Change in the Key of Life

Return to Forever

When I’m feeling happy and content with my life, I have very eclectic tastes in music. I’ll listen to some pop, hiphop, classical, jazz and vintage rock. I like a little bit of everything. When I become stressed, I’ve noticed, my music choices start to shift. I gravitate to two genre’s almost exclusively: classical and jazz. Sometimes it feels like I have two brains, or two parts of my brain, because of how different the two types of music seem to be.

Only recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, have I begun to gain some insight into this bifurcation of my listening habits. It took the catalyst of the current social unrest and the violence that has attached itself to it, to bring me to examine how my choice of music relates to my increased inner tension.

Given the current state of the world, I find I crave two states of mind which may seem contradictory: predictability and improvisation. I seek the predictability of classical music to reassure me that even with all the challenges facing humans currently, there is an underlying continuity, a musically notated reassurance that humanity will survive. Classical music, such as Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, Handel’s Water Music and Vivaldi’s, The Four Seasons are all permanently scored. Conductors may make a few stylistic changes, but for the most part what we hear today is what audiences heard when they were first performed. When I listen to the classical masterpieces of the past, I am reassured that in spite of wars, famines, plagues, political and social upheaval, humanity has persevered. The music says to me, “We have been there before and are still here”.

Jazz, on the other hand, or should I say in the other half of my brain, is about evolution. In true jazz, no piece is ever played exactly the same twice. The tune may sound familiar, but within the music the players are free to improvise as they interact with the music and each other, whether in a quintet, quartet or some other combination. Jazz takes us to the edge of losing the music into the unrecognizable, but it doesn’t quite go there. The music says, “ Change is not just possible, it is inevitable. It says that within the framework of life, change is not just allowed, it is required. Change keeps things evolving”.

We are in scary times. There is no denying this. The pandemic has upset life in virtually every aspect we have previously known. It has not only put our future on hold, it has filled it with uncertainty. No one knows what life will look like, if and when this pandemic is over. I find myself looking for reassurance that life will continue. Music, especially classical music, is one of the things that gives me that reassurance. The language of music touches me in a way only music can. It resonates in me and comforts my thoughts as they race across the synapses of my brain.

Jazz fulfills another function in my need for reassurance. It does this by both unsettling me as it veers toward the impossible, the unrecognizable, and then shows me, with rhythm, melody, harmony, dissonance and sometimes wild improvisation, that change will find its way back to a through line I can recognize. It crosses back over the center line of my brain and joins with the classical half and says, “See, it is all meant to be: construction, destruction and reconstitution are all parts of what makes us human.”

We do not have to stop our lives in a shut down. In fact, life has not stopped at all. We are still who we are. We do not have to stand by in the face of injustice and the call for a better and more just world. We can take these ideals to the edge of forever. We can explore the improvisations of what is possible, and still find our way to life that is more equitable and just. We can create our own classics.

When will my taste in music return to its previous eclectic state? Maybe never. I don’t know. I do know I need time to question the sounds of my own social conditioning. I want to find the classical symphonies and jazz improvisations within that help me understand and embrace love, inclusiveness and tolerance for others. I want a future I can turn toward and feel proud.


The subtitle of my essay, “Return to Forever”, is borrowed from a 1972 album by Chick Corea, Stanley Clarke, Al Di Meola, and Lenny White. Thank you Chick Corea, et al.

My Dad, who was a more complex man than his modest upbringing would suggest, once said to me, “Do you know why we need artists?” “We need artists to show the rest of us what we can’t see in ourselves”. Thank you George King, I will love you forever.

Be safe. Be well. Love the ones you are with. Life is short even without a pandemic and social unrest.

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