I got a phone call from my friend Benny the other night (Benny, who I make videos with on all things songwriting). He was very excited: “Kep! You have got to listen to the new Sam Smith song! It’s in…Phrygian!”
What the hell is Phrygian, and why is this so exciting?
Well, music nerds, Phrygian is a mode, which means it’s a scale that is not your average minor scale or major scale. This particular mode is a minor scale, yes, but it has a crucial note that gives it its own special dark sauce: it has a b2.
For a more in-depth look at Phrygian (and also the wild extra note that makes the Chorus pop), check out this video on the channel:
The b2 note in the scale makes it very dark, and also totally unique among the songs on the charts right now.
In fact, it makes it unique amongst almost all Top 100 songs from the past decade or more.
But why should we care what’s on the charts? Well, I have it on very good advice (John Mayer told me this himself…) that a very good practice as a songwriter is to listen to the Top 10 on any day, without judgments of good and bad, but instead with this question in mind:
Why do millions of people love this?
And secondly: Can I use that thing in my own way (regardless of whether I happen to ‘like’ this particular song? Which, incidentally in this case, I very much do).
The video above gives some tips in the second half about ways you can take the musical concepts that make this song a standout, and apply them to your own song, without ripping it off.
For another example of how to take a cool musical idea you hear in a song, and apply it to your own songwriting, you can check out this video from the archive, on adapting this beautiful neo-soul progression.
And for a more structured and in-depth guide to taking a music idea, and turning into a full song, with step by step tools, techniques, and strategies, check out our brand spanking new Online Mini Course: The Songwriting Process Start to Finish!