A modulation is a “change from one key to another in a piece of music.” Seems simple enough. Often they are, and, being a rather lazy songwriter, I’m a huge fan of a common-tone modulation, where a single note is sufficient to transpose one key into another, often in a single beat.

Right now, though, I am undergoing a much more dissonant modulation: Some notes are familiar, some brand new, many just sound different than before because the chords have been inverted or augmented. Just as in a creative modulation in a piece of music, I can anticipate where the piece is going and can predict the new key, but in the meantime am kept in suspense as I play on and wonder how the music will work itself out.

As a composer, my biggest weakness is modulating. I wrote a rather lovely nocturne a few months ago, but let it fade away when I realized that it was stagnating in a single key. When I was challenged to write a cadenza for a Mozart piano concerto, I came up with one that stayed comfortably in the dominant key, but had to scrap it because it didn’t feature enough movement.

Modulations, in life as in music, are strenuous, and I envy those to whom they come naturally.

This summer is a time of modulation. In May, I graduated with a Bachelor of Music degree and in August I’ll be moving to Scotland to pursue a Master’s in “Theology and the Arts.” Right now, though, I am bouncing between familiar and unfamiliar. A week ago I was home, but found home to be different…too small. Now I am back in Southern California, but am housesitting and working rather than studying and living in an apartment with my best friend. My car is here as a little refuge. A few of my friends are still around. My favorite coffee shops never change, thank goodness.

But it is not the same.

There is a tension between these old-familiars and the new life that I am exploring. All of this, too, is tinted with the knowledge that I am leaving soon for a completely new experience. Soon, I’ll have to find a new coffee shop…in Scotland. All of the familiar things are tinged with the sorrowful knowledge that they will pass away and all of the new things are jarring, mundane though they might actually be.

Accidentals and augmentations.

I am doing my best to hold fast to the small things that keep me together: reading scripture with my breakfast, practicing piano at church, carting my ukulele anywhere and everywhere I go, posting ramblings to my blog instead of shouting into the void.

As I cling to these small rituals, I realize that this time of modulation is a blessing. When I discovered how to modulate in a song I wrote recently, it gave the entire final verse an extra kick of energy. While some notes might be held in dissonance, they do eventually resolve and settle into the new key. In the same way, though I am displaced now, this time will make settling into a new season even sweeter.

Furthermore, without modulations there is little room for development. I am quick to develop strong attachments to place, but if there is one thing I’ve learned from my extensive travels it is that although moving from place to place can be bittersweet, it expands one’s horizons exponentially. Learning to make a home wherever we are is one of the greatest lessons of life, and especially of the Christian life.

I remember the president of my university describing the Christian life as “in-tents.” As a lover of puns, this stuck with me. We are to pitch our tents and minister and grow wherever we may be, as “intense” as this process is.

Perhaps this can be expanded to include my modulation idea. Redeemed but not yet called to our final home, the Christian life is one of in-between, something which terrifies me. I like to be fully one place or another and find the transitions and tensions exhausting.

I am, once again, reminded of this passage from Philippians 3:12-16:

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold to what we have attained.”

Maturity, according to Paul, lies in knowing that our future is secure and holding fast to this hope in the uncertain in-between. To put it in musical terms: We have left the original key behind, so must continue onward through the modulation until we settle into the next key. 

As I dwell in this modulation period, I look ahead to the future, both in Scotland and beyond, and strive to think of the past only with gratitude instead of a futile yearning to return. Part of the maturity that Paul writes of in Philippians is also letting go of the past so that we might more freely move into the future. I will cling to the beautiful themes of loved-ones and old homes, but only insofar as they foster this future hope.

Listening to my own songs as I write this, I have to laugh. While they might lack modulation, the lyrics I penned a month ago possess wisdom that I did not realize I had:

“Babe, we’re in the in-between:
Young but grown, just wait and see—
And try as best we can,
Making our little plans,
As we grow and hope
And drive away down those winding roads.”

It’s a love song, of course, but the same hope I am singing to its recipient I am also conveying to myself and all those in my situation. We are in the “in-between,” caught in the craziness of being young adults. But ultimately, we must keep “running the race,” knowing there is a sure destination both in this world and the next. In the meantime, we can do no better than to learn what we can, hope as best we can, and move forward.

We can do no better than to find beauty and opportunity in the modulation, taking delight in surprising tonalities instead of shrinking in fear, and looking forward to the next verse of our life songs. Without modulation, there can be no great development and, while it will not be comfortable, it will be beautiful.  

So, the least I can do is to find a coffee shop that feels like home and pray for the best.

One thought on “Modulations

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