Academic Writing as Counterpoint by Maxwell Gontarek

posted Dec 11, 2017, 11:46 AM by Writing Center
I come from a background of music as well as a background of writing, and I tend to make analogous connections between the two when I try to make sense of how they work. I find that thinking about counterpoint can be useful for understanding the function of certain conventions in academic writing. 

In music, compositions can be monophonic (consisting of one voice, or instrument) or polyphonic (consisting of more than one voice, or instrument). An example of a polyphonic piece of music is a fugue, which comes from the Latin verb to chase. Fugues follow the rules of counterpoint, meaning that the multiple voices generally work together to harmonize. But sometimes, with the right combination of notes, a melody might sound very unharmonious, building tension instead. But no matter what, in the end the music will resolve whatever tension it has built. I think this concept speaks to the use of counterargument in an academic paper. At first, it may seem counterintuitive to be including an argument which underpins your own. But, that tension can actually make your argument more effective. After providing a counterargument, your task is to show the ways in which your argument has accounted for whatever shortcomings are being purported. And once resolution is achieved, your argument is actually stronger for the tension you provided your readers.

The idea of monophony and polyphony can be helpful for understanding the difference between summary and analysis, also. In a summary, your task is to present an abridged account of something that someone else has written. In that sense, it consists of one voice––the writer of whatever it is that you’re summarizing. In an analysis, your task is to summarize something someone else has written, and then to follow with your own explanation and elaboration. In that sense, it consists of two voices––the input of the writer you are citing, but also your own input and interpretation.

Fugues generally consist of one theme and variations on that theme. The theme is initially played with one voice, and then other voices are added successively throughout the piece. Each time the theme returns, it may be played in exactly the same way as it was initially, but it will sound different in the context of the other voices, and in the progression of the piece. In this way, the theme is reiterated throughout a fugue, but the variations ensure that it does not sound completely repetitive. In an academic essay, a conclusion can be very difficult to write. How can you reiterate your thesis and your main points without repeating them word for word? It might be hard to parse the utility of a conclusion when you think about it in this way, but considering it in relation to the conventions of a fugue may be helpful.

You can absolutely reiterate your thesis, or your theme, in a way that sidesteps redundancy if you conceptualize it as something that you have been chasing throughout the entire essay, since you first stated it in your introduction. On the other end of all your research, analyses, and efforts to synthesize the many voices, you finally have a chance to reiterate your thesis with one voice, just as you did in the beginning. In some ways, this is also a test of the success of your essay––when you reiterate your thesis it should ring truer than it did initially, and therefore sound anew.