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Finding Continuity in Discontinuity


As has become increasingly obvious from analyzing a handful of Punch Brothers songs, nothing Chris Thile and "the boys" do in their songs is by chance. There always seems to be an underlying logic and awareness of larger formal structures for every surprising surface detail. In this entry, I take a look at the underlying cohesiveness and musical foreshadowing found in "My Oh My" from the album "Phosphorescent Blues."

The transcription can be found at the bottom of the page.

A song of contrasting sections

The first thing that struck me about this song was its contrasting sections. Placed in an almost copy and paste manner, it is as if the different sections are just objects that can be moved around freely. There are three main sections:

  • A driving, almost bluesy, verse rides the line between C mixolydian and straight-up C minor thanks to numerous blue notes (a slightly lowered third scale degree) and its use of the lowered seventh scale degree. Chris Thile's signature high-looping vocalizing is on full display as the tessitura (range) of the vocal line spans nearly two octaves (F3-E-flat5!).

  • The chorus resides squarely in the key of B-flat major and stands in stark contrast to the verse with it's choral-style harmonies and hymn-like texture. The vocal range of the melody is also much more constricted, only spanning a perfect fifth (B-flat3-F4).

  • What I call the interjection is the third sectional component. The interjection is a brief, spritely bluegrass lick that periodically appears throughout "My Oh My" and stands in sharp relief to the driving bluesiness of the verse and the hymn-like serenity of the chorus. Since this song deals with the perils of cellphone use ("out from underneath our thumbs, let freedom vibrate not ring), the bluegrass lick comes across as a cellphone going off in the middle of a performance.

Now that we've identified the main structural building blocks, let's see how the Punch Brothers connect these seemingly disparate parts to create a cohesive whole.

The intro tells it all...

"My Oh My" begins with something out of a Sufjan Stevens song: a driving eighth-note rhythm oscillating between a C and B-flat over a pedal C. The alternating C and B-flat implies a mixolydian mode but more importantly, the two pitches foreshadow the larger overall harmonic plan of the song. If you recall from the explanation of the song's three main sections, the verse centers on a C (whether it's minor or mixolydian can be discussed at a later time) and the chorus resides in B-flat major. By using the pitches C and B-flat as the melody of the introduction, the Punch Brothers are able to telegraph the song's harmonic narrative of contrasting verse and chorus in an elegant and succinct manner.

In spite of their differences, the verse and chorus are connected through a similar harmonic progression. Verse 2 and 3 contain the unusual progression C5-Eb-Gm (i-bIII-v). The Eb and Gm chords can be reconciled if we consider the C5 as really implying C minor - which isn't too much of a stretch - but it is still not a very common progression. The interesting thing is that we find two of those same chords at the beginning of the chorus: Eb-Gm-Bb. In this instance however, the Eb and Gm chords function in a much more traditional way in the key of B-flat major (IV-vi-I). This harmonic connection helps bind the sections together despite their differences in key, style, and rhythmic drive.

The cellphone interjection

As stated before, the "interjection" comes out of nowhere and would seem to function simply as a musical metaphor for the daily cellphone interruptions in our own lives. Yet like they so often do, the Punch Brothers find a way to make even this interjection more than just a musical oddity.

The following example shows the first instance of the interjection at m. 11 and directly below it, the transition at m. 19 from the verse to chorus. Notice the similarity between the arpeggiation of the "cellphone ring-tone" and the melody Chris Thile sings at m. 19 ( which is also sung a cappella to really capture our attention). As shown by the connecting orange lines, Thile's vocal line perfectly outlines the interjection's arpeggiating contour. It should be noted that the B-flat that gives both gestures a mixolydian flavor actually serves as a common-tone, or pivot-tone, modulation to the key of B-flat when it appears as the transition from the verse to the chorus. What first appears as an odd interjection becomes the very gesture that bonds the sections together!

One last thing - While this song's modulation down a whole step is unusual, it is certainly not without precedent. One famous example of a downward stepping modulation can be found in "Penny Lane" by The Beatles. Through two common-chord modulations, Paul McCartney modulates back and forth from the verse in B major to the chorus in A major.

Here's the complete lead-sheet transcription: My Oh My

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© 2016 by Paul David Thomas