Monday, June 9, 2014

Exploring the Phrygian Mode ...

(Pronounced ‘Frijian’, as in 'refridgerator'.)

Recently I contacted a remote mentor, Graham Pratt, seeking advice on a particular melody he used to accompany an ancient ballad, Patrick Spens.
Graham generously sent me some dots-and-lines.
He wrote, “It’s in the Phrygian Mode.”
“Ah … all makes sense now,” I replied.
I lied!

My ancient copy of The Oxford Companion to Music was undecipherable on the subject of modes.
Wikipedia was slightly more understandable regarding the Phrygian Mode ...

Try playing a scale, root E, on the piano on all the white notes:
E F G A B C D E ...

The intervals are: Semitone, Tone, Tone, Tone, Semitone, Tone, Tone.
It’s sort of E-minor-ish but, importantly, without any troublesome accidentals.
Got that?
(Why are sharps and flats called 'accidentals'?)

On Friday I sang Patrick Spens to the melody that Graham sent me.
(First time out is always a bit ris-key!)
As a competition I invited club participants to identify the composer of the original theme.
I must have got something right because Roger promptly exclaimed, “Tallis!” 
Roger won the Mars Bar.
“It sounds a bit like Monteverdi’s Vespa and Lambretta,” said Ken.
Ken won second prize for humour.

Tony sensitively and correctly observed that I was straining a little in the higher notes.
"Yes, but that's the friggin' mode!" I defensively responded.

Later I tried, (in the privacy of my bathroom,) transposing things down two tones. 
Now the scale looks thus:
C Db Eb F G Ab Bb C ...

Ouch ... don’t you just hate those black notes?!
(No, I did not play the concertina in the shower.)

For a truly astounding rendition of Patrick Spens in four-part harmony you must purchase Graham and Eileen Pratt's CD, The Greek King's Daughter, available at £11.99 by clicking here.

With my personal thanks to Graham Pratt who has been so very generous in sharing and explaining his and Eileen's material.


Parkingspaceman said...

I stand to be corrected. I'm no expert, but sharps-and-flats are not called 'accidentals'. An 'accidental' is where the note would be sharp/flat (because of the key), but is played, in that particular instance, as a natural. I vaguely recall hearing that if a note is natural, i.e an accidental, then subsequent notes in that bar are also played natural (the next bar reverts to normal usage i.e sharp/flat as in the key signature).

Colin said...

I have to congratulate PSM for this demonstration of supreme intelligence.
I am sure Ken is absolutely correct.
In summary: an ‘accidental’ is a sharpened or flattened note that is not indicated by the overall key signature. It exists only for the duration of the bar in which it occurs.
All is now clear!
(… but I still call them ‘rogues’.)