As I briefly mentioned in yesterday’s article, I am going to be talking about the tonality of the Agrabah music today! This one is bit music theory-intensive, but please bear with me! For those of you who have read my article about the Fire Emblem Fates theme song, or have studied it in school or wherever, the phrase Phrygian Mode/Scale may be familiar. The Phrygian Dominant Scale is extremely similar—the only difference is one note. But before we get into that…
Let’s listen to “Arabian Dream”, originally in Kingdom Hearts I, and now as the battle music for all Agrabah quests in Kingdom Hearts Union Cross:
What a great track. Like its corresponding field theme, “Arabian Dream” is filled with such captivating instrumentation and rhythms that I could listen to this whole 30-minute loop and not get tired of it (that probably goes for all of the Kingdom Hearts music, but… that’s beside the point!).
Here is the very first part of the piece:
Notice that although the key signature suggests Ab major—or F minor—there is also an E♮, and the excerpt begins and ends on C. Hmm…!
Before we talk about the Phrygian Dominant Scale, let’s talk first about Phrygian Mode/Scale.
Phrygian Mode/Scale is one of eight Gregorian scales, which can most simply be defined as playing the notes of a major scale but starting on different scale degrees. Now even though these modes are technically using the notes of a major scale, half of them actually have a minor tonality, one of them being Phrygian mode.
Phrygian Mode/Scale occurs when you play any major scale in Western music, starting on scale degree three. That is, if you play a C major scale but start and end on E, that is called E Phrygian. If you play a D major scale but start and end on F#, that is called F# Phrygian. If you play an Eb major scale but start and end on G, that is called G Phrygian. Here is an example of a C major scale, and E Phrygian (they both use the same set of notes).
There are a few other ways of thinking about Phrygian Mode. Note: They all sound exactly the same—the only difference is in the scale we changed to make them sound like Phrygian.
- As we just went over, you can think of Phrygian Mode as playing a major scale but starting on scale degree three.
- You can think of it as a transformation of a major scale, where scale degrees 2, 3, 6, and 7 are lowered. E major usually has F#, C#, G#, and D#, but E Phrygian has F♮, C♮, G♮, and D♮.
- I believe the easiest way to think about Phrygian Mode is to think of a natural minor scale, and lower scale degree 2. This way has the least number of transformations, and sounds very similar.
So Phrygian Mode is pretty cool, huh? Now let’s talk about the Phrygian Dominant Scale. The Phrygian Dominant Scale is almost identical to the usually Phrygian Mode/Scale, except it has a raised, or major third. Let’s see and hear what it sounds like, compared again next to regular Phrygian Mode/Scale.
This time we’re going to look at the C Phrygian Mode and C Phrygian Dominant Scale, because that’s the key that “Arabian Dream” is in.
The only difference between regular Phrygian Mode and Phrygian Dominant Scale is that third note.
Why is it called Phrygian Dominant Scale? Well the term “dominant” refers to scale degree five, or the fifth note of a scale. If we look closely at the notes in the C Phrygian Dominant Scale, they are the same as F Harmonic Minor. And since C is the dominant, or fifth note in the scale of F, and the pattern of notes is closest to Phrygian, it is called Phrygian Dominant.
Now what is the point of all of this!? Who cares about all of these crazy modes and scales? Well, when we listen to “Arabian Dream”, it undoubtedly reminds us of Middle Eastern music. Even people who know nothing about music theory would hear this piece and think of a sweltering desert and sand dunes. The type of music—more specifically, the sets of pitches and scales—that Middle Eastern cultures typically use include notes that simply do not exist in Western music.
Phrygian mode (and all of its varieties) achieves the closest-sounding scale, using Western pitches. Note: Arguably, Middle Eastern music these days do use Western tonal systems, but that was not always the case.
Extra Note: Other parts of the melody in “Arabian Dream” suggest even more Phrygian varieties, but for my own sanity I chose to focus only on two of them in this article 😉
What other songs or pieces in Western music can you think of that imitates Middle Eastern music, using a variety of the Phrygian scale? Let me know in the comments! ♪
Stay tuned for more Single-Track Analysis Articles of tracks from Kingdom Hearts Unchained X / Kingdom Hearts Union Cross! One article every day in the month of April 2017!