The Science of Rock and Roll: You’re never too old to…

I came across an interesting book this week called “Guitar Zero – The Science of Learning to be Musical” by Gary Marcus. He is a Professor in Psychology but I won’t hold that against him, as it’s an interesting read!

Without spoiling it too much the book concerns his decision, in his late 30’s, to learn to play a musical instrument. This is in the context of having been entirely useless at any form of music since an early age. In fact, every effort to learn to play or sing had ended in complete disaster, he simply had no sense of rhythm or pitch and was constantly told this by his teachers and latterly by his more musical friends.

It’s a fun read, but there is a serious point here as well. In education we often talk about ‘critical periods of learning’, these are periods in our lives when we are more receptive to learning new ideas, concepts and complex skills. Normally such periods of development are associated with childhood. In environmental education for example, Cornell argues that there is a critical period between the ages of about 7 to 12 when children are at their most receptive to environmental learning. The area that is normally dragged out to support this idea is that of learning languages. If you don’t learn a language as a kid, you’ll find it increasingly difficult as you get older. We probably all have personal stories of this. My humiliating experience and eventual dropping out of “Spanish for Beginners” a couple of years ago is mine.

However, if you actually look for any evidence for critical periods of learning, you’ll find that there isn’t much and in fact the research that has been done in this area questions the concept. Children and adults don’t learn at different rates and there is no point after which it becomes more difficult to learn. We appear (as I did in the last paragraph) to ‘retrofit’ experiences to support this idea. Mind you, understanding that I’d have been just as rubbish at Spanish as a kid is hardly cheering news!

Anyway, getting back to the book, Marcus decides to learn a musical instrument and eventually settles on the guitar. He decides to approach this in a ‘scientific way’ so starts with a literature review on how people learn music. He identifies that while there is quite a literature on how children learn, that there is hardly anything on adult learning (actually, no surprise to us educationalists there). His research eventually throws up a number of interesting ideas; not least of which is that perfect pitch isn’t necessary to learn music, what does appear to be key is practice. Everything else is just simply not supported by research. This suggests that children will learn a musical instrument simply because they practice at school and at home. Teenagers will learn at school and in their bedrooms at weekends. Adults simply don’t have the time.

Now this is really interesting and he talks quite a bit about the work of Anders Ericsson whose area is that of ‘expertise’. Ericsson suggests that it takes around 10 years (or 10,000 hours) of practice to develop real expertise in areas as diverse as chess to playing the violin. It may not be entirely linear and perhaps hardly ground breaking but there is a correlation between practice and learning. Of course, it’s not as simple as that. When Bernie and I were graduate students we had a friend called Marc who was a fantastic guitarist. I have now played the guitar for longer than Marc had been alive when we were students, yet I still haven’t got anywhere near his grad student proficiency. So it can’t be practice alone.

Ericsson suggests that you need ‘deliberate practice’. In a nutshell, he means that you practice what you’re bad at. You don’t improve by just playing what you can play over and over again (anything that involves the chords G, C and D in my case) but rather you need to concentrate on the stuff that’s difficult to you (Any bar chord, or those B chords that involve six fingers).

As Marcus points out, actually this is not a million miles away from something that the educational theorist Lev Vygotski (who seems dead fashionable at the moment – so drop the name into conversations for extra kudos) called ‘the Zone of Proximal Development”. Briefly (and here over simplistically) he argued that you only learn if you set (or are set) goals that go slightly beyond what you’re comfortable with. Children and adults need to be pushed, or push themselves. If it’s too easy, you get bored, if too difficult you’ll give up. This holds for any type of learning at any age. The problem here is that if you find a subject comes easy to you (say Maths) it’s tempting to think ‘well I won’t concentrate on Maths, because I can do that, I’ll concentrate on a subject I’m rubbish at like Spanish’. Actually, it would probably be more productive to really push yourself in areas of Maths that you find most difficult.

So, the trick is loads and loads of practice, but always concentrate on the areas that you find the most problematic. This applies not only to acquisition of new skills, such as playing a musical instrument, but also holds for learning generally. It’s how to get a good degree, doctorate, emeritus professorship and Nobel Prize.

Actually, just forget the ‘glittering prizes’. I also agree entirely with Gary Marcos when he says that as we get older we give up on enrichment and as adults we tend to focus on application. We simply stop taking on challenges like learning to draw, sculpt, dance, star-gaze, play the guitar, do calculus, all the stuff that doesn’t add anything that we’d regard as tangible gain, but enriches our lives so much more.

So this week’s message is that the research suggests, practice. Practice what you find difficult and that it’s NEVER to late to learn. By the way after locking himself away for a few weeks to practice 6 – 8 hours a day and continuing to practice most days after his return, Gary Marcos while perhaps not an ‘axe god’ can now play the guitar.

OK I’m off to get my ‘axe’ and smash out some bar chords…Rock on…science dudes.


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