A study of music as lovely song

From the book jacket
From the book jacket

It all starts with a guitar: A fun, informative look at musicians, music teachers, and research.

Posted: April 08, 2012

The New Musician

and the Science of Learning

By Gary Marcus

Penguin Press. 288 pp. $25.95

Reviewed by David Falcone
What makes music work? And why would anyone put in the time and effort to create it? Perhaps there is something incredibly satisfying in the way a musician can take so many sounds and help them find their way to the middle, a comfortable synthesis, producing a full and complete but simple melody.

In exploring these questions, Gary Marcus' Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning has achieved a melody of its own. Plenty is going on in this book, and yet as the story and all its parts unfold, they find the center, beautifully synthesized. This book is fun, informative, and a joy to read.

Marcus wants to learn to play the guitar. That is what he sets out to do, and that is what he writes about in Guitar Zero. Along the way, he introduces us to a number of musicians and their stories, the people who teach music and their lessons, and the people who study music and their findings. Invited into this community of the inspired and the inspiring, we become part of his fascinating story.

First, there are the musicians, each with a unique, instructive, or just plain quirky contribution to make. To mention a few, while reflecting on musical consonance and dissonance, Marcus tells us about the efforts that John Cage makes to challenge our definition of sound. His discussion includes artist Jeanne Reynal's response to a lecture given by Cage "in which a single page was repeated fourteen times" as Cage apparently made a point about the limits of structure. Reynal's response: "John, I dearly love you, but I can't bear another minute." And then there is Marcus' discussion with Grammy Award-winning producer Russ Titelman, who reported that Eric Clapton's Unplugged "was recorded in just two takes." I also enjoyed reading about James Taylor learning diminished chords from Paul Simon and what Taylor had to say about his former mentor Paul McCartney.

Then there are the music teachers. Addressing the question "Why do we need teachers at all?", Marcus finds himself engaging an intriguing array of teachers and learners. Doug Derryberry, lead guitarist for Bruce Hornsby, recalls how his childhood music teacher used little quizzes that tapped the logic of a sequence of chords: "I loved those things. I ate it up." Marcus tells us about Terre Roche of the Roches, and her set of flash cards dubbed "Fretboard Vitamins" that illustrate the geometry of the music. We further read about the Suzuki and the Dalcroze methods, the inspiring work of Marienne Uszler and Edwin E. Gordon - all rich explorations of the special challenges encountered in the teaching and learning of music. And, of course, this discussion is dotted with the noteworthy throughout. For example, the Dalcroze method is also known as eurhythmics, and guess who took Dalcroze lessons when she was a child. You got it! Annie Lennox of the (spelled ever so slightly differently) Eurythmics.

Then there is the research. Among other things, Marcus is a cognitive psychologist who teaches at New York University. Consequently, it is no accident that he enlists psychological research to understand what is involved in learning the guitar. He addresses such questions as: Are musicians born or made? Are music and language the same? What are the challenges in learning to play the guitar? What happens in the brain as we learn these things? His explorations encounter research findings involving various aspects of memory, perceptual mastery, muscle coordination, and strength. I particularly appreciated how Marcus made these parts of the book exceptionally readable and extremely interesting.

Marcus tells us his own story, from the time he picked up the guitar, committed to immersing himself, and made his way to his first teacher, to his trip to music camp where he braved the possibility of becoming a member of a band. A wonderful story.

It is all written like a song and we read it as music. The intertwined experiences, characters, explorations, and insights are like musical themes, notes all circling around a central melody which is Gary Marcus learning to play the guitar.

At the start we hear that "every musical attempt . . . ended in failure." Yet, he kept playing. He found it exciting, intoxicating, addicting. Each subsequent chapter adds a verse to the song, with an intermittent chorus of Practice, practice, practice and a profound sense of the magic of it all.

How does the song end? Does Marcus learn to play the guitar? I am afraid you are going to have to read the book to find out. But I can tell you this: Marcus clearly loved to write and loved exploring interesting questions long before he picked up the guitar. And now, he loves the guitar and the music as much.

David Falcone is a singer, songwriter, guitarist, and professor of psychology at La Salle University.

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