As a teenager, Gary Marcus wanted to be a scientist. Two decades later, as a professor of cognitive psychology at New York University, he wanted to learn to play the guitar. And, more important, he wanted to understand how he was learning it.

In “Guitar Zero,” Marcus uses his musical midlife crisis to frame a discussion of the science of adult learning and music’s effect on the human brain. For the past couple of decades, developmental psychologists have believed that complex skills, such as playing an instrument, are best acquired during brief windows of time, usually in early childhood, when the brain is more malleable.

For Marcus, now 42, this fertile musical moment had long since passed, and with it, his rock-and-roll dreams. But “Guitar Hero” — a video game in which players hold a plastic guitar and tap buttons in time to classic rock anthems — convinced him otherwise. He struggled at first but eventually got the knack. And so, with the aid of a few instruction books, some private lessons, a handful of consultants from the six-string Mount Olympus (Pat Metheney, Smokey Hormel) and a trip to rock camp, Marcus took on an actual instrument

Musicians’ biographies make good reads because they often trade in tales of fame, fortune and the suspension of good judgment. The hours and hours of practice that it took for, say, Keith Richards to learn his first solo are generally left undiscussed, because in comparison to his non-musical mischief, these efforts are pretty boring. So it goes with Marcus’s first forays into guitar, which play out one awkward and self-conscious paragraph at a time. “And even once one memorizes where one’s fingers are supposed to go, there is the by no means trivial matter of holding them all down at the same time, each perfectly aligned, without creating a foul noise known as fret buzz,” Marcus writes, detailing the plight of learning his first chords. Hendrix at Woodstock it ain’t.

The story line is only scaffolding, though — meant to hold the book together while Marcus pivots between brainy tangents involving music and its interaction with the human mind. His battle to conquer campfire chords leads into a discussion of how practicing an instrument can help rewire the brain’s primary motor cortex, allocating more sensory computing power to the necessary body parts. He ponders what it means, from a physiological perspective, to lose oneself in a heavy jam session, and he deconstructs musical lingo, such as the confusing but oft-cited distinction between “knowing how to play” and “knowing” (i.e., playing reflexively from the heart). And he examines how tweaking the balance between steady repetition and subtle variation makes a song more rewarding. “Composers have an almost infinite supply of tools for tapping into two of the most important yet complementary systems that drive human reward simultaneously,” he writes; “the one that rewards us for making successful predictions, and the one that rewards us for discovering something new.”

’Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning’ by Gary F. Marcus (The Penguin Press)

Recent studies corroborate his experience, suggesting that critical learning periods aren’t quite as binding as researchers had believed. Old dogs can pick up new tricks; it just takes them a little longer

But Marcus also finds non-scientific glories while bumbling his way toward his first blues solo — new friends, new experiences and a better sense of self. His primary interest is rock-and-roll, but there’s a hint of new-age sentiment to the book. It doesn’t take a PhD to understand the core message of “Guitar Zero” — that with serious study, anybody, no matter their age, can learn an instrument and that musicianship can be fulfilling, even without rock stardom.

Aaron Leitko is a music critic and an editorial aide for The Washington Post’s Reliable Source.


The New Musician and
the Science of Learning

By Gary Marcus

Penguin Press. 274 pp. $25.95