One Complete Thought

For many years, I’ve been interested in the musical discipline of counterpoint. Whether you know or care about counterpoint (I’m not assuming!), I thought you might be interested by one unexpected life lesson I’ve learned from my studies. 

In music, counterpoint is the relationship between lines that are played or sung simultaneously, which, in aggregate, form the harmony and identity of the whole piece. You might also say that counterpoint is the art of creating and managing these relationships. Counterpoint, says my mentor, is like the charcoal sketches beneath a painting—the most basic gestures or relationships that determine what the artwork becomes later on. 

Even though I know some things about writing music, I still spend a lot of time doing counterpoint exercises. I take a short sequence of notes as a fixed starting point, and then practice composing my own lines in harmony with the given material. Even well into his fame as a composer and orchestrator, Maurice Ravel would often be found quietly doing counterpoint exercises because, as he put it, “it purifies the ear.”

Perhaps Ravel meant that studying counterpoint would teach me to listen. There’s no question that boiling music down to its barest essentials forces me to listen at a profound level—maybe this is how an architect develops the ability to perceive the essential, load-bearing elements of structures beneath various layers of ornamentation. 

But I think there is something deeper or more particular about studying counterpoint via short exercises. Rather than trying to spin out an entire symphony, my job is to spin out a single line. Just nine or so notes—that’s fewer digits than my phone number! My mentor describes this as learning to formulate one complete thought.

One complete thought is more like a phrase or a sentence than an entire paragraph or essay. It’s more of a building block than an entire structure, even if the structure ultimately derives from the building block, like DNA from nucleotides. Occasionally a complete thought might reduce to a stunner like E = mc2, but more often it’s just one blade of grass—but perceived in all its detail. A totally clear, complete thought is the elusive simplicity on the far side of complexity, as sought-after as a snow leopard or giant squid by nature photographers (or my kids). 

“Art may seem to involve broad strokes, grand schemes, great plans,” writes Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. “But it is the attention to detail that says with us; the singular image is what haunts us and becomes art.”

For better and worse, we live in an era of grand schemes and half-thoughts. It’s our inheritance for accelerating … well … everything through industrialization and ushering in an information age. In addition to being enabled by technology, I often feel inundated, overwhelmed, and confused by the noise of it all, scrolling endlessly in my mind.

Studying and teaching counterpoint has taught me to hold the big plans and big noises at arm’s length and to attend quietly to the details. No harm in big plans—I’m a sucker for a cool idea as much now as ever. But first things first: foundation before walls, roots before branches, direction before speed.

Honing an attention to detail has played out in my music, of course, but it has affected every aspect of my life. Learning to slow down and listen to my best inner compass has helped me feel more at home in my own skin and become happier as a person. In my better moments, this attention to detail has shown me the “singular image” of my children and helped me be a more present, engaged dad. Ultimately, I think studying counterpoint helps me to grow the infinitely generalizable skill of discernment.

I won’t be surprised if I don’t see masses lining up for counterpoint lessons based on this little essay. But I hope you’ll reflect on your life and work and find your own counterpoint—some kind of regular practice that holds the cacophony at bay and nurtures your attention to detail. Cameron writes, “The quality of life is in proportion, always, to the capacity for delight. The capacity for delight is the gift of paying attention.” Here’s to the delight of one complete thought!