Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Book review: Guitar Zero by Gary Marcus

guitarz.blogspot.com:

Gary Marcus is a professor of psychology at New York University, studying evolution, language and cognitive behaviour. Claiming to have no musical ability but a deep desire to make music, Marcus took advantage of the free time available to him during a sabbatical from work in which to get to grips with his instrument of choice, the guitar.

Guitar Zero documents his musical journey but also delves into the science of learning to play a musical instrument. It asks - and provides answers to - questions like: How did music evolve?; Are some people born to make music or is it a skill anyone can learn?; Is there such a thing as a natural talent?; and Is it only possible to learn to play an instrument at an early age or, contrary to popular opinion, can an old dog learn new tricks?

Marcus seeks out thoughts and advice from professional musicians, music teachers and scientists to help him answer these questions and makes some quite interesting discoveries. I don't think I'm going to spoil anyone's enjoyment of the book by giving away that one very interesting conclusion was that there is no cut-off age for mastering a new skill such as learning to play a musical instrument, and that there is no truth in the argument that you have to be a youngster to learn to play. However, a child learning an instrument is more likely to persevere than an adult because they simply do not have all the other distractions in life that an adult has.

I do worry that someone hitherto unmusical but with a desire to make music might be put off by reading this book, because it constantly stresses the hard work, the mental processes involved and the sheer number of hours of practice necessary. It, unfortunately, manages to make the whole process seem quite daunting and may indeed have the effect of conveying that there is simply too much effort involved. Yes, learning to play an instrument proficiently is demanding, but I feel that Marcus needed to stress more how rewarding it can be, and how much fun you can have with it.

Not enough is made of the fact that there are different levels of playing. You might not want to be proficient as such. Perhaps you just want to learn some basic chords so you can accompany yourself singing songs with friends, around the camp fire, or at an open mic event.

For the guitarist (and perhaps the readership of this blog), this isn't really a very guitary book. The guitar is there only really because it was the instrument that Marcus chose to learn. It could just as easily have been the piano or the saxophone; the book would have been essentially the same. The narrative seems to swing between two poles: the anecdotal stuff about Marcus's own personal quest (including an entertaining section on how as the only adult he joined a bunch of kids in a band at a rock camp), and the more sciencey bits about how the brain works and processes music. There was a whole chapter about how and why learning music is like learning a language and conversely how and why it isn't, much of which went straight over my head and during which I did find myself nodding off to sleep once or twice. It may be part of the bigger picture, but I could have skipped this whole chapter and still have taken away the same amount of meaning from the book.

My conclusions are that while the book sends out some very important and encouraging messages to anyone who's ever wanted to take up an instrument but always thought that they were inherently unmusical, that perhaps it is a bit too sciencey in places and needs to stress the rewards and benefits of learning to play rather than the colossal investment in time, hard work and patience.

Guitar Zero
Gary Marcus
The Penguin Press
ISBN 978-1-59420-317-6

G L Wilson

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