Gary Marcus,
Guitar Zero:
The New Musician & the Science of Learning

(Penguin, 2012)

Gary Marcus, an almost-40-year-old professor of psychology at NYU (specializing in evolution, language and cognitive development) was, like so many of us, completely lacking in rhythm and had no sense of pitch. He couldn't sing, let alone play an instrument, yet he wanted very badly to play guitar. Earlier attempts had ended in frustration and failure, so he figured he was destined to listen to, rather than create, music.

Then, with his 39th birthday rapidly approaching and feeling that his learning time was running out, he figured that the only way he would ever become a musician was to totally immerse himself in practice and study. So, with a sabbatical coming up, he loaded himself up with a guitar, a teacher and some equipment, he went on a journey into the mysteries of musicianhood to answer these questions: Can late-starting adults really master musical instruments? What is the best way to learn? What are the qualities of a good student and a good teacher? Why do we have so much research on how kids learn music but almost none on how adults learn? To find the answers to these questions, he studied with master teachers, went on the road interviewing anyone who could shed light on the mysteries, conducted reviews of available research, and practiced, practiced, practiced. He even attended a rock camp for kids, where he was made to actually participate, rather than observe.

As an educator, a scholar and an aspiring musician, Marcus has written a book that explores not just learning to play guitar late in life. He also studies the science of learning, exploring the new research on the working of the brain and applying it to music. He interviews scientists and musicians. We hear from master guitarists Pat Martino (who didn't start playing until he was 35), Tom Morello and long-time Patty Smith band member Lennie Kaye. Player and teacher Terri Roche, of the Roches, offers advice and described her methods, as does almost every other well-reputed teacher.

If you play guitar, whether you're a master or a novice, you'll want to read this book. If you're curious about the distinctions between following a score and improvising, you'll want to read this book. If you're curious about how the brain processes and stores information, you'll want to read this book. And if you just want a very pleasant reading experience, guess what advice I have for you?

book review by
Michael Scott Cain

18 February 2012

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