The Phrygian dominant (Middle Eastern) scale I.



Introduction to the Phrygian dominant scale

Related sections


Introduction to the Phrygian dominant scale


As an introduction, here is a question emailed to me on the subject:


I have read that there is a so-called Phrygian dominant scale. Is that true? If so, what do I have to know about it?


What you have read is true; there is a scale called Phrygian dominant scale! Here's what the students usually ask and my explanations to that:


  • Question: What is the fundamental difference between the basic scales and the harmonic minor scale degrees?

  • Answer: (That is too much of a general question to answer...)

  • The teacher's explanation: "While each basic scale constitutes a basic tonality, where the relevant scale is the first degree and the next one is the second etc., only the first harmonic minor scale degree can function as a basic tonality."

Even though that's the panel explanation I usually give, it is not entirely true. I only give that kind of explanation to the complete beginners; they are normally uncomfortable enough with all the things they have to learn and keep up with, so why confuse them further...



They can actually understand that all the seven basic scales could work as basic tonalities, whereas only the minor degree of the harmonic minor scales degrees could be a basic tonality. That's just enough for them to know for the beginning. Only later on, when they have fully comprehended and practiced the scale degrees, can they learn that there is another harmonic scale degree that could be used as a basic tonality; this is the Phrygian dominant scale (the fifth harmonic minor scale degree). The Phrygian dominant scale is a variant to the normal Phrygian scale, and its position being the fifth degree from the minor scale degree makes it a dominant scale (according to the T-S-D-T or I-IV-V-I pattern). Obviously, this is where the name 'dominant' derives from. Yet, calling it simply the Phrygian dominant scale would not be a good choice, for one particular reason; it would still refer to the obvious relation to the harmonic minor. And we don't want that, since it is a completely different tonality. What should we call it then? My name suggestion is the Middle Eastern Phrygian scale, as it is extremely common in the Middle Eastern music.


To justify my name choice, let me bring this example for you: Here is my son, Nátán Pénzes...



Imagine a situation where even though he was an individual with his own name, he would still be called 'the son of László Pénzes', the name virtually referring to the parent. It would not make too much sense, would it? J


So I will just end up calling this scale the Middle Eastern scale, and teaching my kid how to play it when he gets there.


Consequently, the 'normal' Phrygian scale could as well be called Western Phrygian, as it occurs very commonly in the Western Music... J


The below chart indicates very well the close relationship between the two Phrygian scales:



The chart perfectly describes the relation between the Middle Eastern Phrygian scale and the harmonic minor.


The Middle Eastern Phrygian scale is used in the following genres:


  • Flamenco music

  • Arabic and Jewish folk music (Klezmer and Amakam, probably in a non-tempered tonal system)

  • Nu metal,

  • Neoclassical metal, typically alternating between this and the harmonic minor mode (typical of Yngwie Malmsteen)

The key characteristic of the basic tonality is that it is musically constructed by chords with notes typically of the first three degree. In the case of an E Middle Eastern Phrygian scale, these typical notes are:


E - F - G - F - E


Not coincidentally, this has an authentic Eastern sound; this basic tonality has not much to do with the T-S-D-T (or I-IV-V-I) pattern, which might be the reason why this tonality was never adopted in the classical music. I would say it is better off that way...


Let's watch the following video, where I attempt to improvise over a nu-metal backing track, using B Middle Eastern Phrygian scales.




Related sections

  1. Introduction (I.)

  2. MEP II.

  3. MEP IIIa.

  4. MEP IIIb. - For lefties

  5. MEP IIIc. - Static tab

  6. MEP IIId - Static tab for lefties

  7. MEP IVa.

  8. MEP IVb. - For lefties

  9. MEP IVc. - Static tab for lefties

  10. MEP IVd - Static tab for lefties

  11. MEP Va.

  12. MEP Vb. - For lefties

  13. MEP Vc. - Static tab

  14. MEP Vd - Static tab for lefties - Phrygian (Middle Eastern) dominant scale I. - Introduction