Book review – Guitar Zero

I mostly look in the science section of the bookstore when I’m looking for books about music and science, because, from experience, that’s where they usually are. But last month I found Guitar Zero, by Gary Marcus, in the music section of Waterstones.

Guitar Zero is the story of Marcus’ sabbatical year, in which he sets out to learn to play guitar. He is a psychology professor at NYU, and he becomes both researcher and subject when he tries to find out whether it’s possible to learn musical skills as an adult and go from guitar zero to guitar hero.

At the start of his journey, he has no musical experience at all, and no sense of rhythm or pitch. In trying to become musical, he takes lessons, reads academic papers, and interviews musicians. The biggest step forward comes when he joins a childrens’ music camp, and learns the joys of playing with a group – even if he’s more than a foot taller than his bandmates. Along the way, he explains why we prefer consonant sounds over dissonant sounds, what the worst song in the world sounds like, the nature of rhythm, and many other musicological topics.

I really enjoyed this book, because “scientists making music” is a theme I’ve been exploring myself, and I recognized two aspects in it that came up several times in interviews I’ve done with “musiscis” like Marcus: a scientific approach to understanding and making music, but also the realization that what makes music fun is much more difficult to describe academically.

Guitar Zero is available on Amazon in various formats, and in either the science or music section of major bookstores.