Yo-Yo Ma and the Meaning of Life

I’ve been asking myself all my life, “What is the purpose of music?” It’s like trying to find the meaning almost every day, because the purpose yesterday may not be the purpose today. What the pandemic has crystallized in my mind is that we need music because it helps us to get to very specific states of mind. It’s not like, “Listen to my music; it will help.” But rather, everybody wants to get to certain states of mind during the day, during the cycle of the season. And during a pandemic, with the alienation of not having social contact, music is also that physical force. It’s energy. Then you get to more complex things, like how certain songs elicit memory. Certain smells can get to an immediate childhood memory of your grandmother’s baking apple pie. Music can do the same thing. Your first kiss. Your wedding. And unfortunately, during this time, we’ve lost a number of friends, and you have virtual memorial services and you play music for that. All of which is to say that you do whatever is needed with music. We need music to make us feel at equilibrium through hard times and good times.

Are you confident that your work is helping bring about the world that you would like your grandkids to live in? Not that you’ll necessarily get the result you want, but that you’re doing what you can to achieve it. [Pause.] I don’t know. That’s the kind of question that I ask myself. …

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