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How to happy dance... with music theory

On last week's podcast episode, Rabbi Emily mentioned a musical concept I wasn't familiar with. Had you ever heard of the freygish scale before?

I hadn't! Dust off your music theory and let's talk scales!





A quick review of Western scales


As many of you know already, a scale is a sequence of notes ordered by pitch, which eventually repeats (at the octave in Western music). Scales serve as the building blocks for melodies and harmonies in music. Most people are familiar with the major scale (think of the "Do-Re-Mi" song from "The Sound of Music"), which follows a specific pattern of whole and half steps: whole, whole, half, whole, whole, whole, half.


There are also 2 minor scales that are frequently used: natural, and harmonic. The natural minor scale has the following pattern of steps: whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole, whole. The harmonic minor scale raises the seventh note of the natural minor scale by a half step, creating a pattern of: whole, half, whole, whole, half, whole and a half, half.


Am I giving you traumatic flashbacks from music theory classes?? hang in there!


Understanding the Freygish scale


The Freygish scale is a seven-note scale that has a distinctive sound, often associated with Jewish, Middle Eastern, and Eastern European music. It is similar to the harmonic minor scale but with a twist.


Starting on the note C, the Freygish scale includes the following notes

C - D♭ - E - F - G - A♭ - B♭ - C


To break it down, the pattern of steps is: half, augmented second (which is a step and a half), half, whole, half, whole, whole. This augmented second interval between the second and third notes (D♭ to E in our example) is what gives the Freygish scale its distinctive sound.


The augmented second interval creates a sense of tension and resolution that is less common in Western music, making it instantly recognizable and evocative of certain cultural contexts. This scale is particularly prominent in klezmer music, which is a traditional Jewish musical genre that blends Eastern European folk music with other influences.


The scale's distinctive sound has been used in religious ceremonies, festive celebrations, and various forms of communal gatherings.


I love it when cultural flavor can be codified in music theory!


OK nerds, let's go


If you're knowledgeable about music theory, to the point where you actually memorized your modes (!!!), you may be noticing something familiar about this pattern.


The Freygish scale is also known as the Phrygian dominant scale because it is essentially the Phrygian mode with a raised third degree. To understand this, let's first review what the Phrygian mode is and then see how altering one note transforms it into the Phrygian dominant scale, also known as the Freygish scale (is your head spinning yet? No, because you're a NERD and I love you for it).


The Phrygian Mode


The Phrygian mode is one of the seven modes in Western music theory, derived from the diatonic scales. If we take the notes of a major scale and start on its third degree, we get the Phrygian mode. For example, if we start with the C major scale (C - D - E - F - G - A - B - C) and begin on E, we get the E Phrygian mode (E - F - G - A - B - C - D - E).


The Phrygian mode has the following pattern of steps:

  • Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole


The Phrygian Dominant Scale (Freygish Scale)


The Phrygian dominant scale is derived by raising the third degree of the Phrygian mode. If we take the E Phrygian mode and raise the third note (G) by a half step to G♯, we get the E Phrygian dominant scale:

E - F - G♯ - A - B - C - D - E


This alteration gives the Phrygian dominant scale its distinctive sound, characterized by the major third interval (E to G♯) rather than the minor third found in the Phrygian mode (E to G).


Comparing the Freygish Scale and the Phrygian Dominant Scale


When we consider the Freygish scale starting on C, it looks like this:

C - D♭ - E - F - G - A♭ - B♭ - C


Notice the similarity in the interval structure:

  • C to D♭ (half step)

  • D♭ to E (augmented second, which is a step and a half)

  • E to F (half step)

  • F to G (whole step)

  • G to A♭ (half step)

  • A♭ to B♭ (whole step)

  • B♭ to C (whole step)


This matches the interval pattern of the Phrygian dominant scale:

  • Root, minor second, major third, perfect fourth, perfect fifth, minor sixth, minor seventh, octave


Why the Names?


The name "Phrygian dominant" comes from the scale being a variation of the Phrygian mode but with a dominant (major) third. The term "Freygish" is derived from the Yiddish word "freylekh," meaning "happy" or "happy dance," reflecting the scale's frequent use in Jewish and klezmer celebration music.


Both names refer to the same scale, highlighting its use in different musical and cultural contexts.


But one of them is bogged down with Western theory, and the other is just HAPPY! I'm so in love.


Have you ever played in this mode? I'd love to hear!


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