Guitar Zero: The Science of Becoming Musical at Any Age by Gary Marcus (Penguin Books, 2012)
Hooray for our library for ordering this book after I requested it! Janet has written a great review already (which is why I wanted to read Guitar Zero in the first place), so this will be short. For what the book's really about, read what she has to say; I'll just mention a few of my impressions. I have 36 Post-It flags marking sections that especially interested me, but have neither time nor energy to type out more than a few.
Guitar Zero is a much better book than Kluge, also by Gary Marcus. A bit of the professional arrogance I talked about in my review of that book comes through here when he's talking about the brain, but it's much less, and I might not even have noticed it had I read this one first. Now I understand why Janet perceived him as very humble: His first serious attempts to tackle playing the guitar, at nearly 40 years old, with no musical background except listening, and the handicap of an extremely poor sense of rhythm, took place during a two-week stay at the family's summer cottage, where he practiced for several hours each day, for two weeks, where not only his wife but also his in-laws could hear every painful note of his miserable beginnings. To me, who with few exceptions won't sing or play a note unless I'm completely alone in the house, Marcus's behavior speaks of humility at a level I can't even imagine. He also makes no attempt to hide his musical ignorance, though his musical learning is very impressive.
It was fascinating, in reading, to learn just how vastly ignorant I am of the kind of music most people love and know best. I've kept myself consciously and deliberately ignorant of rock 'n' roll and its spawn, ever since my sixth-grade art teacher inflicted on us every day in class the music of an oddly-named British group called the Beatles. So it was with a kind of perverse delight that I read Marcus's careful, meticulous explanation of the parts of music I've known since elementary school while tossing around names of bands and singers and musical techniques with the assumption that of course they needed no explanation.
Just a few quotes:
By around six or seven months, infants start to become sensitive to the shapes of melodies. Given enough exposure, they can detect when a note has changed, recognize a short melody even when it has been transposed upward or downward in pitch, and sometimes remember melodies for weeks.
And maybe even younger. I think of two different instances I've read about: one where the sibling of a young Suzuki violin student clearly recognized, after birth, the Vivaldi concerto she had heard her brother practicing during the previous nine months; the other the newborn baby of a professional cellist, who responded similarly to the works her mother had practiced while pregnant.
The process of forming chords [on the guitar] is further complicated by the fact that one's fingers don't naturally move independently. (Try, for example, to bring all of your fingers together, with your palm facing down, and then slowly move your pinkie back and forth; your ring finger, and possibly your thumb, will be tempted to go along for the ride.)
I have no trouble doing this, but it's easier with my left hand than with my right, the legacy of my very-long-ago violin playing in school and some teenaged efforts on folk guitar. I never got above the barely-capable level of playing, but the circuits for the necessary independent finger movement are still imprinted on my brain.
Marcus spends a lot of time analyzing the differences and similarities between music and language. Most of it makes sense, but I do quarrel with some of his reasoning. He makes much of the fact that nearly every child learns to speak, and easily, whereas music is difficult to learn, not natural. My point is that children are naturally and constantly exposed to language from before birth, have great incentive to learn to talk, and are constantly encouraged in their efforts. What if they were similarly exposed and encouraged in music?
[Speaking of a master teacher] The single point that Michele was most adamant about was a rule for when parents should correct a child's mistake: never, ever until the child had made that error at least three times. [P]arents who corrected their children could easily wind up destroying their kids' motivation.
Many people probably imagine that kids are simply quicker learners, but laboratory research suggests otherwise. In the few direct comparisons of "procedural" learning in children and college-aged adults, adults actually tend to be quicker learners than children. ... If kids outshine adults, it's probably not because they are quicker to learn but simply because they are more persistent; the same drive that can lead them to watch the same episode of a TV show five days in a row without any signs of losing interest can lead a child who aspires to play an instrument to practice the same riff over and over again.
I figured out one of the reasons why music had always been such a struggle for me: rhythm turns out to be deeply tied to the balance-tracking vestibular system. Since I was a child, my vestibular system has been lousy. I could never bear to ride on a swing, despised being bounced up and down, routinely became nauseated when sitting in the back of the car, and opted out of roller coasters altogether. A new study showed that electrical stimulation of the vestibular system can directly affect rhythmic perceptions, and in retrospect it is easy to see why rhythm has always posed a challenge for me. It's a pretty safe bet that Jimi Hendrix enjoyed being bounced as a baby a lot more than I did.
Guitar Zero is almost enough to make me pick up an instrument again ... if only I could be humble enough to let someone hear me. And who am I kidding? Marcus proved (as John Holt did before him) that it's never too late to learn, what would I give up in order to find the hours and hours I'd need to practice?