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Notes From A Former 'Guitar Zero'


This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm John Dankosky, sitting in for Ira Flatow. OK all you wannabe rock stars, take heart, it's not too late to learn the guitar according to my first guest, Gary Marcus. Fitting into those shiny Spandex pants, that might be another matter, another show.

At the relatively old age of 38, at least old for learning an instrument, Dr. Marcus decided to use his sabbatical to fulfill a lifelong dream, learning to play the guitar. He started with a video game, "Guitar Hero," and many attempts at the Foghat classic "Slow Ride."

And while that might be enough for the average person to consider quitting, Dr. Marcus persevered, and he wrote a book about his experience and what it tells us about the science of learning. He's with me now. Dr. Gary Marcus is a professor of psychology at NYU and director of the NYU Center for Language and Music. He's also the author of "Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning." And he's here with a guitar today. Thanks for coming in.

DR. GARY MARCUS: Thanks very much for having me.

DANKOSKY: You can give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. That's 1-800-989-TALK. If you're on Twitter, you can tweet us @scifri. If you want more information about what we'll be talking about, you can go to our website at sciencefriday.com. And if you go to sciencefriday.com/sciarts, you can see Gary with his band. And we'll be talking more about that a little bit later on.

Well, first of all, tell us about what you did and why. You've always wanted to play guitar. What made you do this?

MARCUS: Well, I always loved music, but I always thought I had no chance whatsoever of becoming a musician, not even like a great musician but just one who could play and amuse himself and maybe not frighten away his friends. But my earlier experiences were pretty dreadful. I've later learned a lot of people have the same kind of bad experience.

But what happened to me was I tried to play recorder in fourth grade, and I tried to play "Mary Had A Little Lamb," that notoriously difficult classic, and I didn't actually realize that notes had different durations. And my teacher didn't realize that I needed to be taught that, I guess. And my teacher kind of gave up on me, I think prematurely, and said, you know, perhaps your talents lay elsewhere, which was undoubtedly true. My talents did lay elsewhere, but it was kind of traumatic, and maybe a better teacher could've worked with me.

And then in graduate school, there was something called the miracle piano, which you could hook up to a Macintosh, and it was kind of like a typing tutor but with a piano keyboard. And I did the first five lessons, and then I got to lesson six, which was about rhythm, which has always been my weakest point, and I just couldn't get through the lessons. So there were no miracles to be had there, and I kind of gave up on that.

And there was a series of sort of misadventures every few years. What really led to me playing was actually playing the game "Guitar Hero" and not once but twice. The first time, that was a disaster, too. You mentioned "Slow Ride." I kept playing that song, and if you do well, you press the little colored buttons when the dots go down. If you do well, then it sounds like you're playing the song. But if you do poorly, which is what happened when I first played, the crowd starts to boo, and eventually the word fail pops up on the screen.


MARCUS: And so it was very traumatic. I actually gave up on that, too. And then my wife played a similar game with some friends and got excited about it, and she helped me to actually get through the first level, and it was really inspiring. I was like wow, I can actually do this if someone just tells me I'm late, or I'm early.

And because I always loved music, when I suddenly felt like maybe I could do this if I just did it nice and slow. I got really excited.

DANKOSKY: But "Guitar Hero" isn't exactly like playing the guitar, though.

MARCUS: It's only dimly like playing the guitar. So there's a rhythmical component, which is involved in both, although actually robots can play "Guitar Hero" just by looking at the colored dots and matching what's going on without any musical sense whatsoever. So it gives an illusion of playing guitar, but it's certainly not like the real thing.

DANKOSKY: So you started playing a real guitar. You started taking lessons, and this is a - we have a clip here of you playing maybe a couple months into your training. Let's listen to a little bit of your early work.


MARCUS: The part that sounds competent is a backing track. That's not me.

DANKOSKY: OK, so these are just sort of guys playing, grooving behind. Oh, I hear something.



DANKOSKY: So I don't mean to laugh, but you're sort of gently picking out these notes and not always the right notes. What...

MARCUS: Not always the right notes, not at the right time, the technique is bad, too. I mean, there's really not a lot to be said in favor of my playing there except that I kept at it.

DANKOSKY: And again, this is about six months in, right?

MARCUS: About six months in, just before I actually first got my teacher - my first teacher, which is perhaps not a coincidence. For a long time, I was afraid to actually go to a teacher, and I think this was just before I went to a teacher.

DANKOSKY: Well, you brought a guitar with you, and maybe you could pick up your guitar because we'd love to hear you play something now. I mean...

This is only the second time I've done this live on the radio. But here we go.


DANKOSKY: And so you're just - you're playing off the top of your head. You're not...

MARCUS: Just improvising there.

DANKOSKY: You're just improvising. And so how did you learn to do that? How did you get from not being able to keep the rhythm or pick out the right notes to being able to improvise?

MARCUS: Well, there's a lot of things involved in improvisation in music. One of them is just learning where the notes are, and that turns out to be much harder on a guitar than it does on a piano, for example, because on a piano, there's just basically one organization in every octave, and once you know it, you're done.

On a guitar, every octave is a little bit different, or every string is a little bit different, and that's a real challenge. And then you have to be able to play your right hand and left hand in coordination and time, and that's a challenge.

And then for me, the hardest was playing the notes in rhythm, and I spent a lot of time practicing with a drum machine to get better at that, and eventually I actually wrote an iPhone application called Chatternome, which is available on the iPhone store, that counts the beats out loud. So you hear my lovely wife saying one and two and three and four. And that helped me to internalize a sense of rhythm.

DANKOSKY: I want to get to some phone calls. If you want to join our conversation with Gary Marcus, 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Ray(ph), who's calling from Milwaukee. Hi, Ray.

RAY: Yes, hi, great show. I started studying guitar when I was 12, and I learned to read music and play classical guitar and was into all the rock, you know, Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Allan Holdsworth, Eddie Van Halen. But at the age of 38, I was offered to join a very famous punk band from Milwaukee known as the Violent Femmes.


RAY: And I learned to play the song I had to play with them that night onstage while the bass player...

MARCUS: What do I have to do?

RAY: I took over the bass. And it was Dennis Rodman's New Year's Eve party, and there was a riot afterwards. The band said you did so well...


MARCUS: I don't know if there's a question in there, but it's a great story.

RAY: (Unintelligible), we're going to hire you.

DANKOSKY: That sounds like the best night of anyone's life.


RAY: Yes, I would have to say it was a high point of my life.

MARCUS: What was the song, "Add It Up"?

DANKOSKY: Yeah, what was the song, quickly?

RAY: The song was "Gone, Daddy, Gone."

DANKOSKY: Oh, "Gone, Daddy, Gone," which of course we love. Excellent, we love a Violent Femmes reference. Thank you so much, Ray, for your phone call. So I'm sure a lot of people can identify with this. Since you put out the book, you're probably hearing from a lot of people who started playing again at age 35, 38.

MARCUS: Or 60 or 70. The most amazing emails, and I've gotten a lot of them, are people that are in their 70s and want to play for the first time or have the first time ready to dedicate their lives to it. So one person is a veterinarian. She's about to retire. She says she's 70, she's going to put in 50 hours a week. She asked me for a reference for a teacher. I told her to get in touch with Terry Roach(ph), and now she's taking lessons, and she's giving me an update every couple of weeks. It's great.

DANKOSKY: We've actually - we've got somebody on the line. Jacqueline(ph) is calling from Wyoming. Hi, Jacqueline.

JACQUELINE: Hello, how are you?

DANKOSKY: Good, good, what's on your mind?

JACQUELINE: Good. Well, listen, I didn't have a question for Gary, but I was - I'm driving home. I've got a four-hour drive in front of me, and I'm hearing him, and I'm just chuckling because the first time someone put a guitar in my arms, I was five years old, and it must have been meant to be, but all my life I kept telling people if I had the time, I'd love to learn how to play the guitar.

I'm going to be 60 in April, and I have finally picked it up.

MARCUS: Awesome.

JACQUELINE: And probably one of the best things I did was get an instructor that I could really identify with and who could appreciate my enthusiasm. And I always did want to be a rock star, and I think it is too late for that, but it's certainly not too late for learning.

And I just wanted to say thank you to Gary for bringing this up and writing the book and getting us there.

MARCUS: Thanks for calling.

DANKOSKY: Well, and thank you, Jacqueline, very much, and don't give up on that rock stardom just yet. So what's the difference in the brain of Jacqueline at 60 years old, trying to learn to play, from the five-year-old Jacqueline who maybe had a better shot at it? I mean, what's happening in the brain that's different, Gary?

MARCUS: It's less obvious than we used to believe. So we used to talk about a critical period effect, and the idea was you had to learn something when you were three or five years old, or you wouldn't be able to learn at all. Or maybe you had to learn it before you were 16 because you'd start thinking about sex, and you'd never learn anything after that.

But the data suggests that it's a much weaker effect. There's a kind of gradual falloff rather than a steep, sudden decline. And in fact on a lot of things, if you put adults and kids head-to-head, adults are actually better. So kids have more patience and more persistence. You can think about your five-year-old that watches the same DVD over and over again for a week.

Well, that same kind of force and energy can lead a child to get really good at a guitar, and most adults, they have day jobs, they have parents to take care of or kids to take care of, and they don't put in the same time. But it's not obvious that the brain really does these things in fundamentally different ways, maybe a little bit slower for the adults, but not fundamentally different.

DANKOSKY: What about this idea of 10,000 hours of practice or something? Does this really hold true?

MARCUS: It's a crude approximation for at least three reasons. One reason is that it depends what you're learning. So you can learn tic-tac-toe in a month, but a guitar is really a lifetime pursuit even for the greatest practitioners. So I interviewed Pat Metheny, and he's still practicing and still learning at 40 years of playing.

The second thing is the kind of practice matters. So if you just play the things you already know, you're not really going to get better. If you just do the same old riff, you're not really going to become a musician. So you have to do what Anders Ericson calls deliberate practice. You have to target your weaknesses. So for me, that was all about rhythm.

And the last thing is talent really does exist. So I think I'm a case study in the fact that you don't have to have talent to play at least a little bit, but if you wanted to be truly great, you probably would have to have talent because everything we do is a combination of genes and the environment. Talent is about the genes; practice is about the environment. And whatever we do is a combination of the two.

So a more realistic message is something like anybody can get fairly good at anything with 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, but to be truly great, you probably also have to have an innate gift.

DANKOSKY: Does everyone have some sort of innate ability for music, though? Is it like our ability to learn language? Or is music a completely separate thing?

MARCUS: I think that language is actually innate in the brain. Everybody automatically picks it up. Music, most people do, but not everybody does. So Freud was either tone-deaf or just completely opposed to music, and he, you know, had a reasonably healthy life. So music's not quite as essential to our brain wiring.

And I think that people get confused because the music that we hear now is so rich and sophisticated, and early music might not have had all the techniques available. So people forget, for example, that harmony is only 1,000 years old. So a lot of the things that we take for granted in music are probably more like a cultural invention, and it's something that the brain learns.

It takes us a few years, for example, to learn to sing, or in my case maybe a few decades, and you compare that to a songbird. The songbird can learn in like 90 days to sing in tempo and with the right pitch and so forth. So humans aren't that innately gifted at music. It's something that we develop.

DANKOSKY: And how about very, very quickly, before our break, people who speak in tonal languages like Mandarin Chinese, do they have any better ability to pick up melody?

MARCUS: So people, Mandarin speakers are more likely to have perfect pitch than non-Mandarin speakers. But even if you go to a conservatory in China, a music conservatory, where you're chosen on the basis of your musical talent, only about half the people have absolute pitch, and that's a sort of special sample.

So there may actually be a genetic component, and perfect pitch is something you need to cultivate, but it's not innate for anybody.

DANKOSKY: We're talking with Gary Marcus, whose book is "Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning." If you want to join us, 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. We'll be right back after this brief break.




DANKOSKY: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm John Dankosky. We're talking this hour about music and learning with Dr. Gary Marcus. He's a professor of psychology at NYU and director of the NYU Center for Language and Music. He's also the author of "Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning." He taught himself to play guitar late in life. He gave us a little bit of his guitar sounds already.

You can join us at 1-800-989-8255 if you want to join the conversation with Gary. So I wanted to ask about a talent in music. You mentioned this a little bit before. Some people just have it, and other people don't. You talked to somebody like Pat Metheny who works very hard with the talent that he has. What else did you learn about inherent talents for music in your research?

MARCUS: There's no one gene for music. There's not a music gene any more than there is a single language gene. But there are a lot of genes that affect talents. So there are genes that affect our sense of pitch, our sense of rhythm probably. There are genes about emotion that are important for being a good musician, being able to connect with the audience.

There are genes for physical dexterity, and all of these things, even though they're not specific for music, they're genes that can affect music. There's actually no gene that's specific for language, either. There's one gene that if it's impaired, we know you have problems with language, but it's also found in the lungs in chimpanzees that don't have language and so forth.

So genes do very general things, and they kind of coalesce to do more specific things.

DANKOSKY: I want to get to Ivy(ph), who is calling from Charleston, South Carolina. Hi there, Ivy, you're on the air.

IVY: Hello, yeah, I am an adjunct professor at the College of Charleston. I teach banjo, fiddle and guitar to college kids. And I find that these kids, whether or not they've had any - anything to do with music in their lives, other than maybe listening to it, really have no inhibitions. Whether or not they have any talent, you put an instrument in their hands, and they go OK, I can do this. But when I have grown-up students, it seems to me that even if they do have some modicum of talent or quite a bit that they're very inhibited, and there's always an excuse and always some reason to not just let themselves play.

MARCUS: I think you're absolutely right about that. I think the hardest thing for a lot of adults is accepting that they're going to make slow progress. So kids, I think they don't expect that after two days they're going to sound like Jimi Hendrix. They're just playing with a guitar and seeing what it can do.

And adults, because they know the music so well, they want to sound like the CD the first day they play, and it's just not realistic. And so one of the most important things an adult can do is to cut themselves slack.

DANKOSKY: Maybe some advice for someone. Lauren(ph) is Alexandria, Virginia. Hey, Lauren.

LAUREN: Hi. My dad is 55 years old, and he paid a whole lot of money for me to have 10 years of piano lessons and saxophone lessons and clarinet lessons and all of that. But he decided about a year and a half ago that he wanted to take guitar lessons. So he's taking guitar lessons from my old teacher.

And he'll call me once a month or so and say I just, I hate this, like I'm not getting any better at it, and I just want to quit. But he loves music, and he's never played anything before, and so he just gets so frustrated, and I just tell him don't give up. Do you have any advice for what he can do that will get him through those periods of frustration so he can keep going and actually enjoy practicing?

MARCUS: He may need a different teacher. So a lot of teachers are chosen because they're great musicians, and that doesn't necessarily translate into good teaching skills. And even a teacher that might be great for you might not be great for your dad. So there's a lot about individual fit. So a good teacher has to be kind of like a diagnostician, like a car mechanic. They have to be able to recognize the problems, and they have to be able to say this is a common problem, this is how I'm going to fix it.

And they also have to have good interpersonal relations with the person they're teaching. So if you're working with a conservatory student who's dedicated to being great, maybe you can just be kind of rough on them and say that's not it and just keep going. But if you're working with a beginner, then you've got to take steps.

One of my favorite parts of the book was I sat in on Suzuki guitar lessons with someone who taught six-year-olds in Brooklyn, and one of the things she realized is that the kids learn more at home than they do in class. And so she's really, really good about teaching the parents how to make a fun experience for the kids so the kids will keep practicing at home. Maybe you can flip that around and do it for the daughter.

And one of the things that this woman Michelle Horner(ph) says to the parents is never, ever correct a mistake that your child has made until they've made it at least three times. So - and the idea is to keep the home front from being a kind of hostile environment. So keep the amount of pressure that the parents is putting on the child to a minimum.

And if you have a teacher that's making your dad feel like he's not making enough progress, that's not necessarily helpful. So I would at least consider interviewing a few other teachers. There might be teachers that are more inclined to work with beginners and more patient.

DANKOSKY: You've looked at Suzuki. Why does that work so well, that method?

MARCUS: I think that one of the reasons it works so well is it has a great emphasis on technique and posture. So I followed this young girl Shiloh(ph) from when she started playing when she was six, and she's practiced every day for the last two years. And I had her at my opening night, I had a concert here at NYU, and she closed the show, and she practiced two years, and she was brilliant. And a lot of it was just about absolutely perfect technique. You know, every finger movement was just right.

DANKOSKY: Every finger movement was just right, that's not necessarily always musical, though.

MARCUS: I mean, I think partly it depends on the genre that you're kind of trying to play, and I think, you know, rock musicians might sometimes be sloppier than classical musicians. She was playing classical music. But I think that that emphasis on good technique is really important.

There are other things Suzuki might not necessarily do as well. So typically they're not always - there's less emphasis on improvisation in Suzuki, and so there are other methods that might be better for that.

DANKOSKY: Rachel(ph) is in Houston, Texas. Let's hear from Rachel. Hi there, you're on SCIENCE FRIDAY.

RACHEL: Hi, thanks for taking my call, I love the show. I listen whenever I can.

DANKOSKY: Thanks. What's on your mind?

RACHEL: Well, I wanted to make a comment about, well, two things that your guest said, one about innate musical ability in comparison with innate language ability in human beings, and the other had to do with absolute pitch.

DANKOSKY: OK, go ahead.

RACHEL: So I teach very young children, like two-year-olds, and I've even taught younger children than that. I don't teach them instruments. I teach them musicianship and music, singing and rhythm and movement.

MARCUS: The Dalcroze method or...

RACHEL: Yeah, based largely on Eurhythmics and Dalcroze.

MARCUS: I also talk about that in the book and sat in on some lessons.

RACHEL: Oh great, good. But anyway, my experience has been that the vast majority of human beings are born with musical talent - with musical gifts. I don't even say talent because I don't like the word, but that they are musical, that they can sing in tune and that they can keep a beat and that they have innate abilities to respond accurately to changes in tempo, changes in dynamics, changes in timbre of instruments, changes in mode, like from major to minor.

MARCUS: Yeah, I think that the psychological literature, the experimental literature, doesn't entirely bear that out. I mean, it does depend on what age we're talking about, but if you look at, say, how kids are singing in pitch when they're between two and three, a lot of them don't even realize there are discrete notes. They just kind of glide around. They're not really there.

There's been a fair amount of empirical research that I review in the book, and there are certainly some kids that get it right away, some kids that have a much better sense of pitch. But I don't think that it's by and large true.

There's a kind of arch quote from the psychological literature I won't be able to quite do verbatim, but it's something like children's early singing attempts are admirable but not always tuneful or something like that.

DANKOSKY: And Rachel, your other quick question was about perfect pitch, huh?

RACHEL: Yes, the other one is regarding just whether it's something that's innate.

DANKOSKY: And I apologize, I want to get to Gary quickly before we run – we're low on time here.

MARCUS: A piece of it might be innate, the ability to recognize the sounds. What can't be innate is how that maps onto, say, the piano keyboard because different cultures divide the octave in different ways. So what everybody has to learn with respect to perfect pitch, if they learn perfect pitch at all, is how to map the frequencies they hear into the notes as they are named in their culture.

DANKOSKY: Is there such a thing as perfect pitch?

MARCUS: Well, I mean, there are people that can, on any instrument, recognize within the sort of central octaves on a piano keyboard, can recognize that pitch. There are a lot of people that say they have perfect pitch but really just recognize it on their own instrument. And if you go out to the extremes of very low pitches or very high pitches, then a lot of people have trouble. So it's a complicated thing.

DANKOSKY: Now, you mentioned an app that you have. You have another app called - I think it's the 3-in-1 Improviser. Could you just tell us about that quickly? It's very cool and kind of science-y.

MARCUS: So I did a panel with Pat Metheny last summer at the World Science Festival, and he was going to improvise, and I was trying to figure out how to pull my own weight. So I made an iPhone app that would let people go home and without knowing anything about music improvise in a little way.

I'm sorry I don't have a live demo here, but at garymarcus.com, there's an app page, and there's a demo there where you can see what it does. But you twiddle some dials, and then it will make, for example, a minor scale and make a random melody in a minor scale, and then you can put a Japanese scale together with that, and then you can put two pieces together, and then you can start to tilt the iPhone around and make it go faster or slower or higher...

DANKOSKY: It's a little conductor. As you're tilting the iPhone, you can actually act as a conductor to the music, which is cool.

MARCUS: Exactly, and it's free. So go try it.

DANKOSKY: And free is pretty good. We've run out of time, but I want to thank Dr. Gary Marcus, a professor of psychology at NYU, director of the NYU Center for Language and Music. His book is called "Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning." Thanks so much, doctor, for coming in.

MARCUS: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.