By NPR Staff

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. But can you teach an old guitarist new licks? How about an old nonguitarist — not even a musician?

Gary Marcus isn’t that old. He’s actually in his early 40s, and he’s a professor of psychology at NYU and an expert on cognitive development. Marcus decided to pick up the guitar to study musical learning, using himself as a guinea pig. His new book, Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning, documents that process. The title is an obvious homage to the video game Guitar Hero; Marcus says playing the game was what spurred him on to try playing music for real.

“Although it’s definitely easier to learn some things when you’re a kid, it’s not the case that you just absolutely lose the ability later in life.”

“I had a little bit of free time because I was actually on sabbatical,” he tells NPR’s Rachel Martin. “I was like, ‘This is the moment. I’m really going to try now. I’m really going to commit myself.'”

Marcus studied language acquisition in graduate school. He says that for a long time, there was a generally accepted theory of “critical periods”: the idea that if you don’t learn a language early in life, you’ll never be able to master it.

“We used to believe that that was the case — that if you didn’t learn by the time you were 16, you’d never become fluent,” Marcus says. “What we know now is that some adults actually do become fluent. And although it’s definitely easier to learn some things when you’re a kid, it’s not the case that you just absolutely lose the ability later in life. There’s more of a gradual decline, but it is still possible.”

Marcus says he wasn’t born with any sort of innate musicality, but that simply being an intelligent adult allows him to learn things about how music works that wouldn’t be as accessible to a child (reading about music theory, for example). He admits, though, that the mechanics of the guitar presented some challenges to his grown-up brain.

“If you look at a piano, the notes are laid out in a very systematic way. You can always very easily find the C in whichever octave you’re in. You can find the D the next note over, skipping a black note. It’s very systematic,” Marcus explains. “On a guitar, there’s nothing that kind of highlights first of all what the natural notes are — the Cs, the Ds, as opposed to the C sharps and the D sharps. And then every string sets things up differently. We have a kind of memory that makes similar things hard to remember. So like, if you park in the same lot every day, your memories of that blur together and at the end of the day you can’t remember exactly where you parked because you’re confused with where you parked on other days.”

The most profound lesson in how children and adults differ when learning music, Marcus says, came when he actually signed himself up for band camp. He traveled to his hometown of Baltimore and enrolled in a program called Day Jams, in which the participants — mostly children — have five days to put a song together and perform for a live audience. Marcus says his 11-year-old peers had an unlikely weapon on their side: patience.

“I think that kids have a lot more patience to do the same thing over and over again until they get it right. I think adults often push themselves to get the whole song on the first day,” Marcus says. “Adults, they’ve heard the recordings many times, and they don’t cut themselves the slack to take things incrementally. So I think there’s a difference in strategy.”

Some skills, like perfect pitch, do need to be learned early in life in order to sink in, Marcus says. But he maintains there is hope for nonmusical adults who would like to pick up an instrument — as long as they’re willing to swallow their pride and practice hard.

“A lot of people just do what they’re good at. They don’t focus on what they’re bad at,” Marcus says. “In my case, I really had to focus on the rhythm. If I had just done what I was good at, I would still sound terrible. Now I don’t quite sound terrible, and that’s because I focused so much on that. So don’t expect overnight success; try to enjoy each incremental bit of progress that you make.”

This story originally aired on NPR.
  • MarianneJKeenan

    I enjoyed reading this article and I think the key term is “patience.”  If an adult has the patience to learn something new they can learn a lot.  At age 50, I am learning more and more about how to use my computer.  I am interested in learning about film making and was able to learn some basic skills using the Flip Share Program.  I had patient teachers and an interest, in addition, I had the patience to learn about this subject.  However, when presented with learning the EXCEL program I did not have the interest, nor the patience.  I had several classes after teaching for seven hours, but I had minimal interest and not much patience.

    I just don’t think within little cells.  It’s good for bean counters and others, but I am a more artistic person and have thought so much about film making that it is high on the interest level for me.  In addition, I have the patience to learn something I am interested in.  In fact, I would like to take more classes in film making.  The subject matter that we filmed, sea animals, also fascinates as I grew up in Hawaii and loved to go to the beach and snorkel.  I still do at least once year (in Hawaii that is).

    Marianne Keenan

  • Tom Fessler

    I appreciate this one. Learning music is an art and you have dedication for that,but educational policymakers could sure help out” surely music teacher helps you to learn all steps by which you can learn music with fun.A lot of resources over internet, where you just create your free profile & select your music teacher as your preference learning musical instruments.

    Now these days,General Adults love music and enjoy music not dedication for learning but for children its a subject which gives him peace of mind as well as enjoying and have a chance to grow up and make a career in music.

    Basially music is the first choice for everyone and me too. Infact i learn music when i have time through internet.

  • Corey eng 3

    I agree that it does not matter how old you are you can still learn to play music. Sure most people would like to know how to play music before their 40s but I believe that music can be talked to anyone. Though there are quite a few advantages to learning when you are young. I am in the high school taking piano and guitar and I have found that it would probably have been easier to learn music when I was in elementary school. If I had started then I would probably be better that I am now. I guess the best way to put it is you need experience. My mother tried to learn music from me but she did not have the time to practice so she fell behind in learning how to play and instrument. Really only need to play music is slight bit of skill, a little knowledge, and confidence.

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