I recently caught the end of an NPR story about a book called Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning by Gary Marcus that sounded fascinating. As the NPR story says, Marcus ”took up guitar at the relatively ancient age of 38, by starting with the video game Guitar Hero.” In the book Marcus uses his experience to discuss the science of learning and why certain tasks like learning to play a new instrument or learning a language become harder as we get older. As a student who took up guitar later in life than Mr Marcus and a science nerd to boot, I had to check it out.
I once heard a younger acquaintance remark “well, any monkey can go off and learn how to play guitar.” Marcus and I are here to tell you that’s not the case. At least not well. An old canard popular in the telling of the punk rock movement is that the bands barely knew how to play their instruments. While it’s true that they may not have had the mastery of some musicians, I recommend that you try to play along if it’s so easy. Playing basic chords really fast and in time to create a song that actually sounds (arguably) good are actually several different cognitive skills that are all relatively difficult to master. That anyone ever does borders on the miraculous.
Marcus walks through the cognitive processes involved in learning the tasks of having your left hand (for righties) bend into impossible shapes on specific strings at just the right moment, while your right hand is doing something entirely different. Being able to create your own songs, Marcus explains, is its own separate skill. It’s a relative rarity that some people are able to both learn an instrument and compose new songs on it. Depressingly, he discusses the barriers to this kind of learning that come with age.
Marcus notes that cognitive scientists estimate that to become proficient at some new skill (like playing an instrument) requires roughly 10,000 hours of focused practice on average. Some folks may never become proficient, while others may be rock stars in significantly less time. Marcus investigates why this rule generally holds true, and what happens with those who accelerate the timeline.
In the best sections of this book, Marcus masterfully breaks down the elements of learning to play guitar and puts it in the larger context of how our brain learns new tricks, especially extremely difficult new tricks. A chapter on what expert musicians know that you don’t is also insightful. The book strays when it wanders afield of its subtitle. The chapter on why some music sounds better than others and what the worst (theoretical) song in the world sounds like was a chore for me to work through. This is, overall, an interesting read for the mature budding musician and others that are interested in the science of how our how brain learns to make music. It may come off as complete mumbo jumbo for readers lacking a strong interest in at at least one of those subjects.