Gary Marcus is a professor of psychology at NYU, an MIT graduate and a juggler, unicyclist and photographer. A few years ago he set out to conquer one field that had eluded him his whole life: music. “I had no musical talent whatsoever,” he described to me from his office, which sets a few blocks east of Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, “and was at one point gently told to stop taking recorder lessons when I was younger.” With a sabbatical coming up, and a growing interest in whether people could pick up an instrument in their adult life, Marcus did what anyone else would do. He picked up a guitar. Not any guitar though, a Guitar Hero guitar.

As someone who has spent most of high school and college playing this beloved game, this was music to my ears.

His latest book, Guitar Zero, now available, is the culmination of his work as a student of guitar, music enthusiast and researcher of learning. It joins the ranks of some excellent psychology of music books including Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia, Daniel Levitin’s This Is Your Brain on Music and John Ortiz’ The Tao of Music.

But Guitar Zero is different. Yes, Marcus delves into the academic side of things, but he is also personal. He devotes several chapters to explain his struggles with congenital arrhythmia, learning music theory, playing instruments and he shares wonderful stories from his adventures at Day Jams, “a summer camp where kids ages eight to fifteen learn to play and compose rock and roll,” with his band “Rush Hour.” What comes out is a lighthearted memoir filled with wonderful insights about music and the human mind. Compared to popular psychology books written from the expert’s point of view, Guitar Zero is a refreshing glimpse into the mind of the amateur.

Most interesting was a chapter on what makes successful music. When I spoke with him about the book he told me that most great music finds a balance between familiarity and novelty – a belief that strikes a similar chord with his contemporaries. He explained that, “we enjoy it when we predict something accurately, this is why we like a steady drum beat. But we get a real reward for novelty.” This made a lot of sense to me. We like the verse-chorus 120 bpm structure that most popular music is built off of, but as any one hit wonder will tell you, too much familiarity is boring. At the same time, people don’t necessarily like too much novelty. Just look at John Cage’s “4:33”, a three-piece movement entirely void of notes, or “Changes of Music,” a composition purposely open for the playing of random notes. Listening to these pieces can be irritating and annoying because there is a complete lack of familiarity.

Our propensity to look for a balance between familiarity and novelty in music may have an evolutionary explanation. As Marcus quipped, we are “informavores,” to suggest that, “we like to find new stuff.” Music may simply be an outlet for this trait; it “exploits the human pleasure system” by giving it what it wants, which is why Steven Pinker refers to it as “auditory cheesecake.”

This provokes the question: why do some people have favorite songs that they listen to over and over again?

One reason is that, as Marcus explained, “we are actually not that good at storing detailed representations of songs in our heads.” This means that although we listen to some songs over and over again, we aren’t actually hearing the same song over and over again. Each time around we pick up something new, gain a sense of novelty and get a reward as a result.

This is not the case for experts who tend to habituate to songs much faster. Marcus spends a chapter on expert musicians to explain the difference between them and us. (He was lucky enough to interview Pat Metheny, Terre Roche and Tom Morello.) “Unlike novices or even ordinary experts,” he told me, “true masters are always exploring new techniques and developing a new repertoire.” This is why many of the greatest musicians spent their careers trying to push boundaries by writing material that replaced the familiar with the novel. It’s Dylan going electric, the Ramones going Punk or Pittsburgh’s Girl Talk relying entirely on other art to create new art; these examples and more demonstrate that replacing some familiarity with novelty can be ultimately more enjoyable for the listener.

Another question Marcus asks in Guitar Zero is what, relative to other aesthetics, makes music good. It’s a deep question that influenced philosophers and authors alike throughout the ages: Nietzsche remarked that without music life would be a mistake and Huxley famously confessed, “after silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” Marcus explained to me that, “the amazing thing about music relative to some other arts but not all, is that you can really get both of the rewards - familiarity and novelty - at the same time. You can have the familiar in a melody, but you can also change the lyrics or instrumentations to be novel. You have all of these techniques for allowing you to simultaneously get a kick (of dopamine) for successfully predicting a song and appreciating something new and interesting.” Agreed.

By the end of the book Marcus answers his original question: Can a Middle-Aged Dog Learn New Guitar Tricks? There is a surprisingly little amount of scientific literature on whether adults can pick up an instrument later on in life. There is the often-cited 10,000-hour rule, which describes how expertise requires 10,000 hours of deliberate practice and the so-called “critical period” theory, which says that if you want to learn something, start early. So how did Marcus, who first picked up the plastic Guitar Hero guitar at age 38 do?

It didn’t take him too long to conquer Guitar Hero (on medium), which he described as a gateway drug to other instruments. Next, he turned to a real acoustic guitar, learning music theory and taking lessons. Now, a couple years later, he can strum a tune on the real thing, and more importantly, he feels comfortable making up his own music - something that he finds to be pleasurable and immensely satisfying. “I might never be Jimi Hendrix” Marcus confesses near the end of Guitar Zero, “[but] I was able to create sounds and textures I had never heard before… for a brief moment I could sense what it was like to explore a new musical landscape.”

(Be sure to check out Marcus’ iphone app “3-in-1 Improviser”, which he personally designed. It allows users to compose, conduct and improvise original music. It was launched at the World Science Festival this summer and was mentioned in The New York Times.)

I want to personally thank Professor Marcus for the interview and friendly correspondence. It was a pleasure.


Images: 1 and 2 from Gary Marcus, 3 from Wikipedia (will update link to the original image later, after Wikipedia blackout lifts)