Stratoblogster Labs: Book Review — “Guitar Zero”

Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning is a recent book release by Gary Marcus, an author and MIT-educated cognitive psychology research professor who teaches at New York University.

In spite of being a really smart guy and music lover, Marcus’ own attempts at learning to play musical instruments from grade school age to adulthood were futile, as he struggled with music-aptitude issues made worse by useless clock-watching music teachers.

Then in his late 30’s, Marcus became hooked on playing Guitar Hero, got pretty good at it and decided to take another crack at playing a REAL guitar.

And that’s the premise of Guitar Zero. Such a book was destined to appear eventually as this topic has seen a fair amount of discussion within guitar culture over the past few years.

I’m glad Marcus took this on, because his book isn’t simply a fluff about a video game’s valid or invalid role in influencing actual guitar heroes. Guitar Zero is an in-depth exploration into various perspectives of music as a talent, a perception and a process. As one might expect based on the author’s background, the early chapters take us into the tedious territories of genes, brain mapping, brain chemistry, neurology, linguistics and human evolutionary references. We even touch on the differences between gray matter brain tissue and the white stuff. Yum!

Fortunately, though, the text blooms into more aesthetic realms as Marcus relates hanging out with the likes of Pat Metheny, Tom Morello and shredder/teacher Tobias Hurwitz. He meets Hurwitz at Day-Jams band camp, where the author joins a kids’ band for a week and has a major epiphany about the nature of music which merges science with Zen.

He also debunks some older theories about talent and music extending back to Darwin. For example, Jimi Hendrix is used to illustrate different points, ultimately leading to why humans don’t simply create music to attract a mate, and why Malcom Gladwell’s 10K hour rule doesn’t always apply.

Other facets I found interesting include discussions about whether language or music evolved first, as well as various historical research references, and a review of a few current music instruction curriculums that get results by nurturing creativity—instructors take note.

Overall, Guitar Zero is a very contemporary-style text on musicology and music anthropology. And although Marcus’ approach comes from a scientific and psychological perspective, he’s not bound academia for its own sake.

For awhile, it seemed odd that he never refers to spirituality, in spite of the fact that musicians often place emphasis in this area. However, one feels the author may have skirted around such terms out of respect. Through his own process and experiences, he seems to arrive at Death Cab’s point where “Soul Meets Body” in a jam session; resulting in the extraordinarily profound statement that, “Music isn’t a special inborn modular mental mechanism; it’s a technology, refined and developed over the last fifty thousand years, in no small part to maximize flow.”

Read that again!

When I read that line, I knew that the Professor had become a musician.

JP Holesworth authors the Stratoblogster Guitar Blog and resides in rural Oregon, surrounded by Pinot Noir vineyards, hop plantations, medical MJ farms and extreme environMENTAL consciousness. But he loves red meat and vacuum tubes!

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