Music education always & always looking forward.

A Journey Through a Strange Modal Territory: Phrygian Mode in Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit"


God bless the 1960s.  And God bless all of the interest in classical music and theory that came with the psychedelic movement.  I'm serious!  This song is as good for any in bringing up the discussion of "what mode is this - really!?" for students.  Or among yourselves.  I would strongly argue for Phrygian, but. Either way.

Only Grace Slick really knows what mode the song is actually in, and considering that she wrote the song with a strong anti-authority bent, she probably wasn't consulting her music teacher on this one.  We'll actually come back to Grace Slick in two weeks as we're discussing the 1980s, so brace yourself for that one.

ADDITIONAL LINK: I have close to absolutely zero frame of reference in terms of EDM, but this particular article explains modes a little more clearly.  I understand the accompanying artwork a little less clearly.  Enjoy!











“White Rabbit” - Jefferson Airplane

Intro: Jefferson Airplane is a band inextricably linked with the 1960s. The group helped to define psychedelia as a musical style and formed the basis of the late 60s San Francisco sound. Forming in San Francisco in 1965, the group experienced a major boon when Grace Slick joined in 1966. Slick had already written "White Rabbit" and co-written the band's other Top Ten hit, "Somebody to Love" before joining the band and both became massive hits, appearing on Jefferson Airplane's 1967 album Surrealistic Pillow. "White Rabbit" reached #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and has been cited as a major influence on rock music, appearing on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's list of Top 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. The band was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1996 and awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016.

Analysis: Although publishing outlets claim this song is in F# minor, the strongest case is to argue that the song is in F# Phrygian mode. The first two chords heard in the song are F# and G, with the minor second creating the harmonic tension that the song is famous for. Phrygian mode starts on the third scale degree of a major diatonic scale -- in this case, F# is the third scale degree of D major. You could defend the Phrygian mode argument based on the final chord of the song, as it ends on an A major chord, reinforcing a key that is based on D major (as A is the V chord of D major). Additionally, every chord in the song is a major chord, thus the F# chord uses a C#, which would appear in F# Phrygian mode. The melody also supports an analysis of the song in Phrygian mode.

One could argue for Locrian mode, based on G major, but the F# major chord includes a C#, not found in the G major scale. 

Considerations for Teaching: While the song makes no overt reference to illegal drugs, but rather direct reference to Lewis Carroll's children's books about young Alice, Grace Slick wrote it with reference to drug culture in mind. The psychedelic musical movement was almost entirely populated by musicians who were also heavy drug users, which often comes up in discussion when talking about this musical era. The song is often used in film and popular culture to portray a world turned upside down, sometimes violently, as seen in the film The Game. Despite these precautions, the song is an excellent example to use when introducing modes in advanced theory classes.

*edited for content, format, correctness, and clarity on July 15th, 2018.

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