Phrygian Dominant Scale: The Ultimate Guide
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If you’re a jazz lover, then you probably know what it’s like to be enchanted by a particular melodic or harmonic sound. It can happen at a live performance or while listening to a favorite recording. Either way, some harmonic sounds just have a way of lingering in your ears with their exquisite beauty. Such is the sound of the Phrygian Dominant Scale. In today’s Quick Tip, John Proulx unpacks this exotic and hauntingly beautiful improv scale. You’ll learn:
- What is the Phrygian Dominant Scale?
- Chord Symbols for the Phrygian Dominant Scale
- When to Use the Phrygian Dominant Scale
- 3 Jazz Improv Techniques with Phrygian Dominant Scale
In today’s lesson, you’ll learn exactly how and when to use the unmistakable Phrygian Dominant sound to improvise with a beautifully refined sound.
Intro to The Most Hauntingly Beautiful Scale
The Phrygian Dominant Scale is a 7-note scale used in jazz improvisation over dominant 7th chords when the resolution chord is minor. The scale formula, as compared to a major scale, is 1–♭2–3–4–5–♭6–♭7. The unique construction of the Phrygian Dominant Scale contains three ½ steps and an augmented 2nd interval (enharmonically equivalent to a minor 3rd) between the second and third scale degrees. The unique intervallic construction of H–m3–H–W–H–W–W gives the Phrygian Dominant scale an exotic sound. Other common names include Mixolydian ♭9♭13 and Harmonic Minor – 5th Mode.
C Phrygian Dominant Scale
The name “Phrygian Dominant” refers to the tonal characteristics of this scale. In fact, the only difference between the traditional Phrygian mode (1–♭2–♭3–4–5–♭6–♭7) and the Phrygian Dominant Scale is that the latter contains a major 3rd and therefore outlines a dominant 7th chord.
The Phrygian Dominant Scale is a dominant scale with two alterations—the ♭9 and the ♭13. The following example presents a side-by-side comparison between a traditional C Dominant Scale (aka Mixolydian mode) and C Phrygian Dominant. Notice that both scales produce a C7 chord (C–E–G–B♭) using scale tones 1–3–5–7. It is also significant to observe that C Mixolydian is the 5th mode of F major, whereas C Phrygian Dominant is the 5th mode of F Harmonic Minor. Therefore, just as the C Dominant Scale naturally resolves to an F major chord, the C Phrygian Dominant naturally resolves to an F minor chord.
If you have been studying jazz for a little while, then you already know that many jazz scales have more than one name. However, the Phrygian Dominant Scale could possibly be the jazz scale with the most alternative names on record. This section covers some of the most common names you may encounter.
#1: Mixolydian ♭9 ♭13
Jazz musicians frequently use the name Mixolydian ♭9♭13 as another way to describe the Phrygian Dominant Scale. In fact, you may even hear the nickname “Mixo♭9♭13.” Either way, this name is straightforward and simple, describing exactly how to construct the scale. For example, first start with a Mixolydian scale. Then, lower the 9th and 13th by a ½ step each. Keep in mind that the ♭9 and ♭13 are upper extensions and represent intervals larger than one octave. In simple form, the ♭9 and ♭13 are equivalent to the ♭2 and ♭6.
#2: Harmonic Minor – 5th Mode
Another name you may hear for the Phrygian Dominant scale is Harmonic Minor Mode Five or Fifth Mode Harmonic Minor. Usage of this name is somewhat less widespread in jazz method books. However, this name is important because it identifies the source scale or parent scale for our featured scale. In other words, the unique intervallic pattern of this scale is not arbitrary—it is a mode. This means that if you take any harmonic minor scale and play it beginning on the 5th scale tone, the resulting scale is the Phrygian Dominant sound. The example below illustrates how C Phrygian Dominant (C–D♭–E–F–G–A♭–B♭) begins on the 5th tone of F Harmonic Minor (F–G–A♭–B♭–C–D♭–E).
#3: Names with Cultural References
The Phrygian Dominant Scale is part of the musical heritage of several other cultures around the world. Since these cultures pre-date the birth of American jazz music, some jazz texts to refer to the scale with reference to a particular cultural origin. For example, Spanish flamenco music, which originated in the Andalusian region of southern Spain, is based on this sound. Therefore, some texts refer to the scale as The Spanish Scale or The Andalusian Scale. Likewise, Jewish folk music uses this scale, such as the popular folk tune “Hava Nagila.” In Hebrew, this musical mode is referred to as Ahava Rabbah (translated “Abundant Love”). The term comes from a traditional prayer which is sung in this mode. Therefore, The Jewish Scale appears in some American jazz texts. Other Middle Eastern cultures also use the Phrygian Dominant Scale, referring to it as Maqam Hijaz in Arabic.
Now that we’ve covered the construction of Phrygian Dominant Scale and its many alternative names, the most obvious question is, “When do we use it?” Ironically, this beautiful scale does not have its own exclusive chord symbol. Instead, some interpretation is necessary to know when to use it. In this section, we’ll cover all the chord symbols that suggest this sound. Then, in the following section, we examine chord progressions in which Phrygian Dominant is the “go to” scale.
We mentioned earlier that a common alternative name is the Mixolydian ♭9♭13 scale. Therefore, the most specific chord symbol for this scale is C7(♭9♭13). However, there are two issues with this chord symbol. Firstly, this chord symbol doesn’t always mean the Phrygian Dominant scale. For example, the C Altered Scale (C–D♭–E♭–E♮–G♭–A♭–B♭) also contains a ♭9 and ♭13. Secondly, this chord symbol is not commonly found in fake books. Therefore, if you’re waiting to see C7(♭9♭13) on a lead sheet before improvising with the Phrygian Dominant Scale, you had better not hold your breath! The main reason for this is that jazz musicians prefer “shorthand” chord symbols that are concise and easy to read.
Typical Phrygian Dominant Chord Symbol
So, what chord symbol will tell you when to use the C Phrygian Dominant Scale? Well, when jazz musicians see the chord symbol C7(♭9) resolving to an F minor chord, they often play the Phrygian Dominant Scale.
The same is true for a basic C7 to Fm. Other less common chords symbols that may suggest the Phrygian Dominant Scale are C7(♭9♯5) and C+7.
All Phrygian Dominant Chord Symbols
Each of the following examples represent ways in which the Phrygian Dominant sound can be expressed harmonically. Examples 1 and 2 present the same dominant chord voicing with two different enharmonic spellings. Notice that this voicing uses the ♭II minor triad as an upper structure. This means that the right hand is playing D♭m or C♯m over a C7 chord shell. In Example 1, the dominant chord resolves to an F minor sound, whereas Example 2 resolves to an F major sound. That’s because sometimes the Phrygian Dominant sound is used to resolve to major, particularly when a minor resolution is anticipated. Examples 3 through 5 represent other situations in which the Phrygian Dominant scale would be an appropriate scale choice for improv.
This section covers the four primary situations in which you will use the Phrygian Dominant Scale for jazz improv. They are:
- Dominant 5-Chord to Minor 1-Chord
- Minor 2-5-1 Progression
- Secondary Dominant Resolving to Minor Chord
- Dominant 7th as Tonic Chord
Let’s examine each situation.
The most immediate application for the Phrygian Dominant Scale is over the V7 chord in a minor key. Often times, jazz musicians play the scale in 8th notes descending from the ♭9 to align chord tones on the beats.
When you have a minor 2-5-1, you can play the Phrygian Dominant Scale for the 5-chord over the 2-chord also. For instance, a minor 2-5-1 in F minor contains the chords Gø7→C7→Fm. You can use C Phrygian Dominant over both Gø7 and C7, as in the following examples. However, notice that we generally avoid the leading tone (E♮) over the IIø7 chord.
Another application where the Phrygian Dominant Scale sounds great is when you have a secondary dominant chord that resolves to a minor chord. In other words, in a major key, we can use our focal scale to improvise over V7 of ii, V7 of iii and V7 of vi. The following excerpt shows an improvised solo over the first few bars of the jazz standard “When I Fall In Love” in E♭ major. Notice that we have chord movement from C7(♭9) to Fm7, where Fm7 is the 2-chord and C7(♭9) is the “V7 of ii.” In this case, we use the C Phrygian Dominant Scale to improvise.
A final instance in which you may use the Phrygian Dominant Scale is when you have a dominant 7th chord that is functioning as a 1-chord. For example, some Jewish folk music features a dominant 7th chord as the tonic, as in the tune “Hava Nagila.” The following original melody by John Proulx demonstrates this harmonic context.
Even though the Phrygian Dominant Scale has a sophisticated sound, piano students of all levels can enjoy improvising with its intriguing beauty. In this section, we cover John Proulx’s improv tips for beginner, intermediate and advanced students from today’s lesson sheet. In fact, you can download the complete lesson sheet PDF and backing tracks from the bottom of this page after logging in with your membership. Each example is presented in the key of F minor. However, PWJ members can transpose these examples to any key using our Smart Sheet Music.
The first step to begin improvising with this beautiful scale is to break the scale down into two 3-note groups, each of which contain defining characteristics of the Phrygian Dominant sound. We call these groups scale clusters or grips. This technique allows beginner students to explore and create with this sound in a way that’s manageable. The scale clusters we’ll use are C–D♭–E♮ and G–A♭–B♭. Each clusters contains a primary chord tone (root or 5th), a guide tone (3rd or 7th) and an altered dominant tone (♭9 or ♭13). This way, no matter which cluster you use, you capture the essence of the Phrygian Dominant sound. In fact, this improv approach is good practice for players of any level.
Now let’s plays two examples from today’s lesson sheet that use these scale clusters. The first example uses the C cluster in the register that is one octave above middle C. The left hand is playing concise 2-note voicings using guide tones only.
Beginner Improv Example 1
That sound’s great! Next, we’ll play the exact same phrase using the G cluster.
Beginner Improv Example 2
Well done! As you get comfortable improvising with each cluster, you can also gradually begin to create phrases that combine both clusters.
If you are a more experienced student, then you’ll likely want to play longer improv lines. Jazz musicians frequently use melodic ornaments called turns as a means of decorating what would otherwise be simple 8th-note musical phrases. This technique is perfect for intermediate level students.
Turns decorate a target note by means of a quick, melodic flourish involving the upper and lower neighbors of the target note. Turns are most commonly interjected as part of a descending melodic line. For example, if the target note is C, then you would play the C first. Next, turn off this note by going to the upper neighbor with your adjacent finger (D♭). Then, return to the target note (C) and follow it with the lower neighbor note (B♭). Afterward, continue your descending line. Example 1 below contains three turns. The left hand now features 4-note rootless voicings.
Intermediate Improv Example 1
Great job! Notice that in Example 1, when the target note of the turn was first introduced, it received a slightly long duration. Another turn technique is to play all the notes of the turn with equal rhythmic values, as in Example 2 below.
Intermediate Improv Example 2
Nice work! Now you’re ready for our final improv technique.
Another improv approach that professional jazz pianists use is a technique called triad pairs. You’ll find this technique especially inspiring if you often feel stuck playing lines that are basically just ascending or descending stepwise scale motion. Triad pairs allow you to easily add skips and leaps in your lines in a syntactical way. In other words, the leaps are not arbitrary or random. Rather, they melodically outline chord shapes drawn from the scale.
The following example uses two successive triad pairs that come from the Phrygian Dominant Scale. In the first measure, John pairs F minor and E diminished triads, playing them in a descending sequence. In the following measure, John extends this idea with another triad pair—D♭ major and C major. The left hand now features a syncopated bass line for a solo jazz piano texture.
Advanced Improv Example 1
As you can see, triad pairs are both simple and effective. Next, try playing Example 2 in which the order of the triads is reversed.
Advanced Improv Example 2
Congratulations, you have completed this lesson on The Phrygian Dominant Scale—The Complete Guide. The next time someone refers to this scale, no matter what they call it, you’ll know exactly what it is and how to use it!
If you enjoyed this lesson, be sure to check out the following PWJ resources:
- Jazz Piano Improv with the Melodic Minor Scale (Int/Adv)
- Learn 3 Exercises to Improvise Minor Jazz Piano (Int/Adv)
- 5 Jazz Scales for Dominant 7th Chord Improv (Int/Adv)
- Upper Structure Triads–The Ultimate Chord Hack (Int)
- Improvise Jazz Piano with Upper Structure Triads (Int/Adv)
- Piano Musical Modes–The Complete Guide (Int)
Thanks for learning with us today! We’ll see you next time.
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Michael LaDisa graduated from the University of North Texas with a major in Music Theory & Composition. He lives in Chicago where he operates a private teaching studio and performs regularly as a solo pianist. His educational work with students has been featured on WGN-TV Evening News, Fox 32 Good Day,...
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