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Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning

3.64  ·  Rating details ·  1,879 ratings  ·  227 reviews
On the eve of his 40th birthday, Gary Marcus, a renowned scientist with no discernible musical talent, learns to play the guitar and investigates how anyone—of any age —can become musical. Do you have to be born musical to become musical? Do you have to start at the age of six?

Using the tools of his day job as a cognitive psychologist, Gary Marcus becomes his own guinea p
288 pages
Published January 19th 2012 by Penguin Press (first published January 1st 2012)
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Average rating 3.64  · 
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 ·  1,879 ratings  ·  227 reviews

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Dec 31, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: music, psychology
You may remember a video game named "Guitar Hero". You watch a screen go by with color codes, and you press the appropriate color-coded fret on a small mockup guitar. When you press the correct fret at the right time, a cool riff plays, and you continue. At each level, the difficulty increases. Not exactly like playing the guitar, but for the non-guitar-player, it can be a thrill.

Well, this book begins with the opposite dilemma. Gary Marcus began his journey as an adult, without any musical abil
3.5 stars
Mar 10, 2012 rated it it was ok
I was disappointed with this. The writing is fine but . . . It didn't have much to say that didn't seem fairly obvious. Some of the most interesting information wasn't about learning to play an instrument but comparing how musicians and non-musicians appreciate music.

He obviously had a really good time researching the book and meeting and becoming friends with musicians - that's great, but no guarantee of a good book.

Perhaps I'm being unfair - I took lessons on mandolin a few yreas ago and eve
Feb 01, 2012 rated it really liked it
Almost 40 year-old professor of psychology Gary Marcus decides to learn to play the guitar even though he had been previously told he has no sense of rhythm whatsoever. Marcus really desires to play guitar, and so he embarks on a quest to find out if he could learn to play even at his age and with no previous or innate musical talent. He sets out to explore the questions of whether music is built into the brain and how we learn to become musical.

I am always fascinated with the topic of the scien
Apr 16, 2012 rated it liked it
Interesting book, though not quite what I wanted to read. Gary Marcus is a PhD in cognitive psychology who decides to pick up the guitar (and to learn music) later in life. The part of learning music and learning to play an instrument late in life is what drew me to this, since it's pretty much my own story. Marcus writes precious little about his personal journey and much more about the scholarly, cognitive aspects of the endeavour, which were interesting to read about. I got to understand bett ...more
Oct 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
This was an interesting read. Author Gary F. Marcus is an American scientist, author, and entrepreneur who is a professor in the Department of Psychology at New York University, and was the founder and CEO of Geometric Intelligence, a machine learning company later acquired by Uber, according to his Wikipedia page.
He mentions that he worked closely with Steven Pinker during his time at grad school.

Author Gary Marcus:

I came across this one by chance, and am always interested in reading b
Jan 12, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: 2018
Navigating through my own guitar lessons this book is timely and interesting.
Dawn Lennon
Oct 28, 2015 rated it liked it
I also took up learning to play the guitar late in life, actually later than the author's 40 years, so I was intrigued by what insights he had to offer. As a developmental psychologist, Marcus combines his knowledge of the science of the brain with his beginner's experiences learning something as complex as making music with the guitar. To boot, he admits to having a poor sense of rhythm as his biggest challenge.

This book includes a number of references to scientific studies, offered in a palata
Jan 07, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I was a little disappointed. My interest is that somewhere around age 55 I took up the guitar. I have no particular musical talent but I can strum chords consistently enough to sit in on an Old Time Jam. I had hoped for a more nuts-and-bolts description of how a middle-aged person with no discernible musical learned an instrument. He discusses his struggles with rhythm, but doesn't have much about how he actually learned to play.

Oddly, for the first 99 pages of the book he largely avoids the top
Erin Eileen
Jan 22, 2013 rated it really liked it
Warning: if you ever wanted to play an instrument, or if you played one as a kid and wonder if you could do it again, this book will make you want to ditch everything else and devote your life to music. Or at least have the happy fantasy of embarking on a musical journey as unexpectedly fulfilling as the author's. Gary Marcus is a pretty well known cognitive psychologist, a dude at the top of his field, who decides at the age of 38 to try to learn to play the guitar. He approaches his subject bo ...more
Aug 29, 2018 rated it really liked it
Well done book about the psychology of making and listening to music, combined with the author’s personal experience in learning to make music in his late thirties. Good musings on the roles of talent and practice.
Interesting read

Interesting read, was hoping for more usable info that I could apply to learning and teaching. Learned a few points, but feel like it fell short of its potential.
Xenophon Hendrix
Jul 12, 2018 rated it liked it
It's not a bad read, but I wish there were more nuts and bolts stuff about how the author learned to play the guitar as an adult. ...more
Angie Boyter
Jan 11, 2012 rated it really liked it
This book wasn't quite what I had expected, but I wasn't disappointed.
Cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus, who clearly has a history of being "challenged" musically, decides as he approaches the age of 40 to master the guitar. A serendipitous sabbatical from his usual gig teaching at NYU gives him enough leisure that he feels motivated to take on the project seriously. Guitar Zero (a pun on the popular video game Guitar Hero, for those like me who didn't get it)recounts his adventures, which inc
Jul 27, 2019 rated it it was ok
I encountered this book back in 2013, and marked it as abandoned; unfortunately, I didn't add any review notes, so I picked it up again.

Having recently developed my own guitar habit (practicing every day for the past ~20 months or so), this book would seem to be in my wheelhouse...I'm older than I'd perhaps like to be as a beginning/intermediate guitarist, and following someone else on a virtually identical journey interested me. Which leads to the problem with the book, and (I think) the reason
Jan 31, 2012 rated it really liked it
I read this book because a few months ago I started learning to play the guitar. The author of Guitar Zero, Gary Marcus, started playing guitar before his 40th birthday and took a year long sabbatical from his day job at NYU as a psychology professor to study guitar and write about the process. I thought this book would be more of his story but it was more a study of how the brain learns. He asked a lot of questions such as is it harder for adults to learn an instrument than children, practice v ...more
Aug 30, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
At the risk of oversimplifying, this is a book trying to answer an age-old question, can an old dog learn new tricks? Middle-aged man decides to pursue a lifelong dream of learning music. Can it be done?

About half the content focuses on how the brain works (author is a psychologist) and the other is on music itself and why it can be hard to learn. The author chose to focus on music because of his personal interest. If music had not been the topic, however, this is still a valid exploration of b
Bob Collins
Jan 30, 2012 rated it really liked it
Cognitive Psychologist Gary Marcus decided at age 39 to pick up the guitar. He discusses his experience and relates it to cognitive psychology and what we know about the brain and learning.

I was prepared to really enjoy this book - it is about guitars, cognitive science, guitars, music, guitars, learning - and did I mention guitars?

However, I didn't think it was well organized and I didn't find much in there that I could use to improve my own playing or use in other endeavors. I also found Marcu
Peter Evans
Oct 28, 2013 rated it really liked it
Interesting factoids and useful tidbits for songwriters, instrumentalists and listeners are scattered throughout Marcus' personal quest for adequacy as a guitar player. The transitions between his narrative and the psycho-cognitive explanations are not always smooth, but the story and the information are both compelling. Most of all, if you are a guitar player, the book offers the ultimate in encouragement and praise. Guitar playing is an extremely complicated and intricate neurological process. ...more
Apr 21, 2012 rated it liked it
Interesting mix of cognitive psychology topics with the difficult things almost all beginning guitarists struggle with e.g., the weird 2nd string is tuned one fret lower than the rest, you can play the same note in several places on the fretboard and how this affects chord formations, etc. A little too much emphasis on the cognitive psychology parts in proportion to the music stuff but some of the concepts like memory "chunking" and declarative v. procedural memory are fascinating. Great glossar ...more
Dec 17, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This book inspired me to pick up my guitar after many years and start playing again. If you have ever wanted to play an instrument and thought you had no talent or ability, then do yourself a favor and read this book of one man's journey. The author was convinced he had no talent though he always loved music, decided to learn after researching the subject of learning to play a musical instrument, in his case a guitar. ...more
Oct 07, 2014 rated it really liked it
A very enjoyable read. A nice view on the makings of a musician.

The book was very easy to read and understand. It was written to be read by many different types of people not just musicians or scientists.

I also want to give it an extra star because it kept me amused and entertained during jury duty lol. Thank you for writing this book
Mr Marcus.
Jul 27, 2015 rated it liked it
Impressive that the author just decides to try to learn an instrument relatively late in life. I enjoyed the combination of both his story and the research that he did about music. Very readable.
Apr 28, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: selfhelp
I really liked the concept of this book, but didn't like some aspects of the execution.

I am about the same age as Gary Marcus was when he started learning to play the guitar and I also have very little musical knowledge or talent but I have always had (like many people) some vague interest in improving my understanding of music and hopefully even playing an instrument at a basic level( piano in my case).

So the aspects of the book that directly addressed his experience as an older learner where
Jun 15, 2020 rated it liked it
A very quick read on several topics, esp on whether a highly motivated, intelligent adult with minimal musical talent, can learn how to play a musical instrument. Prof Marcus uses himself as a guinea pig, as a sample size of 1, to explore research and test theories on acquiring musicianship and musicality. He learns to play guitar competently, to improvise on guitar, to write a song. It's an inspiring story of how dedicated deliberate practice and excellent teachers can lead a 39 yr-old psycholo ...more
Ray Benson
Jul 03, 2019 rated it it was ok
This presented some promise - a late learner in music who has struggled to learn an instrument now determines to succeed and to explore the process from the perspective of a cognitive scientist and with insight provided from top players and educators. Sadly the result is all too obvious. Who would deny that talent exists or that with practice skills can be developed? But there's little enlightenment here into that complex web of nature and nurture, nor details on how to weave a path to success i ...more
Mar 16, 2021 rated it it was ok
I was really intrigued in the first chapter or two of this book: a combination of my two loves of music and developmental psychology. Unfortunately I think there just wasn't enough substance to write an entire book around the concept. It got stale quite quickly, and also tended to veer off into tangents that seemed unrelated to learning, and more about musical history in general, which I'm far less interested in. As Gary pointed out in his writing, there simply hasn't been much research put into ...more
Marco Morgan
Dec 10, 2018 rated it liked it
This was an enjoyable mix of pop science and memoir that occasionally leans a little too hard on the memoir angle. Regardless, it is an interesting perspective on the process of learning to play an instrument and both the concrete and more nebulous advantages that come with pursuing music as a hobby. Gary Marcus thinks deeply about his belated foray into music and provides these thoughts in an accessible and fluid way. I would recommend this if you play (or have an interest in playing) an instru ...more
Feb 07, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned
I never thought learning about music could be bring so much enjoyment. This book brings you on a magical journey of a middle-aged, arrhythmic neurolinguistics scientist who decides he wants to learn to play the guitar.

The knowledge and insights he shares in this book—not just about his experience, but the experience of many others before him—are enough to make any person desire to pick up the guitar (or any instrument you've been dying to learn) and dive head-first into it.

Learn about the brain,
Sep 26, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The title is a play on the game title “Guitar Hero” and that zero means the Gary Marcus started learning the real guitar with no more musical training than the game. Can Marcus overcome his poor sense of rhythm? Marcus is a neuroscientist, so along with sharing his experience of learning the guitar he explores how the brain responds to music. He interviews a lot of interesting musicians who give us an insider’s perspective how such pros learned their instrument. I only wish the author had given ...more
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Gary Marcus is an award-wining Professor of Psychology at New York University and director of the NYU Center for Child Language. He has written three books about the origins and nature of the human mind, including Kluge (2008, Houghton Mifflin/Faber), and The Birth of the Mind (Basic Books, 2004, translated into 6 languages). He is also the editor of The Norton Psychology Reader, and the author of ...more

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“But nobody is born being able to hear [intervals], and many people never master them. Some people never even notice that "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and "The Alphabet Song" follow the same melody (and hence consist of the same sequence of intervals).” 0 likes
“Repetition sometimes works in poetry, but rarely in prose. The musical provocateur John Cage once wrote a lecture in which a single page was repeated fourteen times, with the refrain "If anybody is sleep let him go to sleep" (Cage, 1961). Midway through, the artist Jean Reynal stood up and screamed, "John, I dearly love you, but I can't bear another minute.” 0 likes
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