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Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science Of Learning

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 March, 2012, 12:00am

Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science Of Learning
by Gary Marcus
Penguin

Conventional wisdom decrees that humans are best able to learn during 'critical periods' which occur when we are young. But recent advances in neuroscience have proved this to be false. We can learn anything at any age if we have the willpower to study and the time to practise.

It's true that children can learn new languages quicker than adults. But adults can still learn languages at a slightly slower pace. As for disciplines which involve the brain's motor skills, such as playing a musical instrument, there is no difference between a young student and old one. Both are capable of learning at the same speed.

With this in mind, 40-year-old Gary Marcus, a professor of psychology at New York University, decided to take a year-long sabbatical and learn to play guitar.

The idea was to chart his musical progress and explain the science behind each step forward. This is an excellent idea, as the science of learning is still relatively unknown.

Unfortunately, the book fails to deliver on the premise, as there is not enough science in it.

Marcus fancies himself as a music critic, and spends much of the book analysing the work of artists such as Bob Dylan and The Ramones. Worse, he veers into the philosophy of music and musical aesthetics, subjects about which he has little knowledge. A further chunk is taken up with embarrassing anecdotes about learning guitar at places like rock schools.

The science that does make it through is good. Marcus dismisses the idea that we are born with a 'music instinct'. He also argues against the idea that music is a language developed by the brain as a kind of communication. The theory that music was brought about by the law of evolution - that it makes the player more attractive to the opposite sex - is also laid to rest.

Science cannot explain why we play music, Marcus says, but we do know that, unlike other skills, musical talents are not centred on one part of the brain. They make use of many different areas of the brain. These areas are usually utilised independently for other tasks, but come together to enable us to create music. This is interesting, but Marcus writes too little about it.

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