On Gary Marcus’s “Guitar Zero”

by Thomas Brett

About five years ago I began playing acoustic guitar. I played off and on for a while, learning chord shapes, and trying (without success) to build callouses on my fingertips. I also experimented with alternate tunings and used a capo, recording a number of chord progressions I thought sounded interesting (hear the audio file at the end of this post). As a musician familiar with the keyboard’s horizontal layout of black and white notes, the guitar presented a puzzling new geography that was both horizontal (notes getting higher as you move from left to right) and vertical (notes spanning the near low strings to the high ones located further away, down towards your feet). I learned a bunch of chords but also realized that it would take me years of practice/enculturation to groove a relationship and any kind of musical fluency with the instrument. Plus, I never really felt like a guitarist, only like a guy playing guitar. So I did the sensible thing: I quietly put away the instrument.

I thought about my guitar experience recently as I read psychologist Gary Marcus’s excellent Guitar Zero: The New Musician And The Science Of Learning, a memoir and neuroscience exploration of learning to play a musical instrument. The book is a story of the author’s journey learning guitar from scratch at age 39. Can he do it? He’s not especially young, and to make matters worse, he’s admittedly somewhat unmusical too–cursed with what he humorously describes as “congenital arrhythmia.” So this is the book’s conceit: Can dogged persistence, practice, close listening, and a good teacher set Marcus on his way to a musical life? Well, yes, kind of. Through the book we follow the NYU professor over the course of a sabbatical year from teaching as he takes lessons, learns chord changes, practices with metronomes, performs songs (on bass guitar) at an NYC children’s rock music camp, and even tries his hand at songwriting. Marcus doesn’t become a virtuoso but does achieve a newfound balance in his life through his guitar playing. Music, it seems, has a unique power to make our experiences meaningful: it gives us the sense of having a voice while simultaneously drawing on an array of physical and cognitive skill sets to make that sense possible in the first place.

Indeed, one of the pleasures of Guitar Zero is its fresh take on the cognitive complexities of learning and playing even the simplest of music. Rarely do we reflect on skills we already have, but any experienced musician reading this book will be energized to do just that, thinking through his or her own journey of coming to know music making as a physical-mental-spiritual presence by following Marcus’s progress. If nothing else, the reader may reflect on how making music requires a high degree of perceptual mastery (e.g. sound pattern recognition), the coordination of multiple muscles (e.g. think about the four limbs of the drum set player, each doing something different), and the engagement of memory and anticipation (for musical experience has no past or future, only the fleeting present). In terms of engaging, whole body-mind workouts, there’s simply nothing like making music.

But learning about the author’s musical progress—a story which in fact is fairly brief—is just one of the charms of this book. Other pleasures await in the many byways he opens up alongside the main story of learning to play guitar. These byways address a number of pressing questions about music, and they had me enthusiastically marking passages on my Kindle. What follows are elaborations on some of those questions.

To start, what makes great musicians great? While there are as many answers to this question as there are great musicians, one answer might be that great musicians have an ability to continuously monitor their performances, learn from them and then improve–a cycle that lead to their skills getting better and better and better over time. Case in point: the jazz guitarist Pat Metheny who tells Marcus that he makes detailed written notes after every performance which then become study guides for what went wrong and what went right. “A good part of expertise” says Marcus, “comes from diagnosing one’s own likely mistakes.” Surely not every great musician makes notes like Metheny, but setting up a feedback loop for continuing refinement seems to be a hallmark of expertise generally.

This idea of musical diagnostics brings us to the question of what makes a great teacher. Marcus observes a number of skilled teachers and notes that they’re all highly perceptive, with ears and eyes sharply attuned to spot technical and physical problems. Great teachers can propose solutions to musical problems too, connecting with their students by maintaining their attention and motivating them to improve. It can even be fun. One teacher observed by Marcus, J. Cirt Gill from Weaver Academy in Greensboro, NC, impresses the author in how he guides students to design their own podcast projects for his music production classes. Here, the teacher functions as a spark used by students who go on to light their own fires.

Marcus also considers the fire that is music performance and how performers–especially improvisers–know and create through their actions in the moment. A key question in this context: What’s the difference between declarative and procedural knowledge in music? The distinction between the two is important for aspiring artists studying master performers for clues–that is, for ways to extract theory from performance. But the catch is that procedural knowledge is all about working by feel in the moment. Here, Marcus cites the great jazz pianist Bill Evans as a model of procedural knowledge. Evans’ improvisations innovated new varieties of harmonizing that were only later codified into (written) theory. So, there’s good reason to believe that artistic innovation comes about not by consciously thinking about it (“I want to innovate…”) but by letting “the ways of the hand” (Sudnow 2001) do their thing, in the heat of the moment.

Marcus also examines the alleged connections between music and language, unpacking the sources of music’s omnipresence. “Why is music virtually ubiquitous” he asks, “when many other arts have a smaller presence in daily life?” Why is it that music is so pervasive in everyday social life no matter where you go in the world? No one knows for sure, but music’s ubiquity has led many to wonder whether or not there’s a music “instinct” in our DNA. Is there? No, there isn’t. Our “being musical” is the result of neural circuitry that’s been finely tuned over the course of human evolution, though not for music per se. Music isn’t the product of evolution, “but the product of artists evolving their craft in order to tickle the brain in particular ways.” Music’s ubiquity, then, is just something we’ve cultivated.

And perhaps music’s staggering variety of idioms reflects its ongoing cultivation. Indeed, there also seems to be a connection between the variety of personality types in the world and the varieties of musical taste. Marcus tells of how the perceived value of a piece of music “derives partly from the temperament of the listener.” Thus, extroverted types are said to prefer energetic and rhythmic music, and so on. This is interesting stuff to think about as a way of understanding the roots/routes of one’s own musical affinities.

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One of the most compelling ideas in the book is the author’s contention that music itself is a technology “refined and developed over the last fifty thousand years, in no small part to maximize flow.” This experience of flow can be felt in the euphoric feeling experienced while “jamming” with other musicians or while improvising. And what an invention music is! Consider a few things about it. First, its complex formal structures allow us to experience both novelty and familiarity at the same time. Second, because music unfolds over time and we can’t remember all of its details at once, it’s perpetually new. Finally, the physicality of music and its connection to our sense of motion makes it immersive and flow-inducing. What a package!

Many of music’s innovations are intellectual and not physical. For example, Marcus reminds us that the plainchant practice of 9th-century monks singing two different pitches at the same time (as opposed to singing in unison) lead to the development of organum, harmony, and eventually chord progressions as a way to organize music’s melodic flow over time. Likewise with the innovations of steady rhythm: “Virtually every song you hear on the radio nowadays” Marcus says, “combines these two musical techniques–harmony and steady percussion–both of which in essence had to be invented.”

As a technology, music has changed quite radically over the centuries, the two-dimensional quality of that 9th-century plainchant (“like paintings from before the discovery of perspective” says Marcus) giving way to the multidimensional, flow-inducing properties of harmony (which become increasingly expressive over the centuries). As a technology of sounding, music adapts to our ever-changing appetites, as each “new generation of artists craves new ways to broaden the palette, and hence better ways of keeping both listeners and performers entranced, in a state of flow.” Thus, electronic and digital technologies of 20th- and 21st-century music such as multitrack recording, synthesizers, electric guitars, microphones, and computers “are the musical equivalent of new species, which open up new niches and are in some ways better adapted to the environment than many of their predecessors.”

Finally, to return to music’s unique power, Marcus describes the philosophy of eudaimonia–the sources and cultivation of long-term, slow-burning human happiness. Making or listening to music, says Marcus, is a special way of being in the world “because of its potential for combining the hedonia of enjoying [it] in the moment with the eudaimonia of a constant sense of progress, as the musician continues to learn new techniques, create new songs, and make new discoveries.”

Guitar Zero, then, documents a wide-reaching musical trip. There’s a lot of material here, yet it’s covered in an accessible and engaging way that makes the journey fun. Yes, Marcus learns to play guitar decently. Yes, he performs with a band in front of a crowd. Yes, he even composes his own song. But, for this reader at least, the author’s worthy practical goals have also provided the perfect excuse to unravel some of music’s most enduring questions and experiences.

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