This is a question I've been pondering since I was a teenager and found myself becoming involved with music. There seems to be three classes of musicians:
Now completely disregard the pop star machine that compartmentalizes these factors. I'm not talking about music that has 50 writers and one performer behind it. I'm talking about the singer/songwriter types who do it all themselves. The true artists, not the crap pushed out on the conveyer belt in the cookie cutter factory.
Oh, so what's the question? It's what's more valuable to the listener? Technical mastery over music theory or the ability to cut to the emotional chase and move someone deeply?
I began wondering these things after I started playing around with rap and really analyzing the lyrics.
As a left-brained science type of person, I began deconstructing rhyme schemes and learning about multi-syllabic rhyming. These complexities are becoming increasingly standard and expected in the rap world but in the late 90's it was rare. You had to dig into the New York scene basically and the rare West Coast artist.
This is what I got off on at the time. Guys with expansive vocabularies that could manage to not only rhyme one or two syllable words, but entire strings of words with 6 or more syllables. I liked it when they would anticipate the rhyme while setting up punchlines in advance. When they began chopping up the bars in non-standard places, my brain exploded.
I'm talking about guys like Royce Da 5'9", Necro, Tech N9ne, etc. What kills me though is what these guys are sometimes willing to sacrifice to not break from their advanced abilities. Tech N9ne focuses on all kinds of crazy syncopated rhythms and internal rhymes. He'll commit to rhyming the same set of 4 syllables with another pair of 3 over the course of 4 bars. And when I say commit, that's what I mean. To the point where he'll say some off-the-wall random stuff that rhymes but just barely makes any sense. You have to stop and play connect the dots just to get rid of the cognitive dissonance of "that made no sense."
A dude like me will enjoy deconstructing this "scientifically advanced" style of music. Take Steve Vai for instance and his guitar playing. I don't at all mean to say that he can't pull off the emotional style, but most of the time he's just doing the most incredible guitar-gymnastics possible. It's literally like listening to some super-geek improvise a solo for five minutes straight. Where's the emotional impact?
Exploiting the ability to show off a complete understanding and mastery over the complexities of music is great, but at the exclusion of...
As my studies of rap lyrics continued, I began to notice that some of it actually moved me emotionally, but why?
I remember thinking "It's when people say the least that it says the most." Being vague and using a lack of detail allowed me to project whatever I needed onto the music. In an way, I was interpreting it for me and using it for me. Another approach that worked well was keeping it simple and broad.
Take John Denver for instance. "I like to be outside on a mountain, sitting around a campfire with friends." Who doesn't? He'll mention streams and forests and birds and you begin to weave your own perfected version of the environment in your own head. You start to draw from your own memories and experiences, and a personal meaning comes out of a very generalized song.
Another approach is to forget being general and to get very specific. I think of people like Joni Mitchell who will spell out an entire story for you and leave nothing to the imagination, just like reading a book or watching a movie. Here it's all about the choice of words, order of reveal, etc. These two artists are absolutely skillful when it comes to technicalities, but if you removed all of that you'd still have an authentic emotionally powerful song.
This is why you have guys like Puff Daddy who are very wealthy (one of the richest musicians in the world) and successful rappers but aren't very technical. People dig it because he doesn't waste words. The rhymes are the least important part. He knows how to blow past your analytical mind and go straight to the heart.
This is something I've come to value greatly as I've grown older. It becomes the difference between reading an engineering text book versus a romance and adventure novel. You're going to blow your mind with the text book for a little while until you get absolutely bored and over-stimulated. Then you're ready to have some fun.
Of course, mastery over both of these methods is the best approach, but there's a challenge. The hurdle is that you immediately narrow down your demographic. This is why the rappers I mentioned above who are solely technical don't have a huge or passionate following. To enjoy complexity requires you to be able to understand it and hear it on the fly. You're asking your listeners to have studied to some degree first. That's a large barrier to entry. And it's totally worth it for the listener... if you can get them to do it.
In the present, I've dissolved this conflict. If it's an either/or question, I'm going for emotional impact every time. But my preference, because I do have the background to handle the complexities, is to have both at the same time!
This is why I like rappers like Sage Francis. He can stick to the most complex rhyme schemes, string along the longest multi-syllabic rhymes ever, all while setting up punchlines, and use complete and specific details while choosing the exact words that will have the most emotional impact. He's mastered both sides of the game.
This is why I like progressive rock bands like Yes. It's a little like cheating here because it's a group of guys. You've got dudes stringing together alternative time signatures while one guy writes the most beautiful vocal harmonies while another guy writes the most mind-and-heart bending lyrics. They'll mix-and-match, string together, and do whatever it takes to keep you engaged on a 20 minute journey. They've got songs that are that long and longer with complete story arcs across four and five part medleys and you're in it the whole time.
They never lose your attention. That's mastery.
Even talking about "having both" isn't really relevant to this conversation. The question was, which is more powerful and important for the listener? Are you better off as a songwriter to appeal to someone's intellect or to their emotions?
I believe, unequivocally, that the answer is emotions, no matter what your goal is. In general, the vast majority of people don't want to think. They do that at their jobs and in school. They want to feel. They want to live vicariously through stories. They want to escape to the mountain forests with their friends.
Or at least I want to.