Do you want to learn how to play an instrument but think that you "can't teach an old dog new tricks?" Then you'd be interested in what Gary Marcus has to say. He's a psychology professor at New York University and author of the book Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning.
Gary is an expert on learning processes and as someone who taught himself to play guitar at the age of 38, I thought his perspective would be interesting. So, I sat down with him to discuss how we learn music at different life stages and just how music affects our brains.
CARA SANTA MARIA: Hi everybody. I'm Cara Santa Maria, and I'm here today with Dr. Gary Marcus. He's a professor of psychology at NYU and author of the book Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning. Thanks for being here, Gary.
GARY MARCUS: Thanks for having me.
CSM: You wrote in this book that you decided to learn how to play guitar when you were thirty-eight years old. That's not a typical time when somebody picks up an instrument.
GM: It was a little late in life. I tried earlier to learn instruments at various times. Like in fourth grade, I tried to learn to play the recorder. My teacher realized I had no aptitude for this whatsoever and accurately but cruelly said "perhaps your talents lay elsewhere." And so I gave up, and then, it was actually a video game, Guitar Hero, that got me to finally start to be able to play a little bit, or finally have the confidence to play. So, I played that and I thought, "hey, maybe instead of spending all this time trying to get better at the game, I should try the real thing."
CSM: We think of there being, kind of, a critical period--that we have to learn how to play an instrument when we're young. Is there something different maybe about a child's brain that it's easier for them to absorb the skills required to play an instrument?
GM: So there's this critical period hypothesis that whatever you learn--not just music, but anything, language--you have to learn it early in life. And one of the reasons I had the courage to try this project was I realized that that ideal that was widely believed in developmental psychology probably wasn't true. But in the last decade, we found two things. One is we found some adults were able to learn new languages like native speakers. And then the other thing we found is when people did carefully controlled animal studies, older animals could do things that younger animals could do if they just did it slower--if they broke things down into bite-sized pieces. So that became, kind of, my mantra throughout.
CSM: So behaviorally that tells us something, but what is, kind of, physiologically different in the brain of a child versus an adult who's learning an instrument?
GM: One thing that happens is that here's more interference for an adult than a child. There are habits that they have to overcome that are different from the things they're doing before. So when you learn something, your neurons are rewiring themselves, and adults can't quite do that as subtly as the children. But they can usually do it if they put their minds to it.
CSM: One of the features that we see throughout all intelligence tests is this factor called Spearman's g, right? So this is the g factor, the general intelligence thing that when we do certain statistical analyses, they weigh really heavily, but nobody can really put their finger on what it is. All people with a high IQ seem to have it. Do all musicians have, kind of, a g factor for music?
GM: I actually have a graduate student who's working on g, and we've reanalyzed what's going on. Even though the statistical things all seem to point to a single factor, I think it's actually an artifact of the statistical analyses. So, g doesn't quite exist even though all these people have been talking about it. But it's a function of the fact that you're sort of mixing and matching parts, that g seems to emerge, and musicians have to do the same thing.
CSM: What does the brain look like on music? I mean, are there different brain patterns when you're listening, when you're learning, when you're performing?
GM: Every aspect of music is going to activate a different set of brain areas. So, playing music is going to be different from listening to music, listening to different kinds of music is going to cause different brain activation from one another.
CSM: Do you think that there's a difference between somebody who is a seasoned musician and somebody who's a novice?
GM: Absolutely. So seasoned musicians are going to recognize exactly the details of what they're hearing. And for a naive listener, it's all kind of approximate: it went up, it went down. And for a skilled musician they know exactly how far it went up, how far it went down, when it's in harmony, when it's not, and so forth. So there's probably more prefrontal activation in someone who's listening to music analytically and can do those things than in someone who's just getting the emotional resonance and maybe more right brain activation.
CSM: Thank you so much for being here with us today, Dr. Marcus.
GM: Thanks so much for having me.
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