Guitar Zero: The Science of Becoming Musical at Any Age

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Penguin, Jan 19, 2012 - Music - 288 pages
2 Reviews
On the eve of his 40th birthday, Gary Marcus, a renowned scientist with no discernible musical talent, learns to play the guitar and investigates how anyone—of any age —can become musical. Do you have to be born musical to become musical? Do you have to start at the age of six?

Using the tools of his day job as a cognitive psychologist, Gary Marcus becomes his own guinea pig as he takes up the guitar. In a powerful and incisive look at how both children and adults become musical, Guitar Zero traces Marcus’s journey, what he learned, and how anyone else can learn, too. A groundbreaking peek into the origins of music in the human brain, this musical journey is also an empowering tale of the mind’s enduring plasticity.

Marcus investigates the most effective ways to train body and brain to learn to play an instrument, in a quest that takes him from Suzuki classes to guitar gods. From deliberate and efficient practicing techniques to finding the right music teacher, Marcus translates his own experience—as well as reflections from world-renowned musicians—into practical advice for anyone hoping to become musical, or to learn a new skill.

Guitar Zero debunks the popular theory of an innate musical instinct while simultaneously challenging the idea that talent is only a myth. While standing the science of music on its head, Marcus brings new insight into humankind’s most basic question: what counts as a life well lived? Does one have to become the next Jimi Hendrix to make a passionate pursuit worthwhile, or can the journey itself bring the brain lasting satisfaction?

For all those who have ever set out to play an instrument—or wish that they could—Guitar Zero is an inspiring and fascinating look at the pursuit of music, the mechanics of the mind, and the surprising rewards that come from following one’s dreams.


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User Review - Flag as inappropriate

There are some really important ideas in this book, and some oversimplifications. I found myself very frustrated at times with the reduction of music to the playing of notes, the unconscious bias to a western conception of musical learning, or the reduction of understanding to the operations of the brain, but these are simply paradigm problems - what he says is not wrong it just doesn't show the whole picture. On the other hand his perspective on the evolutionary position of musicality is very interesting and thought-provoking. By presenting his broad literature review drawing on his own formidable research in the context of his personal experience as a musical learner Marcus has done something quite extraordinary here, and for all its flaws this is a fascinating book and invaluable to anyone who is serious about understanding musicality. 

User Review - Flag as inappropriate

This book completely misses what it means to be musical because it almost entirely ignores the actual lived phenomena of musical experience - musical tones and their motion - and attempts to account for it all by relocating music in the brain. The author makes many highly misleading assertions: in experiments, infants' brains allegedly "displayed a common measure of surprise"; "my brain managed to re-encode the whole complex" -- such statements commit what the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead called the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness". They impute to the brain aspects of conscious musical experience, as if brain functioning explains the facts of musical life. He claims that the brain "stores and retrieves melodies or motifs", but presents no evidence that any melody actually gets "stored" in the brain, nor that such a thing could even be possible.
It is evident from the author's autobiographical account of how he learned to play guitar that he loves music. But, unfortunately, his theoretical framework provides little enlightenment about what happens when we hear music.


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About the author (2012)

Gary Marcus studies evolution, language, and cognitive development at New York University, where he is a professor of psychology and the director of the NYU Center for Child Language. The editor of the Norton Psychology Reader and author of three books about the origins and development of mind and brain, Marcus has written articles for The New York Times, Wired, Discover, and The Wall Street Journal, and has appeared on radio and television programs around the globe.

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