Music and other art forms are used to express emotions. The bulk of those emotions expressed are derived from the basic feeling of uncertainty. After this acknowledgement of one of the core building blocks of the all the possible complex emotions humans can produce and sometimes articulate we can then understand how many feelings develop from a principal uncertainty. From uncertainties about ourselves (capabilities, purpose, sanity) to those about our relationships and, most hauntingly, the world around us the immense effect of this core emotion becomes quite certain.
With regards to music the question then arises of how, when expressing complex emotions derived from a base uncertainty, to sonically communicate that core uncertainty also. Though somewhat less used in mainstream music, an exemplary sonic medium for relaying a present feeling of uncertainty is dissonance. Dissonance is seemingly a sonic manifestation of uncertainty. Does the note or chord fit? Is the dissonant note incorrect or are the notes around it that it clashes with all incorrect? Did the song's key just change with one note? Am I even hearing this right? A single dissonant note is a powerful tool for an artist to force the listener to experience their own uncertainty.
While I could list many great examples of the use of dissonance to communicate uncertainty in songs from bands such as Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead, let's examine a more unexpected though genius use of it. In her breakthrough record last spring, "Sour", Olivia Rodrigo creates an almost madness-inducing moment of uncertainty communicated through dissonance in the song "jealousy, jealousy". Written with Dan Nigro, Casey Smith, and Jam City the dissonant moment reveals itself in the bridge's sonic disintegration. While singing about the "fakeness" of other girls on social media and her own irrational envy of them Olivia's layered voice fades into the music and the supporting piano emerges to the front. Over Rodrigo's voice the prominent piano begins to seemingly hit random, dissonant notes in succession until the developing chaos gives way to the last chorus. It almost sounds as if in their time to shine the pianist decided to randomly throw their limp hands at the keyboard instead of continuing the supporting melody. It's genius. From the lyrics Rodrigo reveals an intense uncertainty derived from comparing her life to those around her. Are the other girls fake and just as unhappy as her? Or are they actually happy and she just isn't good enough? As these opposing ideas grow in her own head culminate in the bridge the sudden and stark dissonant piano forcefully compels the listener to realize that her immense uncertainty about herself and others is the basis of the whole song. A blissful moment where a song's instrumentation perfectly matches its lyrical meaning.
Today uncertainty about ourselves, others, and the world around us is an omnipresent and engulfing emotion. As a medium for the complex emotions that individuals and societies as a whole are feeling, music must be able to sonically convey such uncertainties and their derivatives. Through dissonance, music does just that. Exceptionally well.
As a note though I'm normally drawn to how musicians can convey more intricate and somewhat darker emotions, I spent a lot of time thinking today about uncertainty in music while listening to Nine Inch Nail's "With Teeth" record. Along with dissonance, Trent Reznor's use of unique vocal styles, harsh synthesizers, and clashing instruments contribute to an ever-present feeling of uncertainty throughout the record.
Listen to With Teeth: https://open.spotify.com/album/56Us3Q6UIM4jKJZlWhqddL?si=n7al_aLeQNC9yvB_ik51Rg
The accompanying painting by Caspar David Friedrich I think visually evokes uncertainty in a great way. Maybe I'll write about it later.