Western music (to me at least) is best captured in the major scale. And Phrygian, which is the 3rd mode of the major scale can be used to get a more Eastern sound (for example Jefferson Airplane/White Rabbit). Phrygian dominant (where phrygian's 3rd note is raised, also formed by taking the fifth mode of harmonic minor) is esp important as it is exactly Maqam Hijaz, the main maqam (scale) in arabic music, used in songs like Miserlou. Phrygian Dominant is also called the Freygish scale aka Ahava Rabbah, used in Hava Nagila.

So I was wondering why is Eastern music a mode of Western music. How did this happen? Is it a coincidence? It seems too perfect to be a coincidence.

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    You could just as easily ask why is western music a mode of eastern music.
    – PiedPiper
    Nov 2, 2019 at 21:25
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    This is such a good question, why the no comment downvotes? The voting habits of this SE make no sense. Nov 3, 2019 at 4:48
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    It is rather Eurocentric to ask why Eastern music is a mode of Western music. Which Eastern music? Thinking you can use the Phrygian mode and 'get a more Eastern sound' is a little disrespectful to cultures whose tunings are more sophisticated than the 12ET (twelve notes; equal temperament) system we use. The subject of tunings is an enormous one, and it's sad that the loss of regional tunings may have been hastened by our fad for 'World Music'. Nov 3, 2019 at 11:30
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    @Lyd they downvoted bc they felt my question was disrespectful, see the first comment. but I never meant it in a bad way, I play both an oud and guitar. people just see things in different perspectives so can't satisfy everyone. but as Aristotle says "there is only one way to avoid criticism: do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing".
    – user34288
    Nov 3, 2019 at 17:57
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    @user1079425 This is a thoroughly misguided question but the answers are interesting. I've undone one downvote. Jul 14, 2022 at 13:29

5 Answers 5


It's a statistical coincidence. In cultures with twelve or fewer pitches per octave, there are only so many modes or maqamat or scales or ragas or pitch class sets or whatever.

In this case, the maqamat and the European medieval modes are both old enough, and roughly contemporaneous (7th or 8th century), to make it historically dubious that an instance of one was derived from an instance of the other.


If your knowledge of music east of western Europe is limited to Hijaz, then yes, you can shoehorn that into some western mode. However, there are plenty of middle eastern scales that contain half flats and half sharps. There is no way to capture that in the western system.

And then far eastern cultures with pentatonic systems that are micro-tonally off from any tempered or pure scale would also like a word with you.

EDIT I just saw your remark that you play Oud. Then certainly your index finger must immediately go to the E-half-flat (D string) in every other scale you play? There is nothing western about that.

  • What do you mean by western system? I have seen swedish songs transcribed with half sharps. It used an asterisk with explanation below. Perhaps it could have used the symbol for half sharp if it was written today.
    – Emil
    Jul 15, 2022 at 19:38

Some Eastern scales (by no means all of them - you can paint a horse to look like a cow, but not to look like a pigeon) can be approximated by scales formed from the 12 notes in an octave of Western music.

The resemblance is about as accurate as Peter Sellers' "Goodness Gracious Me" is an accurate depiction of a high-class Indian doctor. You can tell what it's trying to be...


Unlike Western music, Turkish maqam and Indian classical music do not use polyphonic structures. In fact, the Eastern piece of music uses the sole melodic line that develops at a certain scale and is accompanied only rhythmically. There are more than 70 scales giving different moods. In this regard, it is incorrect to use the Western term "mode" for Eastern music, since "mode" can only be based on seven diatonic scales and implies a chord accompaniment for the melody or a polyphonic interweaving of several melodic lines. Of course, the Eastern musical traditions also involve these seven diatonic scales including the Phrygian scale.

Note that the harmonic structure of Jefferson Airplane's White Rabbit does not contain Phrygian chord progressions. Moreover, the chord chains used here cannot be interpreted in any diatonic mode at all. You can find really Phrygian harmonic progressions in Pink Floyd's Cymbaline, Atom Heart Mother Suite, and Hey You as follows from this harmonic analysis.

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    Good point about polyphony! But strictly speaking, Western "modes" (Phrygian, etc.) don't imply a chord accompaniment because they're a few centuries older than chords. Jul 14, 2022 at 15:26
  • precisely, the Phrygian and other scales were known much earlier than polyphony. these terms have drifted along with the development of musical theory which is now full of dualisms. it concerns the understanding of the term "mode". on the one hand, it is a harmonic system of chords based on a diatonic scale. on the other hand, non-Western musical systems can also be called "mode". Jul 14, 2022 at 19:06

The early music of the Christian church has been strongly influenced by the modes of the Greek but also by the Byzantinian, mozzarabic and oriental music. The 2 modes: Ionian and Aeolian (major and minor scale) have been developed from those modes.

The aeolian mode had to be adapted to what we call harmonic and melodic minor. Why these 2 modes are the leading modes in western music? It could have been as well the dorian, mixolydian and phrygian, and then the others (ionian and aelian) would be the ones you’ll had to wonder.