Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning by Gary Marcus (New York: The Penguin Press, 2012. 274 pp).

Gary Marcus is a professor of psychology and the director of the Center for Language and Music at New York University, where he studies language and cognitive development. He is the author of Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind, which was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice.

I’m a Pretend Guitar Hero

I confess that I’ve spent countless hours playing the popular video game, Guitar Hero. Fostering the illusion that I, too, can be a guitar legend, it is no wonder why I, along with countless others, gravitate to the game. The popular television show, South Park, even based an episode off of the phenomena.  In the clip below, they hit the proverbial nail on the head.

But, some, like author Gary Marcus, take Guitar Hero to the next level and actually pick up a real guitar as a result. Soon they find that playing a real guitar is nothing like pushing the plastic buttons on the video game.

Many get frustrated, and decide to give it up. Inspired by the game and his attempts to learn the instrument, Gary Marcus in Guitar Zero takes a scientific approach to learning to play music. Marcus ponders what it takes to become a musician, and what needs to occur for him to shred on the guitar like Van Halen.

“All my life I wanted to become musical, but I always assumed that I never had a chance. My ears are dodgy, my fingers too clumsy. I have no natural sense of rhythm and a lousy sense of pitch. I have always loved music but could never sing, let alone play an instrument; in school I came to believe that I was destined to be a spectator, rather than a participant, no matter how hard I tried” (1).

Practice Makes Perfect

It may seem obvious, but Marcus proposes that practice really does make a difference in the abilities of an aspiring musician. But, practice isn’t enough.

“[A] constant sense of self-evaluation, of focusing on one’s weaknesses rather than simply fooling around and playing to one’s strengths [is needed]. Studies show that practice aimed at remedying weaknesses is a better predictor of expertise than raw number of hours; playing for fun and repeating what you already know is not necessarily the same as efficiently reaching a new level. Most of the practice that most people do, most of the time, be it in the pursuit of learning the guitar or improving their golf game, yields almost no effect. Sooner or later, most learners reach a plateau, repeating what they already know rather than battling their weaknesses, at which point progress becomes slow” (12).

Marcus really proposes in the end that a musical mind only develops over years of intentional practice. One must form neural pathways over time, similar to the pathways that are needed to learn a language.

“To the degree that we ultimately become musical, it is because we have the capacity to slowly and laboriously tune broad ensembles of neural circuitry over time, through deliberate practice, and not because the circuitry of music is all there from the outset” (33).

Born or Made?

According to Marcus’ thinking, musicians aren’t born, but rather made. Marcus argues that while genetics certainly play a role, practice over a period of time allows musicians to become stars. And, for the adult learner, like Marcus, it’s never too late. If the goal is perfection, no matter the pursuit, it would no longer be of interest. Because, as Marcus states, the goal isn’t perfection, but rather pleasure. It is the pleasure that drives us, and perhaps the minor imperfections in each performance is what makes music so special. Marcus also spends time talking about the benefits of knowing music in regard to overall intelligence and IQ, but his main point is that music provides something that many things cannot: simple bliss. To him, and so many others, that is why music really matters.

As a music teacher, I’ve found the blissfulness of music to be true. Sure, I know the statistics on why music matters, why it helps brain development, why it helps you succeed more in life. But, we all know why music really is something special. It’s because music touches the soul, and because music simply brings out a part of us that makes us feel like we are caught in the throes of a religious experience.

“[M]aybe, just maybe, the art of reinvention and acquiring new skills can give us a sense of a life well lived” (201).

Anyone who has played Guitar Hero knows the bliss of accomplishing a song on a difficult level. Practice in that game makes perfect; practice in life makes perfect. If you’ve ever wanted to be better at something, or wonder if you could perform well as a musician, I think Guitar Zero is a wonderful read for you to endeavor upon. My only critique of the book is it could have been longer.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5

Posted by:  Andrew Jacobson
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