What happens when a smart, educated, but musically inept psychology professor attempts to learn guitar and write a book about it?  You get a fascinating glimpse of what it takes to learn music and the challenges it poses for the beginner, learn a whole lot about how and why humans learn complicated skills, and come away inspired that anything might be possible if you put in the time and effort.


As a professional musician who doesn’t even remember learning to read music, I was not once bored by this account that is accessible to people who know nothing about music.  Since Marcus learned even the basics of music as an adult, his take on something as simple as a scale is thought-provoking.  As one unfamiliar with the pop and jazz traditions, most of the names and songs mentioned were unknown to me, but that didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book (and the names I did know usually came with an explanation – go figure.)  Guitar Zero is an engaging account of Marcus’s journey first to find if it is even possible to learn music as an adult, and then inspiringly, to become a musician who could improvise and compose (if not make big bucks).  His story acts as a skeleton on which to hang all sorts of information related to music and the science of learning.  He discusses such questions as whether kids are better than adults at learning music and other complex skills; what’s the best way to teach music; what makes good music; what makes a good musician and which skills are necessary and which are not; whether talent exists or practice is all that matters; and whether or not music is closely related to language and as such whether we are born with some predisposition for music making or not.  He discusses each of the questions with plenty of examples, studies, and opinions of accomplished musicians of all kinds.  With 27 pages of references for a 234 page book, this is no mere “how I did it” account, which leads me to one of the main reasons the book works so well.


It takes a colossal amount of humility to learn something as complex as music for the first time when you’re nearly 40.  Marcus never mentions this (how can you mention humility without destroying it?), but he has a good share of it, as evidenced by his willingness to be the underdog with group of 11 year olds for the chance to play in a band.  That is something most adults would never contemplate and I believe such an attitude of childlike acceptance is part of why Marcus was so successful and why so many famous musicians accepted his requests for interviews and helped him on his journey.  The book is also blessedly free of anything close to profanity, which for a modern book about (much more than) rock music, is exceedingly rare.  Not to mention the fact that if anything is to elicit cursing, surely learning to contort your fingers on a fretboard for the first time (not to mention everything else involved in learning music) is one of them!


Guitar Zero provoked so many thoughts I cannot possibly share them all, but here is an attempt to get a few down.


 First, I must apologize for calling him “musically inept” at the start of this review.  As a child Marcus may never have had a teacher willing to stick with him despite his lack of talent, but he was always an avid listener, and as he concludes at one point in the book, listening is the critical foundation necessary for learning any kind of music.  From this perspective, he had a leg up and was by no means ignorant, though he lacked formal music training, but as he also points out, in music, lessons are optional.  Many famous musicians never had a lesson in their lives, or never learned any music theory, or learned it late in life.  In this and other observations Marcus is spot on, much to the embarrassment of professionals like me trained in the classical tradition, but he lets us down gently, which I appreciate.  For example, he starts the section about teaching music by lavishing praise on a gifted Suzuki teacher and naming all the elements of her teaching that make her great.  Only after several pages of praise for this teacher and her students does Marcus go on to name a few of the drawbacks of Suzuki training.  It’s worth quoting:

“Another drawback of Suzuki instruction is that it typically tends to teach children little or nothing about improvisation.  Much as in the classical conservatory tradition, the emphasis is largely on playing the great works as the great musicians played them, rather than developing a student’s own ideas, and while there is indubitably value in that, there is also considerable value in each individual student learning that he or she can make his or her own music.  In my own case, the discovery of the joys of improvisation have outweighed virtually all else, yet many musicians trained in the classical style (be it through Suzuki or lessons at Juilliard) feel that they have never learned to improvise.  I can’t help but feel that they are missing out on some of the greatest joy that music can bring.  Another common complaint about Suzuki, which worries me less, is that children trained in that method often don’t learn to read music; true, but to my mind not as essential (as I will explain later.)”

I find his words painfully accurate.  As much as I appreciate my music training, I have often felt only half a musician because I don’t compose or improvise.  (Thankfully Marcus doesn’t call me half a musician, he just says I’m “missing out”.)  Being an excellent sight-reader gave me a number of gigs and was indispensable in orchestral playing, but I still felt the lesser musician amongst my Irish-American friends who could play for hours from the music in their heads.  If you put me in a room without a music stand, I could hardly play a note, and in that I was not alone.  What’s worse, the more you know about music, and the better you play, the more you know any improvisational and compositional attempts you make to be vastly inferior.  I’m reminded of my English students in Japan who could hardly speak a word of English, but not for lack of knowledge.  The all knew the mistakes of any poor kid who dared open his mouth, but could do no better themselves.  In this case I think ignorance is bliss.  You must practice production early on in the process of learning something, or you will be forever trapped by your increasing knowledge of how inept you are.  Here is where I wish I had Marcus’s humility.  Who cares if what I compose is junk?  It won’t get better if I don’t practice!


And speaking of practice, Marcus doesn’t find the 10,000 hour idea of Anders Ericsson (made famous by Malcolm Gladwell in his book ‘Outliers’) to be very convincing.  He gives an impressive list of counter examples: some people just get it faster than others.  Some people never hit the big time despite the hours.  Good practice is still essential, and Marcus defines it in a more helpful way than “perfect practice makes perfect.”  He defines effective practice as targeting your weaknesses and learning new skills (as opposed to just rehearsing what you already know.)  What’s more, the set of complex skills needed for making music requires significant changes in the brain, and that takes time, both of intensity and duration.  He realized his only hope of learning to play would be to become immersed himself in it.  A few minutes, or even hours once a week wouldn’t cut it.  You just forget what you learn in the space between sessions and have to do the work over again.  Here’s one quote related to what happens in the brain as you practice.


“Alas, the only known way to defy the speed-accuracy trade-off is through practice, using the only technique that the brain can bring to bear, a process known as automatization or proceduralization, in which the brain makes a transition from explicit or “declarative” knowledge, which can in principle be verbally articulated (albeit slowly), to implicit or “procedural” knowledge, which can be executed rapidly.  As knowledge becomes proceduralized, we sometimes feel as if we know something in our fingers or muscles but lose the capacity to explicitly explain what is going on.”


The last thoughts I’ll share (if you’re still with me) are more question than opinion.  In the teaching section Marcus concludes that the teacher is more important than the method.  I find this terrifying.  Does a method only work if the teacher is talented?  I guess that answer is fairly obvious, no method can survive a bad teacher, but if it’s not method, but teacher, is teaching teachable, or not?  How many students have bad teachers because most teachers wanted to be performers, not teachers, and what’s that doing to our kids?  If the teacher is more important than the method, would parents make the best teachers because they know their kids the best?  Marcus cites a study that kids learn best when the have success 80% of the time.  If it’s too easy or too hard they get bored or frustrated.  It seems to me as a parent you have the best chance as gauging the 80% for your child, and it surely seems that this study spells doom for classroom teaching.  How on earth could you keep each kid at 80%?  Of course the idea of teaching your own kids begs the question of how much musical ability the parent needs.  For a teacher to point out a weakness or share a more efficient fingering, the teacher must know at least a little bit more than the child.  How much more?  Suzuki uses the parents to help kids practice effectively (and regularly, which is also key for making progress) by keeping them one step ahead of their child and it works.  Do you just need to know when you’ve reached your limit?  Remembering the observation that lessons seem to be optional, and it seems that anything goes as long as the student has drive.


And speaking of drive, what makes someone put in the thousands and thousands of hours to learn music?  Marcus squarely refutes the Freudian idea that we make music to win girls.  Music making brings a high that is far above sexual fulfillment.  Hurray for him!  I can’t do his arguments justice here, but it was refreshing to read such a clear and scientific explanation of why Freud’s ideas are simplistic and misguided.  Marcus concludes (and I heartily agree) that the reason why we make music is a far more complex and subtle question, and it’s worth reading the book to find out.

Thanks to Monica who let me borrow the book!

Posted by harp on Tuesday, January 8, 2013 at 2:35 pm | Edit
Permalink | Read 1330 times
Category Philosophical Musings: [first] [previous] [newest] Music: [first] [previous] Review: [first] [previous] [next] [newest]

Sigh. I just took this book out of my Amazon shopping cart -- placed it in "Saved for Later" so I could place an order without it -- but now I'm excited again. I thought I might read it when we come visit, but then remembered it's a borrowed book. But I've settled for placing a request for the library to order the book, and in the meantime placing a hold on one of the author's other books.

Have I mentioned before how behind I am on my reading ... and yet I keep asking for more books???

Posted by Linda Wightman on Tuesday, January 08, 2013 at 3:46 pm

His comments about the 10,000 hour rule remind me of one of Gretchen Rubin's (Happiness Project) maxims: The opposite of a profound truth is also a profound truth. It's paradoxical, and of course not always valid—but surprisingly accurate.

Posted by Linda Wightman on Tuesday, January 08, 2013 at 8:56 pm

Thanks for the review, Janet! :) This gives fresh perspective on some things I continue to struggle with.

(My own mother was my piano teacher, and she had a strong emphasis on learning theory as a child, following the exact marks of any piece, and an expectation of performance-level quality before "graduating" to a new piece. No improv. No creation. And very little feedback or constructive criticism. A regimen that predictably led to me removing myself from the program as I hit high school. I still play, and an delighted to recently have started pushing myself to learn hymns and try to play with others.) Many of the music lovers I know have none of the theory I grew up with, but possess a much more intense passion about performance and creation. It's not coupled with a willingness to learn, and so I'm often stymied when the conversation turns to music. How can theory not be relevant? How can excellence not be important to strive for in practice? How can you refuse to learn to read music if you want to produce it? I get bogged down easily. :)

Posted by Brenda Carroll on Tuesday, January 08, 2013 at 9:01 pm

Wow! I am so glad you enjoyed it! I will look forward to reading it, and now regret letting it out of my hands unread! Just kidding, keep it until you are ready to send the whole lot back.

Your comments are so interesting. I wonder if a lot of the ability to improv is also related to the history of the instrument. (I know zero about music, so bear with me)- Aren't certain instruments- guitar, fiddle (are these just violins?), sax- more likely to be used improvisationaly than an orchestral instrument by tradition?

Let's hope that music illiterate parents CAN teach their children music, because we just hauled a digital piano home from CA and that experiment is about ready to begin...

Posted by Monica on Thursday, January 10, 2013 at 7:54 pm

I am now done with reading all three books (but I still have to capture some thoughts on them) and hope to send them back by the end of January.

You are partly right about the history of an instrument having an impact on how much a modern player might improvise, however, the sad piece of information that you are missing is that Western art music (a better description of "classical music")used to have a VERY strong improvisatory culture, which sadly slowly died out for various reasons. Bach was known best as a master improviser in his time. The sharp distinction between composer and performer that is a given in the "classical music" tradition of today is most regrettable, and I think part of why audiences are dwindling.

(Fiddle usually is used more to describe the type of music played rather than a physical difference, but there are physical differences as well. Wikipedia is probably a good intro here.)

Posted by IrishOboe on Thursday, January 10, 2013 at 8:52 pm

We have the Classical Kids CDs for several composers, and the Bach CD actually has the Bach character improvising various styles over the same nursery rhyme/song... I would not have thought of that had you not mentioned Bach.

I'm seeing there is some division of thought in the music world- the professor on my Fundamentals of Music (Great Courses) feels strongly that one should NOT improv classical pieces, but stick to the line notes provided by the composer. Interesting!

Posted by Monica on Friday, January 11, 2013 at 5:58 am

Interesting—we got Fundamentals of Music for Christmas, but haven't watched it yet. Maybe Robert Greenberg will come down a bit from his pedestal. (We have lots of Greenberg courses.)

Posted by Linda Wightman on Friday, January 11, 2013 at 1:33 pm

Ok Janet, I'm shooting from the hip here again with my music ideas... Bear with me...

Charlotte Mason believed that children could learn to write well first by hearing and reading good writing, then by directly copying it, then by imitating it, and finally moving on to original composition. She felt this worked, in part, because it gave the child time to acquire knowledge and experience in other domains, so that when they finally had trained their "writing ear", they had also found something interesting or insightful to say.

Could music be so different? You (and by you I mean anyone who can play well) have certainly acquired the technical skills to play well, you have imitated great artists, but maybe you need a crutch to move on to composition. What would happen if you set out to compose a score to a favorite children's story (for example)- one with a bit of a repetitive story line... sort of like Peter and the Wolf? I suddenly had this thought today as I was reading "Something from Nothing" to the kids today (a Jewish folktale featuring a young boy named Joseph, coincidentally).

Just thinking out loud.

Posted by Monica on Saturday, January 12, 2013 at 1:27 am

I don't know anyone who would say we should improvise over music that wasn't meant to have any improvisation. What I lament is the composer-performer split we have in the Classical tradition today. Composers write down every little detail and the performers produce them as acurately as possible. It wasn't always like that. Dynamics, ornaments, phrasing, articulation, the voicing of harmony and many other aspects were left up to the performer until the Romantic period where they started to be dictated by the composer more and more. That is part of why one piece of music sounds quite similar no matter which orchestra plays it, which is also a pity, in my opinion.

As for composing, I'm sure I could learn, and much faster than someone without musical training, but imagine someone who has spoken and read English all his life but never had to write it. Sure, he could learn, but his first many attempts won't be that impressive. It's much better to start writing earlier on in the process (though of course listening and speaking certainly have to come first!). I lack the drive enough to overcome my pride of not wanting to produce junk, though I'm sure to most people it wouldn't sound like junk - I know better!

Posted by IrishOboe on Monday, January 14, 2013 at 6:29 pm

You know better, and you know your musical friends know better, and expect better.... A tough obstacle to overcome, I'm sure.

Posted by Linda Wightman on Monday, January 14, 2013 at 7:34 pm
Add comment

(Comments may be delayed by moderation.)