Music & Emotions (Series): Unease
By Alyssa Melton
All of the audios marked are located here: To hear the correct audio tracks play the audio when marked e.g [J ] or [C]
A lot of us have been made to cry by music before. But other times, that’s not the case, as it makes us itch in our seats instead with unrest.—Is there someone watching me right now? Have you ever wondered what exactly it is that makes certain songs so unsettling? As it turns out, it actually has a lot to do with human nature and how our gut reacts to things unexpected—in this case, musically. I have taken what I thought were unsettling chord progressions and, through an Instagram poll, found out what feelings were evoked for other people. (The chart can be found at the bottom of this article.) Below, I have really unpacked a few of those progressions.—And it turns out most of the “unnervingness” has little to do with lyrical content and everything to do with chord material we just “didn’t see coming,” and a lot of it has to do with chord quality and the subtle motion of half steps in very specific moments. (Jaws theme intensifies.)
Now, before I even begin, I acknowledge that just because the subsequent chord is unexpected does not make it scary. Here’s an example of that:
Yeah, it didn't really have me itching there. The key is that we have to be expecting something in order to be surprised; without expectation there can be no twist. So what does an unexpected chord sound like? Have a listen. Here’s the VI-IV6, for example:
As it turns out, this thought-provoking progression occurs in songs you probably didn’t even realize. Take a listen to “Not Alone,” a FNAF song, by Ben Schuller, and Dreamcatcher, an orchestral piece, by Robert Buckley.
...And there you have it. “Not Alone” uses the VI-IV6, or Bb/D - G/D in this case (with oblique (or static) motion from the bass while the upper voice on the Bb creeps up to an unsteady B). Dreamcatcher finishes the phrase with a plagal cadence from the IV6-i6/4, or G/D - dm/A. Highly unexpected, especially in those minor keys. While it may not be totally unsettling to everyone, this progression certainly evokes some ancicipatory feelings (see recording #1 in chart below). Just for that reason. In minor tonality, the fourth would typically also be a minor chord (iv); the VI-IV6 messes with our expectations as listeners—not drastically, but just by enough—a halfstep, that is—to have us on edge a little. How do you feel when you hear it? Others said “melancholy, nostalgic, longing, awaiting…” (#1 in chart). But the VI-IV6, with only one note (the 3rd) subtly deviating from expectation, is only one example of musical “plot twists.”
The scary music industry seems to have an obsession with descending and ascending halfsteps, particularly in the bass. Take a listen to this snippet (which was YouTube’s first search result for “Creepypasta music”):
Played on the piano, this progression goes from a common e minor to an Eb augmented triad. Woah. I did not hear that coming. Similar to the VI-IV6, only one note is changed—but in this case, it is the bass that descends by a halfstep, creating a more “total” shift. Besides, augmented triads are just perfectly uncomfortable in the right context. Did it make you feel that way? Others said they felt “unseasy, betrayed, sad” (#2 in chart). (Here’s another one, this time heard in the intro of “Two” by Twenty One Pilots.
The bass note of the second inversion G chord, can be heard ascending by one half step (from D to D#), narrowing the gap and creating a tense d# augmented triad. Because only the bass has been altered by a half step, chord 2 retains enough of its original identity (in chord 1) to feel like it hasn’t really changed yet—It’s almost like its ghost remains. Creepy. In this way, musical progressions can feel unpredictable and strange-sounding to our ears which causes us to feel uneasy, shrinking back a little as we listen. How do you feel when you hear this progression? Others said they felt “unrest, anxiety, contemplative, dramatic, confused…” (#4 in chart).
But the change can be more drastic than a bass moved by a half-step; two chord members might be shifted by that interval. Here’s an example from the closing phrase of Disney’s “Let It Go”:
Chilling. (And not just because it’s Frozen.) In this bizarre progression, we have a c minor that becomes a Cb (B) major. In the key of Ab major, that would be notated as iii-bIII. (I always wonder where people get these ideas.) Since the chords are both in root position, the root and the 5th of both are lowered by a half-step simultaneously.—Is that a parallel 5th I smell? Chord 2 is non-diatonic as it is yet quite similar to the chord preceding it, with the only difference being a lowered root and fifth. Believe it or not, the same thing can be heard in the soundtrack of IT:
There it is again: that cm-Cb (iii-bIII).—Who would’ve thought such terrifying techniques were so universal?—But this time, another layer of unrest is added by that dissonant major seventh formed by the D in the melody and the Eb (the third of Cb). Again, the scare comes from the similarity between the chords 1 and 2, only different because of a lowered root and 5th (the 3rd is retained); on paper, there is little actual change, but to our ears, it feels like we are first perceiving a face—then realizing that face is a mask. It feels like something of a musical betrayal. A trick. Did you feel the same? Other people felt “skeptical, betrayed, mysterious, sad” (#5 in chart). It seems that the more unexpected (yet coherent) the transition from chord 1 to 2 is, the more “betrayed” our ears feel, resulting in that uneasy anticipation for more tricks in the future.—And yet, it gets even trickier.
More than just a note or two, the whole chord might shift slightly to create a very spooky effect. My favorite example of this is the chilling theme song of Coraline. Here it is:
If it wasn’t clear in that audio, here is a piano clip.
Regardless of instrumentation, it is pretty obvious that these chords are non-diatonic. So, what makes this example different from the first example of random chords (at the top of this article), where there was no element of coherence and thus no element of surprise? How is it that Coraline makes these unrelated chords still sound so interconnected? I think the secret is that, despite being non-diatonic, they’re just so intervallically close together that the progression doesn’t feel totally random. In effect, it creates something of a dusty, almost seasick heaving motion that can be felt by listeners, generating a sense of uneasiness as the chords shift up and down. Other people said they felt “reflective, anticipating, annoyed, ‘love not reciprocated’, and then caught off guard, surprised, mysterious, precarious, anxious” (#6 and 7 in chart respectively). From chord 1 to 2 (eb minor to E major), the root and the 5th move upward by a half-step; the 3rd, a whole step. From chord 3 to 4 (eb minor to F major), the root moves up a whole step while the 3rd and 5th descend a half step, creating a very unstable sound with very slight changes in the chords themselves but to great affective impact. The instability between the non-diatonic (yet intervallically close) chords, their members (root, 3rd, 5th) only slightly changing, is to thank for that uneasy feelings evoked by listening to them.
Not many people stop and wonder what it is about music, what facets give it such distinct affective qualities. Because of peer research, it can be concluded that there is a connection between chord quality and the motion of halfsteps contributing to the generally unsteady feelings that they evoke in listeners; as humans, we experience the same feelings when caught off guard; the same occurs in music.
Schuller, Ben. “Not Alone.” YouTube. 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoFX2W8uUHA.
Buckley, Robert. “Dreamcatcher.” YouTube. 2016. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yoFX2W8uUHA.
Myuu. “Disintegrating.” YouTube. 2012. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=piFJVwr1YYA.
Twenty One Pilots. “Two.” YouTube. 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oNGT47c5VmE.
Menzel, Idina. “Let it Go.” Frozen. YouTube. 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YVVTZgwYwVo.
Wallfisch, Benjamin. [IT Soundtrack.] IT. YouTube. 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bIcOwdzywQ.