Sorry in advance if you're not a metal fan--I don't mean to limit the scope of this question. Feeling has its place in a lot of different music. For a concrete example for this question, I am considering the different levels of aggression in a few different songs, noting the technicality and relative "rabid" feeling to each.

As a fan of death metal, some of the technical bands have me considering this question. Works like Necrophagist sound too "tight" as if a machine is playing it, as if there's no room for the more simplistic ferocity of, say, Carnal Decay. Then again bands like Visceral Bleeding seem to accomplish both technicality and rabid aggression.

The issue is: Does technicality, in elevating the music to the intellect, distract the listener from its heart, from the marrow or feeling of the music? Sometimes it seems so, while sometimes not...if there is something to this, what elements of composition can contribute to this?

I appreciate more examples, if the ones I offered made sense to the quandary.

  • only when people get caught up in "showing off" technique instead of creating emotion. it's like asking if having a bigger vocabulary makes you less able to express yourself. – user15708 Dec 8 '14 at 2:54
  • @user15708 I'd argue that it often does, because most people get so caught up in trying to sound smart they never get to the point, and they're just dry and lifeless. There are a lot of parallels between language and music. – NathanTempelman Sep 9 '16 at 20:28

What @user13423 wrote is right, but I think maybe it doesn't really answer what you're really asking. So allow me to elaborate.

There are two fundamental relationships to music: that of being audience, and that of being performer. All performing musicians are putting on a show. Performance is the making of an illusion, of casting a glamour on the audience. A -- if not the -- crucial difference between audience and performer is that audience believes the illusion.

I am guessing from the way you ask the question and the fact you are alluding to the music made by other people than yourself, that you are either primarily a fan, and thus audience, or are a beginner musician, and thus beginning to move from audience to performer. One of the things that makes that transition a bit tricky is that audience doesn't realize how much of what they see and believe is show, and such the junior musician often believes untrue things about music-making.

Whether or not a performance seems "technical" to the audience is -- or at least should be -- almost wholly orthogonal to the actual technicality of the performance. What the audience perceives is an artistic choice of interpretation by the performer.

The bands you cite as sounding "intellectual" have made a deliberate choice -- and are probably working very, very hard -- to come across that way. The bands you cite as sounding raw and visceral are doing the exact same thing.

I know nothing of metal, but I'm an early musician (medieval and renaissance periods) and this is a big thing for us. By that, I don't mean controversy, I mean artistic playground. We cover the gamut (heh) of styles from the most raw and passionate to the most rarified and cerebral.

Musically speaking, I'm from the 16th century, and we have a concept that might help you out here: sprezzatura. Quoting from wikipedia quoting from the key 16th century source:

it is defined by the author as "a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it".[1] It is the ability of the courtier to display "an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them".[2] Sprezzatura has also been described "as a form of defensive irony: the ability to disguise what one really desires, feels, thinks, and means or intends behind a mask of apparent reticence and nonchalance".[3]

The word has entered the English language; the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as "studied carelessness".[4]

Because 16th century people wrote quite a bit about how important the aesthetic value of sprezzatura was, that makes things quite a bit easier for us today to know how to play 16th century music in a 16th century style: we're supposed to make it sound effortless. Furthermore, what we're supposed to make sound effortless is not actually easy material, but virtuosic things. The whole point of sprezzatura is to present the unbelievably technically demanding as trivial.

It's a form of showing off. It's a form of showing off that requires really epic amounts of practice and technical mastery.

The reverse is exemplified by a story about Stravinsky that Zander tells:

We will not convey the sense of [Mahler's symphonies] if we are in perfect technical control, so in a sense a very good player has to try harder in these passages that someone for whom they would be a strain, technically. Stravinsky, a composer whom we tend to think of as rather objective and "cool," once turned down a bassoon player because he was too good to render the perilous opening to The Rite of Spring. This heart-stopping moment, conveying the first crack in the cold grip of the Russian winter, can only be truly represented if the player has to strain ever fiber of his technical resources to accomplish it. A bassoon player for whom it was easy would miss the expressive point. And when told by a violinist that a difficult passage in the violin concerto was virtually unplayable, Stravinsky is supposed to have said, "I don't want the sound of someone playing this passage, I want the sound of someone trying to play it!"

So, yes "technicality" can distract the listener from the pathos and passion of a piece, but that "technicality" is an aesthetic decision, as opposed to an actual property of the technical demands of music or the technical mastery of the musician.

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  • @JoeMcMahon I recommend the whole of the Zanders' The Art of Possibility, book of life lessons from music, which is where I found that quote. It really challenged my assumptions about classical music. – Codeswitcher Sep 18 '14 at 23:38

"Technicality" tends to be related to skills in execution. Focusing on technicalities detracts from expressiveness. For the listener, noticing random aberrations also detracts from expressiveness which are, in a manner, deliberate aberrations from a mechanical execution.

"Technicality" does not distract a listener. But when it occupies the attention of the performer, the performer has problems bringing across anything else. So you want to be good enough not to have to choose.

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When one gets down to it, most of music is about communicating an idea in some way. Whether that be using harmony to create a picture, flying a melody through a listener's mind, or even lyrically straight-up telling one's audience to think.

That said, does technicality detract from this communication or add to it? It can be a little of both, depending on who is doing the technical stuff. A lot of really simple music can be very beautiful in a way that extremely fast, dense harmony sometimes fails at expressing. It's not the difficulty of a passage that determines its merit, it's the expression. Now, that doesn't mean that one can't express when playing at high speeds or using complicated rhythms or the like. Plenty of people are renowned for their technicality, yet there are some often accused of mindless complexity with no feel for the music.

Ultimately, complexity is musical responsibility. If the performer is unable to handle it, the result is not very musical (guilty). However, if one is able to handle the responsibility, the reward can be a masterpiece that earns the respect of one's peers and audience.

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