From (guitar) zero to hero

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First aired on Quirks & Quarks (18/2/12)


It's a story we all know too well: a man is approaching his 40th birthday and decides to take on a new project or learn a new skill. Maybe he buys a motorcycle or decides to backpack around Europe. Or maybe, like Dr. Gary Marcus, he decides to learn how to play guitar. However, Marcus isn't just a wannabe musician going through a midlife crisis. He's a neuroscientist and psychologist at New York University, and he brought the tools of his work as a cognitive scientist specializing in language acquisition to his new hobby. In effect, Marcus became his own experiment in musical learning, and chronicled this journey in a new book, Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning.

What Marcus discovered is that, even if you're approaching 40, and even if you have absolutely no musical talent whatsoever, you're in luck. First, music is a learned skill, not an instinct. "There's not one spot in the brain that clearly does it," Marcus explained to Quirks & Quarks host Bob McDonald in a recent interview. For example, he pointed out, "spoken language is built in, we have an instinct to acquire it. But music is more like reading. You can learn it with enough practice, but that doesn't mean it's built in."

However, Marcus is quick to point out that having certain genes, like the genes for dexterity and rhythm, make it easier for some to learn music than others. While it may be a cliché to say that "practice makes perfect," Marcus admitted it's closer to the truth that we realize. "The best musicians, for example, are people that both practice and have the most relevant genes that predispose them to music," he said. He added that this is true for all professions, not just music. "The people that are really at the top are the people who have the right genes and are the most industrious."

Research has also demonstrated that the belief that adults are unable to learn as they age is simply wrong. "We now know that adult human brains can grow new neurons, at least in certain places," Marcus said. Besides, anecdotal evidence has been proving otherwise for years. "Adults have been learning new things all along."

So, what's the attraction to learning music as a new skill? Marcus says music triggers two distinct "rewards systems" in our brain: familiarity and novelty. Familiarity works like this: "Our brain gives us a little jolt of dopamine whenever we make a correct prediction. It's like the brain saying 'hey, we're on track, we're doing well here.'"

However, we also "get a big kick out of learning something new," Marcus said. And this is where music finds its big attraction: it is successful at combining the new and the familiar. "There are lots of techniques in music to continually remind listeners of what they just heard, but also adding something new," he explained. "It's a good feeling to say, 'Hey, I really get this' and 'Hey, this is new.' If you get both of those at the same time, you're going to be happy."

The biggest lesson Marcus took away from all his research? It's simple: it's fun to try new things. "My experience shows that even if you don't have the right genes, you can have a heck of a lot of fun."

Eating Dirt.jpgGuitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning
by Gary Marcus

Buy this book at:

Save on Music, Books and Dvds at Indigo

From the publisher:

"Guitar Zero stands the science of music on its head, debunking the popular theory of an innate musical instinct and many other commonly held fallacies. At the same time, it raises new questions about the science of human pleasure and 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?"

Read more at Penguin Canada.