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The Good Listener: Do Some Musicians Play Too Well?

We get a lot of mail at NPR Music, and alongside the Pokemon products whose arrival signals our kids' descent into video-game-induced catatonia is a slew of smart questions about how music fits into our lives — and, this week, thoughts on whether superior technique can detract from music's quality.

J writes via email: "Some bands feature virtuosos, and that's what makes them great (Van Halen, Mahavishnu Orchestra). Other bands feature virtuosos, and that's what makes them terrible (Dream Theater). Is it ever OK to dislike a band for playing too well? Is technical ability alone a sound defense of a band?"

I've spoken to some rabid and persistent Dream Theater fans in my day, so I want to first assure you that I've changed your name to protect your identity, and hereby pledge to defend your anonymity to my dying breath. I will not sell you out to the Dream Theater Army that wishes to descend on your doorstep in response to this letter. From this day forward, "J," I will view myself as the Woodward and Bernstein of prog-metal.

Fact is, you're always free to like or dislike whatever you want, for more or less whatever reason you want. If you think Dream Theater sucks and Mahavishnu Orchestra is great even though they contain a few similar elements, then so be it. While I'm all for open-mindedness, and for interrogating one's own tastes and biases — "Why do I like this and not this?" — there aren't necessarily right and wrong answers when it comes to how and whether music speaks to you.

That said, there are countless ways to employ technical proficiency in music, as well as countless styles of music in which to do so. Advanced technique is often the foundation upon which players build unpredictable, exciting and/or moving creative expression. So I would almost never view incredible technical ability — in and of itself — as an obstacle to my enjoyment of a piece of music.

I think what you're getting at is a sense that some musicians employ their technical gifts in the service of showing off; that they're not focused on expressing themselves artistically so much as indulging in sterile, soulless peacocking. But that's a fine line that shifts drastically from person to person, and plenty of musicians — from Rush to Dream Theater to Yngwie Malmsteen — have made zillions of people happy playing music that, for some, crosses over into self-indulgence. For fans of those artists, it isn't necessary to form "a sound defense," though you're likely to hear "technical ability" paired with arguments about awe, appreciation of masters at work, and a desire to be challenged by something that isn't simple.

Though your methods may vary, I usually look at the degree to which impeccable musicianship is balanced by other ingredients: emotional weight, hooks, humor, beauty, boldness, inventiveness, novelty, willingness to explore. Ability to play well is a core ingredient, but it's rarely a satisfying dish unto itself.

Got a music-related question you want answered? Leave it in the comments, drop us an email at allsongs@npr.org or tweet @allsongs.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Stephen Thompson is a writer, editor and reviewer for NPR Music, where he speaks into any microphone that will have him and appears as a frequent panelist on All Songs Considered. Since 2010, Thompson has been a fixture on the NPR roundtable podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, which he created and developed with NPR correspondent Linda Holmes. In 2008, he and Bob Boilen created the NPR Music video series Tiny Desk Concerts, in which musicians perform at Boilen's desk. (To be more specific, Thompson had the idea, which took seconds, while Boilen created the series, which took years. Thompson will insist upon equal billing until the day he dies.)