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thinking through music, sound and culture

Category: flow

On Gary Marcus’s “Guitar Zero”

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.

***

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.

Intangible Things: On Victor L. Wooten’s “The Music Lesson”

New Age : “an eclectic group of cultural attitudes arising in late 20th century Western society that are adapted from those of a variety of ancient and modern cultures, that emphasize beliefs (as reincarnation, holism, pantheism, and occultism) outside the mainstream, and that advance alternative approaches to spirituality, right living, and health

Victor L. Wooten’s book The Music Lesson (Berkley Trade 2008) caught me off guard. I came across the book entirely by accident and after having read its first few pages didn’t know if I felt quite compelled to keep at it. So I put it down. And then picked it up again, kept reading a bit. And then put it down again, back and forth, oscillating on how I felt about it. The Music Lesson was speaking in common tones, asking me to forget thick theory for a moment to follow an invented story about what it means to understand music and being musical, making music with meaning—or, as the cliché goes, with heart and soul. Hmm. I put the book down, and then picked it up again. I kept at it. If I stumbled upon the book I should at least have the patience to stay a while and listen, right?

Wooten is a distinctive musician. A bassist since he was a toddler, he’s well-known for his work with the banjo player Bela Fleck. Here is a clip of Wooten playing a virtuosic rendition of “Amazing Grace”:

As if musical skills on their own weren’t enough, Wooten is also a naturalist and animal tracker, directing a one of a kind music camp in Tennessee that teaches musicianship by way of not just musical instruction but also nature exploration.

***

In The Music Lesson, a fictional account of a set of music lessons, we first encounter Wooten at time in his life when nothing seems to be working. He wants to improve his musicianship, but seems stuck in a rut of old practice habits that aren’t paying dividends. Then, as if by magic, a series of music teachers appear in Wooten’s life to guide him on his spiritual quest through a number of musical concepts. The main teacher is Michael, a mysterious trickster-like figure with eyes that change color on occasion and who comes across a little like a Native American sage and Zorro with a skateboard in tow. But there’s also Uncle Clyde, a homeless old man who plays a mean harmonica, Sam, a precocious boy wonder of a eleven-year old drummer who is wise beyond his years, and Isis, a quirky Russian fortune-teller with an intense interest in connection between numbers and music. Michael, Clyde, Sam, and Isis lead Wooten through a series of lessons on groove, notes, articulation, technique, emotion/feel, dynamics, rhythm/tempo, tone, phrasing, space/rest, and listening. By the end of the book, Wooten’s senses have been thoroughly reoriented, his musical life focused and energized.

Scattered through the text are a number of interesting ideas about music and musicianship. Below are a few of them that struck me.

First, music is inside the musician, not the musical instrument. There are many instances in the book where Michael admonishes Wooten for merely thinking of himself as a bassist rather than as a musician who happens to play the bass. The idea here is that musicality is more an orientation towards the field of the sonic rather than a technical competence on a particular musical instrument.

Second, dissonance in music is contextual. For instance, while two notes a semitone apart sounded together produce a “tense” sound when heard on their own (e.g. try playing the adjacent notes C and C-sharp at the same time), when surrounded by additional tones (e.g. try adding the notes F-sharp and A above to the C and C-sharp) the dissonance can sound quite different and in fact, consonant.

Third, when we say we dislike a music we are admitting a failure to perceive it adequately. In a passage about Wooten’s dislike of bluegrass, Michael tells him: “You are talking about you but blaming your lack of perception on this particular style of Music” (56).

Fourth, “beauty is something you experience, not something you prove” (73). This, to me, is a pure phenomenological stance, and probably what music does best: putting out an experience in time that may not mean anything specific or prove an argument, while at the same time bringing us on a virtual ride that feels important somehow.

Fifth, the idea that emotions are stored as a kind of infinite potential within a musical instrument (116). Admittedly, I had not thought much about this possibility, probably because I know myself to be more interested in what I’m feeling than what emotions may or may not be latent in the instrument. But each musical instrument certainly seems to have its own range of affective potential.

Sixth, a listener’s musical attention can be shaped and directed by playing fewer rather than more notes. Here, Michael explains to Wooten a strategy for accompanying a soloist in a way that his or her solo can shine: “We were creating a hole right in the middle of the music that allowed the soloist to stand there out in the open. We also simplified the music, directing all of the attention to the soloist. . .” (140). The lesson here is that by saying less, you can not only listen more, but also give other musical speakers room to breathe.

Seventh, “music is played from the mind, not the body” (158). This almost seems counter-intuitive, since musicians spend so much time refining their bodily relationship to their instruments. And yet, as listeners we’ve often had the experience of witnessing a musician who manages to hold our attention and compel us not so much through virtuosity per se but through sheer presence. The lesson here is that presence and focus are themselves kinds of musicality that transcend what the musical body can pull off.

Eighth, “you need to get your thoughts out of the way so that your true feelings can speak” (216). This idea relates to point number four above. If music is not about proving anything, but rather a tool for exercising perception, then we are best ready for it when we stop worrying about what it all means. From this perspective, music just is.

Finally, here’s Wooten on listening, perception and synesthesia: “What difference does it make who it is? What does it sound like and how does it make you feel? That is what is important. […] Allow your whole body to pick up the vibrations, using the whole body as an eardrum. […] We think that music stops at the ears. That is a mistake. Vibrations can be felt in all places and all times, even with the eyes. Music can be seen if your awareness is broad enough” (239-240). To illustrate this holistic approach to listening, there’s a striking passage at the end of the book where Wooten and Michael are out in the forest taking in its soundscape. As Michael learns to model his listening acuity on Michael’s, all of a sudden he’s having a full-blown synesthesia experience—seeing sound as color flowing through the forest creatures around him. (It’s pretty psychedelic actually and the image stayed with me for a while, even inspiring my own dream in which everyday objects began speaking in tones. But that’s for another blog post!) The lesson here is that there is potentially no end to listening as a full body—and even out of body—experience.

***

In sum, The Music Lesson is an idealized account of the musician as a kind of deeply knowing, in-tune seer, healer, and phenomenologist. Michael and the other teachers in Wooten’s life are voiceboxes for the author’s own musical philosophy, and while these at times cartoonish characters are a writerly conceit, it’s a conceit that works well to get Wooten’s many thought-provoking points across. Moreover, it perhaps goes without saying that it’s difficult to talk about philosophical aspects of musical experience without risking sounding cliché or even New-Agey. So hats off to Wooten for trying. I’m glad that I stuck with his zany story to its end.

Last but not least, The Music Lesson is ultimately about the importance of oral tradition to how musical traditions survive and evolve. By the book’s end the narrative circles around on itself, Wooten having taken the place of Michael as a teacher himself, appearing in the life of young musician—a musician that bears a striking resemblance to Wooten himself at the beginning of the book—just at the very moment the young man needs guidance. And so Music—that presence Wooten characterizes as feminine and always worthy of a capital M—lives on as a teachable perceptual power, helping us understand both ourselves and the worlds we live in.

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