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The shimmering tonal ambivalence of Billie Eilish

Billie Eilish uses ambivalent tonalities to express her complex emotional state in "Ocean Eyes" (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

Billie Eilish’s “ocean eyes” is tonally ambivalent: It inhabits multiple keys at once, and in so doing captures the complex, conflicting emotional valences that make up our feelings.

Tonal ambivalence is not ambiguity, which would mean that the key is unclear. Nor is it tonal flux, which would mean that the key changes continuously. While most pieces are unambiguously in one key most of the time, tonal flux and tonal ambiguity are nonetheless musical staples. Lorde’s “Buzzcut Season,” for instance, exhibits tonal flux by switching nearly continuously between F minor and A-flat major, while Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” remains tonally ambiguous by circling around an A-major resolution for six minutes while never reaching the elusive tonic. The classical composers were masters of tonal ambiguity and flux; consider the opening of Brahms’ first concerto, which spends an entire minute leaping between seven distinct keys before settling down in the home key of D minor. Or the chorus, “O man, bemoan your great sin,” from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, which begins in E-flat major but spends all of four seconds there before cascading through C minor and five other keys, then settling on B-flat major.

Tonal ambiguity and tonal flux are harmonic motion, and they make us feel as if the music is shifting around — going someplace in particular, or circling around the same place. Ambivalence, on the other hand, is an embrace of opposite and even seemingly opposing keys, harmonies, emotions. If ambiguity is “not quite this, and not quite that,” and if flux is “this, quickly followed by that,” then ambivalence is “this and that,” all at the same time. The experience of tonal ambivalence in “ocean eyes” thus feels not like a journey through different feeling, but a steeping in the subtle notes of multiple feelings. The notes surround us, envelop us and hang, swirling, in the air.

When I listen to “ocean eyes,” it seems correct to say that the song is in G major, and correct to say that it is in E minor (the relative key). At the same time, both descriptions feel incomplete. “ocean eyes” is not just in G major and not just in E minor, and it’s not just quickly changing between the two. It is simply both keys at once.

Ambivalence, in this sense, is one of the most striking aspects of Eilish’s music — the ability to inhabit, simultaneously, two different tonalities, and thus two different emotional valences. We see this in some other of Eilish’s most popular songs, like “idontwannabeyouanymore” and  “when the party’s over” (from her new album), but it is far and away most pervasive in “ocean eyes.”

The ambivalence of “ocean eyes” is accomplished with finesse: through chords that are equally comfortable in both keys; through harmonization in thirds where one is unsure which voice to focus on; through Eilish’s vocal precision. It’s accomplished through a rhythmic trick of sometimes adding a fifth bar to the four-bar phrases, so that harmonic indeterminacy lingers questioningly. It’s accomplished through a solo part that pines for the major while the harmonies persist, wavelike, rising up insistently upon a minor shore.

This finely crafted tonal ambivalence conjures complex feelings that reach out for the future or for the past — longing, regret, wistfulness. “ocean eyes” can evoke such intricately tinged feelings in their fullness partly because the song can embrace all their positive and negative valences and can cradle the intertwining of these valences. Longing is not exhausted by the object for which one longs: It holds an ache of incompleteness and unrequited desire. It holds a hopefulness that one’s wishes might be fulfilled, and a fear that one’s desires are mistaken — that one doesn’t know what one wants. All these feelings and their valences coexist, and “ocean eyes” encompasses them all at once.

Perhaps the most striking example of ambivalence’s emotional effects in “ocean eyes” occurs in the chorus, where first “[no] fair” and then “[I’m] scared” are sustained, harmonizing a major third, for two entire bars. This third works just as well in G major and in E minor, and the harmonies underneath push it slightly toward the E-minor interpretation until the end of the first bar, where a slow quiver (still in thirds) suggests G major again. The quiver doesn’t create a change from minor to major. Instead, it prompts a reinterpretation of the previous bar and the following bar — the bars that seemed in minor now seem to be in major as well.

Having reinterpreted the tonality of “fair,” we are primed for the emotional and harmonic complexity of “scared,” and can hear in it not only fear but also a hope accompanying it — a hope, perhaps, that the fear is misplaced.

The only other piece of music I’ve come across that has such thoroughgoing tonal ambivalence is Steve Reich’s “Music for 18 Musicians,” where Reich stacks different chords on top of each other to generate harmonies that seem simultaneously in two keys: D major and B minor, A major and F-sharp minor, and so on. Reich’s is a more energetic, propellant use, however — the instability of multiple keys drives the piece forward, especially as musical elements that suggests the different keys fade in and out over time.

“ocean eyes” is a different creature, and it uses tonal ambivalence to a more powerful effect. We don’t choose to experience only the positive or the negative parts of feelings like wistfulness or lovesickness, nor do we switch off feeling different parts of them. They come at once, the pleasant and the painful, and Eilish’s tonal ambivalence reflects this. It creates an emotional landscape intricate, rich and shimmering. It evokes in full splendor the multifaceted and scintillating tinges of the moods that comprise our emotional lives.

Contact Adrian Liu at adliu ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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