“Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning”by Gary Marcus
read by (and with music performed by) the author
published by Penguin Audio
5 hours and 33 minutes

I wasn’t really sure what I was in for when I decided to give this book a listen but I’m very glad I did take the time. All my life, I’ve wanted to learn how to play a musical instrument, I’ve tried the guitar, I’ve tried the keyboards (yeah I would say piano, but when I wanted to be in a new wave band, we called them keyboards), I even tried the harmonica. But like the author Gary Marcus, I had a bad sense of rhythm. Even when I tried breakdancing, I was good until the rhythm became an issue. So what’s a fella to do? After all they say that If you want to become a musician you have to start out when you’re younger, because your brain is wired in such a way at younger ages you can learn and absorb. Gary Marcus, is a research psychologist whose work focuses on language, biology, and the mind at New York University, sets out to find out whether that myth is true. Marcus wants to learn guitar and thinking he has no sense of rhythm, he can’t even play the video game “Guitar Hero” without getting booed off the virtual stage.

What turns out to be one man’s search for whether or not he is too old to learn guitar turns out to be a very unique book that discusses the science of learning and then develops into the science behind music, creativity, thinking and training. As I listened to the book each chapter would engross me more and more when topics would be explored. Marcus used many musical examples and interviews in the revealing process. Some of the items mentioned are how Jimi Hendrix would modify his guitar to make it do what he wanted, how Hendrix spent every living moment with his guitar. How Pat Metheny says he never stops learning and practicing. How Bob Dylan decided to go away from the traditional folk music scene and start writing unique lyrics.

Lots and lots of great modern music history references as well as examples in studies as to how the mind works and what all is involved in becoming musical. Basically it all comes down to all you folks that play Guitar Hero or even Rock Band and think, “Hey, I can do this for real,” and then go to pick up a real guitar only to get frustrated, Gary Marcus explains why you can press colored buttons in perfect rhythm but may not be able to master a real guitar anytime real soon. First of all the body and the mind have to learn many things. The body needs to learn to press down strings on a fret board in positions the human fingers weren’t meant to be in. There’s also the varying amount of pressure it takes to hold down the strings to get the right sound, the memorization of different notes and chord placements. Then there’s the ear training, what each note sounds like and what notes work with other notes (same with chords). Very different from colored buttons on a plastic guitar mold controller.

Not only does the author cover the science behind playing instruments but he also discusses the science behind creativity. There is a section when talking about the difference between being musical and being creative where Steve Vai says that while he can play every single not Jimi Hendrix played and make it sound exactly like what Hendrix did, what gets him is how he was able to come up with the ideas in the first place. Which brings up another aspect of being a musician, whether one is born with the ability or if it is learned and if so why are some people more apt to be musical.

This book is perfect for the professional musician or the novice and better yet for anyone with just the slightest interest in music. Another person that would benefit from this book would be anyone in the education field. So I guess just about anyone would find something in this book that would pique their interest, especially if personal re-invention is in the works and someone is seeking to reach their full potential.

What I got out of the book is not only the old adage of “practice makes perfect” but how to make that practice more perfect for me.

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