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."