When Was the Phrygian Scale First Used for Metal Music?

by Patria

The Phrygian scale, characterized by its exotic and dark sound, has been a significant element in the world of metal music. Originating from ancient Greek music theory, the Phrygian mode has found its way into various genres over the centuries. In metal music, it adds a unique and powerful atmosphere, making it a favorite among many metal musicians. This article explores the history and application of the Phrygian scale in metal music, tracing its first uses and understanding its impact on the genre.

Understanding the Phrygian Scale

1. The Structure of the Phrygian Scale

The Phrygian scale is the third mode of the major scale. It can be thought of as starting on the third degree of a major scale and proceeding with the same sequence of whole and half steps. Its structure is:


Minor second (half step)

Minor third (whole step)

Perfect fourth (whole step)

Perfect fifth (whole step)

Minor sixth (whole step)

Minor seventh (whole step)

In the key of E, the Phrygian scale would be E, F, G, A, B, C, D. The minor second interval (half step) between the root and the second degree is particularly distinctive and contributes to the scale’s dark and tense sound.

2. The Phrygian Dominant Scale

Another variation often used in metal is the Phrygian dominant scale, also known as the fifth mode of the harmonic minor scale. This scale modifies the Phrygian scale by raising the third degree, creating a major third interval instead of a minor third. The structure of the Phrygian dominant scale is:


Minor second (half step)

Major third (whole step)

Perfect fourth (whole step)

Perfect fifth (whole step)

Minor sixth (whole step)

Minor seventh (whole step)

In the key of E, the Phrygian dominant scale would be E, F, G#, A, B, C, D. This scale retains the exotic feel of the Phrygian mode but with an added element of brightness due to the major third.

Historical Background of the Phrygian Scale

1. Ancient and Medieval Origins

The Phrygian mode has its roots in ancient Greek music theory, where it was one of the seven original modes. The Greeks associated different modes with various emotions and states of mind, and the Phrygian mode was considered passionate and intense. This association with intensity has carried through the centuries.

In the Medieval period, the Phrygian mode was part of the Gregorian chant tradition. However, its usage was limited compared to other modes due to its distinctive and less consonant sound. The mode’s popularity waned during the Renaissance and Baroque periods but saw a resurgence in the Romantic era, particularly in Spanish flamenco music, where it is known as the “Spanish gypsy scale.”

2. Introduction to Modern Western Music

The 20th century saw a renewed interest in modal scales, including the Phrygian mode, thanks to composers like Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartók, who explored non-traditional scales to evoke new sounds and emotions. This modal exploration influenced many genres, including jazz, rock, and eventually, metal.

The Emergence of the Phrygian Scale in Metal Music

1. Early Uses in Hard Rock and Heavy Metal

The 1970s marked the genesis of metal music, with bands like Black Sabbath pioneering the genre. While Black Sabbath primarily used the blues scale and pentatonic scales, they also experimented with other modes, including the Phrygian scale, to create a darker, more menacing sound. The song “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” (1973) by Black Sabbath features riffs that hint at the Phrygian mode, showcasing the scale’s potential for creating a sinister atmosphere.

2. The 1980s and Thrash Metal

The 1980s brought about the rise of thrash metal, a genre characterized by its aggressive and fast-paced sound. Bands like Metallica, Slayer, and Megadeth often employed the Phrygian scale in their music. Metallica’s “Fight Fire with Fire” (1984) from the album Ride the Lightning features riffs in the Phrygian mode, contributing to the song’s relentless intensity.

Slayer’s “Angel of Death” (1986) from the album Reign in Blood is another prime example of the Phrygian scale in thrash metal. The opening riff, played in the E Phrygian dominant scale, sets a dark and aggressive tone that defines the track. The use of the Phrygian scale in thrash metal helped solidify its association with the genre’s darker and more intense elements.

3. The 1990s and the Evolution of Metal Subgenres

The 1990s saw the diversification of metal into various subgenres, each experimenting with different scales and modes to create unique sounds. Death metal, black metal, and progressive metal were particularly notable for their use of the Phrygian scale.

a. Death Metal

Death metal bands like Death and Morbid Angel utilized the Phrygian scale to enhance the brutality and complexity of their music. The song “Pull the Plug” (1988) by Death features riffs in the Phrygian mode, adding to the song’s dark and eerie atmosphere.

b. Black Metal

In black metal, bands like Emperor and Mayhem used the Phrygian scale to evoke a sense of evil and foreboding. Emperor’s “I Am the Black Wizards” (1994) is a quintessential black metal track that employs the Phrygian scale, creating a haunting and malevolent soundscape.

c. Progressive Metal

Progressive metal bands such as Dream Theater and Symphony X also explored the Phrygian scale, integrating it into complex compositions. Dream Theater’s “The Dance of Eternity” (1999) from the album Metropolis Pt. 2: Scenes from a Memory showcases the Phrygian mode in its intricate and technical passages.

d. Nu-Metal and Alternative Metal

The late 1990s and early 2000s saw the rise of nu-metal and alternative metal, with bands like Korn, Slipknot, and System of a Down incorporating the Phrygian scale into their music. Korn’s “Blind” (1994) features a riff in the E Phrygian mode, contributing to the track’s heavy and dissonant sound.

The Phrygian Scale in Contemporary Metal

1. Modern Metal and Djent

In contemporary metal, the Phrygian scale continues to be a vital tool for creating intense and atmospheric music. The djent subgenre, characterized by its complex rhythms and polyrhythmic patterns, frequently utilizes the Phrygian scale. Bands like Periphery and Tesseract incorporate Phrygian riffs to add depth and aggression to their music.

2. Symphonic and Gothic Metal

Symphonic and gothic metal bands such as Nightwish and Within Temptation also employ the Phrygian scale to enhance the dramatic and operatic elements of their music. Nightwish’s “Ghost Love Score” (2004) features Phrygian melodies that contribute to the song’s epic and cinematic feel.

3. Technical and Progressive Death Metal

Technical and progressive death metal bands like Necrophagist and Obscura use the Phrygian scale to create intricate and virtuosic compositions. Necrophagist’s “Stabwound” (2004) showcases the technical proficiency and complexity that the Phrygian scale can bring to metal music.

Impact and Influence of the Phrygian Scale in Metal Music

1. Creating Atmosphere and Emotion

The Phrygian scale’s unique sound makes it an invaluable tool for metal musicians looking to create a specific atmosphere or emotion. Its dark and exotic quality can evoke a sense of foreboding, tension, and aggression, making it ideal for the themes often explored in metal music.

2. Versatility Across Subgenres

The Phrygian scale’s adaptability has allowed it to be used across a wide range of metal subgenres. Whether in the raw aggression of thrash metal, the eerie soundscapes of black metal, or the technical intricacies of progressive metal, the Phrygian scale has proven to be a versatile and enduring element.

3. Influence on Guitar Techniques and Riffs

The Phrygian scale has also influenced guitar techniques and riff construction in metal music. Guitarists often use techniques like palm muting, alternate picking, and tremolo picking to play Phrygian riffs, adding to the scale’s aggressive and percussive sound. The scale’s characteristic half-step intervals also lend themselves to creating dissonant and tension-filled riffs.

See Also: What Frequency is Metal Music? A Full Exploration


The Phrygian scale’s first uses in metal music can be traced back to the early days of heavy metal and hard rock in the 1970s, with bands like Black Sabbath experimenting with its dark and exotic sound. The scale gained prominence in the 1980s with the rise of thrash metal, and its influence continued to grow as metal diversified into various subgenres in the 1990s and beyond.

Today, the Phrygian scale remains a fundamental element in metal music, contributing to the genre’s ability to evoke intense emotions and create powerful atmospheres. Its versatility and distinctive sound have cemented its place in the metal musician’s toolkit, ensuring its continued use and evolution in the years to come.

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