An Essential Thread in the Fabric of Music


My lovely cohort, Jim Kellough, sent me a link to a very intriguing radio show from WNYC on the pervasive presence of the Phrygian Diatonic Tetrachord in all manner and forms of music. David Garland, the host of Spinning on Air, makes quite a case for this group of four notes as an artifact of the collective unconscious, a sonic version of Platonic forms, a kind of musical DNA. Spinning on Air is an engaging hour full of snippets of songs that use this tetrachord as their centerpiece. I encourage you to listen – here is the link.

Lets break down Phrygian Diatonic Tetrachord into its component parts to get a better understanding of what Mr. Garland and friends have identified. A tetrachord is a four note sequence with interval relationships that generally fall a half or whole step from one note to the next. On a piano this means the notes are side-by-side (half step) or have one note between them (whole step). Diatonic refers to a scale type from which tetrachords are built.  Diatonic is from the Latin “dia” meaning “through” and “tonic” referring to the tonal center to which the remaining notes refer. The most familiar diatonic scale is the solfege do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do. This scale, made so familiar by the song “Doe a deer” from The Sound of Music, contains two tetrachords: do-re-mi-fa with intervals whole-whole-half and so-la-ti-do also whole-whole-half with a whole step between the two tetrachords.

So far we have a basic template – four notes that are in some step interval relationship. Phrygian is where things get spicy and specific! Phrygian is one of seven diatonic modes. Michael Hewitt in his book Musical Scales of the World makes a distinction between scales and modes: scales are the pattern of scale steps, while modes emphasize the tonal relationship of the notes to a central tone usually referred to as the tonic. The Phrygian mode consists of two tetrachords with intervals half-whole-whole separated by a whole step. The Phrygian tetrachord is the mirror image of the tetrachord that makes up the familiar solfege scale.

Perhaps that is part of the reason this four note phrase has been so popular with songwrIters. It takes the common major scale tetrachord we are all so familiar with and stands it on its head. Another possible reason is its versatility. The phrase can sound dark and mournful or sassy and sexy depending on the overall context of the song. Whatever the reason, the Phrygian Diatonic Tetrachord has been the centerpiece for a wide variety of wonderful music for over 500 years (if not longer).

And I am not immune to its charms. I realized that this was the centerpiece for my most recent soundscape composition for December’s Prompt at The Carrack. Listen and enjoy:

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