Songs In Phrygian Mode: Secrets From 2 Classic Tunes

Would you like to discover two classic jazz songs in Phrygian Mode? You’re in the right place.

When you use the Phrygian mode in writing and performing jazz, you give your music a “Mediterranean” flavor.

Start learning by discovering how masters used the Phrygian mode in their songs.

The best way you can start is by listening and studying these two tunes in Phrygian. Let’s get started.

We Analyzed “Bemsha Swing” (And This Is What We Learned)

Want to make swing sound a bit more exotic without resorting to Latin rhythms?

Get some inspiration from Thelonious Monk.

Take a few minutes to listen to “Bemsha Swing”.


We’ll break it down after:

Now that you’ve had a moment to listen to “Bemsha Swing” let’s dig a little deeper.

The tune is 16 bars and has a rather simple core that looks like this:

For someone like Thelonious Monk, this looks too simple. So, he went on to reharmonize it.

The first thing he did was that every 2 bars should be a I – vi – ii – V. So, he most likely thought that the tune can be like this:

But, being the Thelonious Monk we know, he would not be content with something so obvious.

So, he reharmonized it again using Phrygian harmony.

The fastest way he could do that was through the use of tritone chord substitution:

The bII chords that resolve to the I chord are a big giveaway for what sounds like the Phrygian mode.

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Even with all that jazz, Mr. Monk still goes further than that.

How To Get A More Phrygian Feel In Tunes

To get an even better picture how songs in Phrygian mode work, we can look at the Bemsha Swing lead sheet.

(Download “Bemsha Swing” Lead Sheet Here)

As you can see on the lead sheet, the melody notes are based mostly on the Phrygian Dominant scale.

Phrygian Dominant (in C) looks like this:

songs in phrygian mode

C – Db – E – F – G – Ab – Bb

The Phrygian Dominant scale is closely associated with Flamenco music from Spain.

This is why Bemsha Swing has that Spanish flavor mixed in an otherwise New Orleans sounding tune.

Other than Thelonious Monk, we can learn how to sound exotic through two other legends: Miles Davis and Bill Evans.

Can You Hear That Flamenco Tinge In This Cool Jazz Recording?

Miles Davis is known for blending accessibility and novelty really well.

This is especially evident in the album “Kind Of Blue”.

“Kind Of Blue” features experimental approaches to writing. One result of that is the tune “Flamenco Sketches”.

Before we continue, take a listen to “Flamenco Sketches” here:

After listening to that recording, it’s time to learn how to sound like Miles and Bill. Read on.

How To Sound Exotic Like Miles Davis And Bill Evans

The tune starts off with something you would expect from a Bill Evans tune.

The first 16 bars sound very much like a typical modal jazz ballad, filled with lush sounding Bill Evans jazz chords.

Its core has few chords that you can elaborate upon and explore in the same manner that Bill Evans did.

The first 16 bars of the tune has this harmonic foundation:

songs in phrygian mode

The next few bars  is where we see a simpler chord progression based on D Phrygian:

songs in phrygian mode

More than that, the melody of the last 2 bars is based on a pure Phrygian scale:

D – Eb – F – G – A – Bb – C

This is in contrast to some examples where Phrygian Dominant is used.

How To Hybridize The Phrygian Scale

When you think about the simple chord progression that goes from D to Eb, you get a lot of possibilities.

Because of that shift from D to Eb, it can easily imply the Phrygian mode.

However, because the D major triad has D, F#, and A, we may think that the scale used is Phrygian Dominant in Flamenco Sketches.

Now, take note that Phrygian Dominant has a major 3rd (D to F#).

songs in phrygian mode

D – Eb – F# – G – A – Bb – C

But then again, the melody being played is in Phrygian, which has a minor 3rd (D to F).

songs in phrygian mode

D – Eb – F – G – A – Bb – C

So, how do we reconcile that?

It’s simple. We can actually have both your major and minor 3rd in play from a Phrygian melody and improv standpoint.

In Flamenco Sketches, we can get this hybrid scale based on Phrygian:

songs in phrygian mode

D – Eb – E – F – F# – G – A – Bb – C

It’s even possible to go further than that by incorporating a major 7th for our hybrid Phrygian scale:

songs in phrygian mode

D – Eb – E – F – F# – G – A – Bb – C – C#

If you want to learn more about using exotic and hybrid scales in your own tunes and improv, check out the Jazz Improvisation Super System.

Inside the Jazz Improvisation Super System, you’ll learn David Garfield’s way of grabbing strange and bizarre musical patterns to grab the audience’s attention.

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Now that we’ve talked about two great examples of songs in Phrygian Mode, lets talk about how to make much more exciting music using jazz modes and drastically improve your playing overall.

Why Jazz Piano Mastery Remains Elusive (And What To Do About It)

Are you frustrated that all that studying in the practice room only amounts to a mediocre performance?

If you’re anything like me, I have had that same frustration too.

You may have spent countless hours analyzing tunes and honing your chops, only to find yourself falling back to a bland, uninspiring performance.

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Enjoy learning all about these two songs in Phrygian mode. If you have something to contribute to the discussion, feel free to leave a comment below.

Thank you for spending time going through this tutorial. Keep on making music.

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Mark A. Galang, OTRP, MAM-MT(c)

Mark Galang is one of our contributors at He loves teaching all styles of music especially jazz, blues, rock, classical, and Christian music. Mark is also a licensed occupational therapist in the Philippines that combines music therapy intervention with occupational therapy.