We all have that "emo hours" playlist for the sad songs and that "V I B E S" playlist for the happy ones. However, the emotions that songs can convey are far too subtle and varied to be put into just two categories.
Below I'll break down how these three songs evoke the emotions that they do, in as much detail as my knowledge of music and my experience as a human being allows.
Song: Must Have Been The Wind by Alec Benjamin
Emotion: Sonder (definition: "that feeling when you realize that everyone you see, everyone who passes you by has their own complex life")
There is perhaps no artist more skilled than Alec Benjamin at crafting a song around a series of everyday moments. He often takes a slice of life and builds it up into a song, using clever wordplay, symbolism, and easygoing instrumentals, so that the story takes center stage (see If We Have Each Other and Water Fountain). This song is no different. It starts off with a sweet and simple guitar line, over which Benjamin sings: "I heard glass shatter on the wall / In the apartment above mine / At first I thought that I was dreaming / But then I heard the voice of a girl / And it sounded like she'd been crying". We’ve all experienced the feeling of seeing someone crying at school, but daring to approach, though we wish to provide comfort.
Later in the song, Benjamin addresses this dilemma between caring and making things worse: "I didn't want to intrude / Because I knew that I didn't have all the facts / But I couldn't bear the thought of leaving her". And it's these lyrics and the progression of the song's storyline that creates the feeling of sonder. Benjamin knows that the girl in the apartment is hurting and he aches to be there for her, but the song never reveals if they end up talking about "the noise". This mirrors how in our world, we are all trapped in our own minds, only able to catch glimpses of strangers’ sorrow and joy.
Song: Eyes Shut by Years & Years
At the outset, "Eyes Shut" sounds like any old breakup song. Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander croons: "Throw your heart to me / Let it fall and hit the ground... Your timing was so wrong / I just want to be found", as he moves through a dilapidated warehouse in the music video. But as we move into the pre-chorus, the song becomes a bit confusing: "And I, yeah, I've got the lines, I've got the lines / Oh, it's brighter this time / This type of mine / This disguise". When I first heard this song, I was stumped. What lines? What mine? What disguise? But upon further thought, Alexander could be referring to an actor's lines, which interpretation is supported by the word "disguise" as well. We are all actors to some extent, reciting lines and putting on disguises to face the world. How many times throughout the day do we respond "I'm good. How are you?" to that polite inquiry, denying our true feelings again and again?
Finally, the chorus makes it abundantly clear that this song is not only about heartbreak over a person, but over the world at large. As Alexander breaks into the chorus, he pushes open the warehouse doors to reveal a post-apocalyptic world, with a shower of book pages from the sky, burning buildings, and hunched citizens going about their grueling work. Walking through this scene, Alexander explicitly voices the denial that has been hinted at since the beginning of the song: "Well, nothing's gonna hurt me with my eyes shut". This phrase almost sounds childish in a way, calling up images of toddlers playing peekaboo. But within the stark reality of the world created by the music video, the phrase seems desperate, pathetic. We can never regain the naiveté of childhood, as the song acknowledges: "I can see through them". Try as we might to shut our eyes when the horrors of the world become too much, to put on disguises and speak the lines given to us by society, we will eventually be forced to see and reckon with reality for what it is.
Song: Ribs by Lorde
Emotion: Zenosyne (definition: when you feel that time keeps going by faster and faster)
Do I even need to explain here? Ribs perfectly encapsulates the fears and hopes of growing up, all while creating an overarching mood of nostalgia. Obviously, the lyrics contribute to the feeling of time going too fast, with lines such as "It feels so scary, getting old", but this emotion is also embedded in the song itself. Ribs starts out with an almost minute long intro, essentially one note shifting from ear to ear. For the most part, Lorde sings with long pauses punctuating each phrase—imagine her slowly walking down the street at night, stopping to look up at the moon. There's a heartbeat-like sound in the background, creating a sense of urgency. Finally, as we pass the 3:00 mark, she metaphorically breaks into a run, singing: "I want 'em back (I want 'em back) / The minds we had (the minds we had) / It's not enough to feel the lack / I want 'em back, I want 'em back, I want 'em". The repetition of this phrase and the quickening tempo collide in a flurry of yearning for the past and dread of the future. One Youtube commenter expresses the message of the song perfectly: "I regret saying I wanted to "grow up" when I was younger... like time is flying by and I have no idea what I'm going to do".