A 'Guitar Zero' Finds It's Not Too Late To Learn Music When it comes to learning an instrument, children have the edge in many respects. Using himself as a guinea pig, psychology professor Gary Marcus resolved to find out whether nonmusical adults have any chance of turning things around.
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A 'Guitar Zero' Finds It's Not Too Late To Learn Music

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A 'Guitar Zero' Finds It's Not Too Late To Learn Music

A 'Guitar Zero' Finds It's Not Too Late To Learn Music

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They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks. But the big question is: Can you teach an old guitarist new licks? How about an old non-guitarist, not even a musician?

Well, Gary Marcus isn't that old. He's actually in his early 40s, and he's a professor of psychology at NYU and an expert on cognitive development. Marcus decided to pick up the guitar to study the musical learning process, using himself as a guinea pig. His new book is called "Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning."

Gary Marcus joins us from our New York bureau. Welcome to the program, Gary.

GARY MARCUS: Thanks very much for having me.

MARTIN: OK. So before we begin our conversation, I want to play a little something for you. Take a listen to this.


MARTIN: Sound familiar?

MARCUS: Painfully so.


MARTIN: OK. Explain why. Tell us about this song.

MARCUS: Well, this whole book, in a way, got started with me playing a videogame called "Guitar Hero" - which I had purchased in a vague hope of becoming musical, and then discovered I couldn't play it, 'cause I had to play this song. All you have to do is press little, colored buttons...

MARTIN: Oh sure, yeah.

MARCUS: ...and match the colored dots on the screen. And eventually, I got it, and I actually made it through the song. So when I had that positive experience of playing the videogame and feeling like maybe this is not completely out of my reach - plus, I had a little bit of free time 'cause I was actually on sabbatical - I was like, this is the moment. I'm really going to try now. I'm really going to commit myself.

And I'd also read the literature on critical periods. That's the idea that if you don't learn something early in life, you'll never be able to master it. And I'd studied language acquisition in graduate school. And we used to believe that that was the case; that if you didn't learn by the time you were 16, you'd never become fluent.

MARTIN: Yeah, we all kind of live with that pressure: You have to learn it when you're a little kid; otherwise, you can't learn French when you're an adult.

MARCUS: So, what we know now is that some adults actually do become fluent, and that although it's definitely easier to learn some things when you're a kid, it's not the case that you just absolutely lose the ability later in life. There's more of a gradual decline; it is still possible.

MARTIN: So how important is some kind of innate musicality to learning later in life?

MARCUS: I think that innate musicality is important, but it's not absolutely necessary. I guess my own case proves that. So I wouldn't say I had any innate musicality. But because I'm an intelligent adult, I was able to learn a lot of things about how music works that maybe wouldn't be as accessible to a child; to read about music theory, for example, and to apply the analytic skills that I have and sort of take a different route than a child might take.

MARTIN: So we want to trace your particular musical root a little bit. You very graciously - and, I should add, courageously - sent us one of your very early practice sessions, when you had just picked up the guitar.

MARCUS: I feel a painful trip down Memory Lane coming.

MARTIN: It sounds on this track like you're kind of improvising a little bit with a back-up track. If you don't mind, let's hear a little bit of it now. Take a listen.


MARCUS: The backing track sounds nice.


MARTIN: It's all about putting it out there, giving it a try. I mean, tell us what was going through your mind. What was the most difficult thing about playing the guitar, improvising at that stage of your learning process?

MARCUS: I think everything was hard. I would say that the first challenging thing for anybody learning the guitar is just learning the fret board - where the notes are. So, if you look at a piano, the notes are laid out in a very systematic way. You can always, very easily, find the C in whichever octave you're in. You can find the D, you know, the next note over, skipping a black note. It's very systematic.

On a guitar, there's nothing that kind of highlights, first of all, what the natural notes are - the Cs, the Ds - as opposed to the C sharps and the D sharps. And then every string sets things up differently. And we have a kind of memory that makes similar things hard to remember. So like, if you park in the same lot every day, your memories of that blur together. And at the end of the day, you can't remember exactly where you parked because you're confused with where you parked on other days.

So, when I was doing that improvisation - or trying to do that improvisation - part of what I was trying to do was just find the notes on the scale. But even knowing where those are takes work.

MARTIN: There's something else we'd like to play for you, Gary. Let's take a listen to this.


MARTIN: Wow, that bass line. Listen to that.

MARCUS: That was me.

MARTIN: That is you, playing bass guitar in a group called Rush Hour. This is a band that came together at a band camp full of 11-year-olds, right?

MARCUS: That's right. The camp is called Day Jams. It's a national organization. And I went to my hometown in Baltimore. I spent a week there and what you do with that camp is, you make your own song. You arrive on Monday and by Friday, you're playing on stage in front of a live audience, which includes all the kids' parents. And in my case, it included mine.


MARCUS: So we put together that song.

MARTIN: What did you discover when you were there, about the differences in the way that you were learning and the way that these kids were learning?

MARCUS: Well, I think that kids have a lot more patience to do the same thing over and over again until they get it right. And I think adults often push themselves to get the whole song on the first day. Adults, you know, they've heard the recordings many times, and they don't cut themselves the slack to take things incrementally. And so I think there's a difference in strategy.

I think that kids probably have little bit better ear. So if you want to learn perfect pitch, you have to learn that early in life. On the other hand, adults understand things like composition. So I actually played a big role in actually putting the song together.

MARTIN: I have to tell you that I have a guitar that I've owned since I was about 20 years old - 19, maybe. And I was so intent on learning the guitar for like, six months. And then the guitar went into the closet, and I've been schlepping that thing around with me wherever I move. And it just sits in the corner and taunts me. And I've been intimidated to pick it up.

In all of your learning about how to learn a musical instrument later in life, what advice can you give to someone like me - or others out there who have other musical instruments sitting in their corners, taunting them?

MARCUS: I think the first thing is to give yourself slack, and don't expect to learn it overnight. So learning an instrument, for most people, is probably a project of several years. The only way to do the brain rewiring that you need is to practice. There are ways of being a bit more efficient about your practice.

So another tip I would say is, target your weaknesses. A lot of people just do what they're good at. They don't focus on what they're bad at. In my case, I really had to focus on the rhythm. If I had just done what I was good at, I would still sound terrible. Now, I don't quite sound terrible, and that's 'cause I focused so much on that. So don't expect overnight success; try to enjoy each incremental bit of progress that you make.

MARTIN: Gary Marcus is the author of "Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning." We're going to play out with a little bit of your soloing on something called "Bah-Humbug."

Gary, thanks so much. I expect to talk with you in a few years to check in on how your jam skills have developed.

MARCUS: Thank you very much.


MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

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