towards using VII or II (Dm or F) in place of a traditional dominant. One thing that hasn't been mentioned yet is something I call modal kryptonite.

In traditional major/minor modalities, the tritone (augmented 4th or diminished fifth) has the strongest pull towards the tonic. In C, for example, B and F will sound together in the V7 chord and pull you towards C and E. In the A minor, G# and D will often be used to pull you towards A and C. This pull is so strong and deeply rooted in our minds that if you use it even accidentally in another mode that is not major or minor, it will yank us back.

For example, if you are attempting to write in E phrygian and you happen to use a B and an F either in two consecutive chords, or within 3-4 notes of a melody you will shatter the illusion of your mode and your work will only sound finished it you cadence in C. That's why I call it modal kyrptonite ... One touch of it and all your superpowers are gone - you are no longer a modal composer, you are a major/minor composer.

So I'd suggest you look through your piece and circle all the B's and F's. Any time they appear together I would bet good money that you are losing your modal identity and tending towards the nearest major or minor modality.

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In classical music, the S–D–T essential harmonic turnaround in the Phrygian mode cadences often has the form II–vii–i. The vii subtonic chord is considered to be the most acceptable chord of the dominant group for cadences.

So in E Phrygian, you can try the Em–F–Dm–Em progression for the song/section ending

In popular music, the use of the Phrygian mode is often reduced to alternating Neapolitan and tonic chords as seen in David Bowie's Space Oddity. The II–vii–i turnaround can be found in the jazz composition Warm Canto. Harmonic analysis of both tracks is given here.

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