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Non-Fiction Blog

New thinkers, mavericks and mavens

A Review: Guitar Zero by Gary Marcus

The following guest blog is written by Indigo's Regional Assortment Analyst, Andrew Rodwell.


When I was a teenager I learned to play several musical instruments. Of all of them, the guitar was my nemesis. Give me anything brass or with a reed I could play passably well, or at least not terribly, but the guitar required practice and dedication. I just wasn’t that dedicated and my interest waned over the years. A few years ago I finally admitted defeat and sold my acoustic guitar after a decade of disuse. But it would have been great to play the guitar as an adult. I love music and I truly admire musicians in their skill and artistry.

Evidently Gary Marcus, as he writes in Guitar Zero, admires their skill and artistry, too.

Guitar Zero is a little bit A.J. Jacobs and a little bit Steven Pinker. Gary Marcus wants to learn how to play the guitar before he turns 40, though he has no previous musical training…or obvious talent. Marcus describes his musical adventure in adult learning with establishing the challenges of learning the guitar over, for example, the piano. Marcus explains how learning the guitar is much more difficult than learning the piano due to the many different ways a guitarist can play the same note. Each note on a piano is assigned a unique key, quite unlike the guitar. Examining this difference leads Marcus to explore how the human brain understands music, both as a listener and as a player. 

Marcus is interested in what makes great musicians great. Physical dexterity is one of the characteristics needed for virtuosity. Great guitar players, he points out, have very fast and dextrous fingers. To me, the most interesting observation Marcus makes, is that virtuoso performances often manipulate timing and tempo to highlight the lead performance. If the lead performer plays just a few milliseconds ahead of their accompaniment, their performance will be noticeably more prominent to the listener.

And how the listener hears is as fascinating as the how the musician plays, especially the trained listener, such as a musician or a producer—who can hear things in the music most people do not notice. Musical structures create musical narratives or even jokes - if you know what you are listening for.  By the end of the book, Marcus can listen to Miles Davis and understand what he’s doing with his musical choices.  This deeper understanding leads to a deeper appreciation of  music.

Throughout Guitar Zero Marcus asks and attempts to answer many questions: Can a person learn to play a musical instrument later in life?  And learn to play it well?  Is there a critical period where a person is most apt to pick a new skill?  Professional thinkologist Malcolm Gladwell postulates that to be good at something you need to have done that thing for 10,000 hours. That may apply to many activities. Is this true of music as well? Can a person be born with musical talent? Does it give you a leg up if you come from a family of musicians?

I found Guitar Zero to be an engaging exploration of the cognitive geography of music and the human mind, and the social aspect of music making.  As noted above, Marcus’s most compelling and reverent theme is that of virtuosity; how some musicians can understand music so well—with its mathematical and often bizarre rules—that they can break those rules, improvise, and perform compositions that are greater than the notes from which they are composed.  Marcus does not answer the question of where virtuosity comes from, but that is alright, as long as there is beautiful music to listen to and gifted musicians to play it.

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