During his sabbatical last year, Gary Marcus, PhD, of New York University, decided to learn to play the guitar. A cognitive psychologist known for his research on language acquisition, Marcus knew that learning an instrument wasn’t going to be easy — especially for him. In fifth grade, Marcus was kicked out of recorder class, and as an adult he couldn’t play the video game “Guitar Hero” without extensive coaching from his wife. Drawing on his cognitive psychology knowledge, Marcus has since overcome his lack of talent to become, in his words, “a nearly listenable guitarist.” In his new book, “Guitar Zero,” Marcus details his journey and explores theories of music cognition along the way. We caught up with him to learn more.
Since “Guitar Zero” came out, you’ve been interviewed by The New York Times and dozens of other publications. Why have you been getting so much media attention?
It’s been wonderful to see it resonate with so many people. I imagine it’s partly because so many other people harbor secret dreams. The book says that adults can learn to do new things that they may have thought were outside their reach and get a lot of satisfaction out of it. I’m not ever going to be Jimi Hendrix, but I am at the point where I can jam with people and still have a really good time.
You’ve shown that adults can learn, but aren’t children better at it?
Not necessarily. If you take at random any experiment in developmental psychology that has an adult control, the adults almost always do better than kids. We all know that kids are better at learning languages than adults, but if you break that down in the lab, the kids are only better at a few things, like auditory processing and pitch detection. Children do have an advantage at accent, but some of the rest of it may have more to do with motivation and interference. If you know one language, it interferes with learning another one. Children also have more persistence. Everyone thinks kids are better than adults at video games, but research shows that adults are often better to begin with. It’s just that the kids spend many more hours playing and soon overtake the adults.
Adults actually even have a few advantages in music. When I played with 11- and 12-year-olds at a band camp in Baltimore, their fingers were faster, but I did most of the arranging of our song. Even though I haven’t been making music for very long, I have been listening to it for decades and have some intuitive sense of composition, and in that way was able to make a contribution.
As an expert on learning, how did you approach the guitar?
We know from language acquisition that immersion is the best way to learn. You have to practice every day for several hours a day in the beginning, before things start to gel. If you practiced only once a month, you’d forget what you learned and won’t be able to build on it. I follow the same principle when I am working on a book. I need at least three hours every day, including weekends, purely devoted to writing, so I have all the ideas fresh in my mind.
Did learning guitar give you any ideas for future research?
Absolutely. In tandem with learning to play guitar, I started reading the music cognition literature and found that there’s a lot we don’t know. For instance, we don’t know how people make sense out of music in real time. Even untrained listeners can tell if a phrase has been resolved, for example, or if a familiar song has been transposed to a different key. But how that happens in real time is largely unknown. In psycholinguistics research, we’re beginning to figure out what goes on in someone’s mind on a moment-bymoment basis, when they hear a sentence. I hope that soon we will be able to understand music in the same way.
You also believe that although music comes so naturally to us, humans are not inherently musical. Why is that?
There are a couple of reasons to think that, despite its naturalness, music is not literally innate. For one thing, very early in life, humans aren’t particularly adept at music as compared to, say, songbirds. It takes awhile for people to learn there are discrete notes — most kids will slide between notes when they sing.
For another, there’s no particular spot in the brain for music like there is for face recognition. Music seems to piggyback on areas of the brain that evolved for other purposes. Broca’s area, for example, is used whenever the brain needs to combine smaller units into larger units. It’s pivotal for combining sounds into words, and we also use it to combine musical notes into a tune. But it’d be silly to say it evolved specifically for music.
I think a better analogy for music is reading, which is something almost everyone can do with practice, but it’s only been around 4,000 years and it’s not something that the brain evolved specifically to do.
If music isn’t innate, why is it so compelling?
I think it’s because music provides two contradictory elements that we find very rewarding. One is familiarity. When we make a prediction and it happens, the brain says, “I got one right here.” So if you have a rhythm track that is repeating, the brain says, “Yeah, that’s good.” On the other hand, we also like novelty. The best music combines those things — repeating a melody, but changing the instrumentation, or having new words. That’s a pretty potent mixture. Plus, music can keep providing those rewards again and again, sustaining your interest over time.
Then there are the rewards of playing music. If you get good enough, part of what you’re doing is so automatic, it almost seems magical, like something is coming out of you you’re not controlling. I get a joy from improvising sort of like the joy I get from science. It’s the joy of exploring and discovering new things.
Marcus discusses music education on NPR’s “Science Friday”.