Familiarity: Part III

Updated: Dec 10, 2019

Here is the third and final installment on "Familiarity" from "The Phosphorescent Blues." This post will look at Part III and also include some observations on the entire work. A link to the transcription can be found at the bottom of the page.

The form is primarily strophic with each stanza consisting of 14 measures (6+8):

Instrumental introduction (6+8)

Verse 1 (6+8)

Instrumental (8 - second half of stanza)

Verse 2 and tag (6+8+4)

This final section (which happens around 6'20" on the video above) emerges out of the hazy fade-out of Part II as the mandolin introduces a modified melody from the very beginning of the song now in the key of G major. The bustling arpeggios from Part I are now replaced by a simple acoustic guitar accompaniment. Below is a comparison.

Part I

Part III

The lyric depicts the "morning after" the reveries of Part II and contains some of the most poignant lines of the entire album. The lines "We lie in bed, the wireless dancing through my head until I fear the space between my breath" and "So darling when you wake remind me what we've done that can't be shared or saved or even sung" hauntingly speak about how our addiction to technology insulates us from having to deal with silence (or ourselves) and how we construct our sense of self by what we are able to share on social media.

Part III also includes a textbook common-tone modulation. Beginning in the key of G major, the instrumental intro ends on a half cadence (D chord). Thile hums a D that to our ear sounds like the fifth scale degree in the key of G. Yet instead of resolving to the expected G chord, we immediately move from the D chord to a surprise: a B-flat major chord (!), and remain in B-flat for the remainder of the song. The key to this modulation is the D hummed by Thile. While the D is the fifth scale degree in G, it is also the third scale degree in the key of B-flat major. In music theory terms, the pitch D is diatonic (or a common tone) in both G and B-flat major. Because of its diatonic relationship to both keys, the D serves as a bridge connecting us from two keys a chromatic mediant away.

A couple other notes on the harmony, the second verse makes use of lovely added-tone chords (triads with added notes such as a second or sixth above the root of the chord). For example, the second verse begins on a B-flat major chord (Bb-D-F) but the background vocal "ah's" enter on a C - a second above the root - creating a Bbadd2 (or Bb2 for short). When sung, these chords add a lushness to the sound and harken back to The Beach Boys-inspired harmonies of Part II.

I always like it when a composer uses a musical reference to help illustrate a lyric (sometimes referred to as text painting) and we find one at the very end of the song. On the word "amens" from the line "As long as you're there I won't be alone, a man among amens" is a progression from E-flat to B-flat (or IV to I in Roman numerals). This is called a Plagal cadence or the "amen cadence" because of its use as a tag in church hymns.

Since this is the last of a three-part series, some mention should be made about the overall structure of the work. Below is a diagram of the circle of fifths that shows the important key areas of the entire song. The song begins in D major (the red box) and moves through E before ending Part I in C# major. Part II shifts the key back up to E and remains there until Part III. An important observation is that most of the keys are related by minor thirds (C# - E - G - Bb). Modulations to keys a third away became increasingly common in the 19th-century with the music of Brahms, Schumann, and other Romantic period composers. While I don't know if this type of long-term harmonic planning was a part of Punch Brothers' compositional process, it is clear that a pattern emerges, whether intentional or not, when one looks at the overall harmonic form.

It is interesting to note that the song ends in the key of B-flat major, a major third away from our beginning key of D major (as shown with the dotted purple line). It's almost as if the song is constructed to eventually circle back on itself - but that's just me being a theorist!

Here is the lead-sheet transcription of Familiarity: Part III.

#PunchBrothers #ChrisThile #Familiarity #PhosphorescentBlues #chromaticmediant #commontonemodulation #Brahms #BeachBoys #Plagalcadence


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