The Guardian - Guitar zero


Scientific studies show it is never too late to learn new skills such as playing a musical instrument or speaking a language if you use the right techniques, writes psychologist Gary Marcus…

"From primary school, every musical attempt I made ended in failure. The first time I tried to play guitar, a few years ago, my friend Dan Levitin (who had not yet finished his book This Is Your Brain on Music) kindly offered to give me a few lessons. When I came back to him after a week or two of practice, he quickly realised what my primary school teachers had realised long ago: that I had no sense of rhythm whatsoever. Dan offered me a metronome, and when that didn't help, he gave me something my teachers couldn't – a diagnosis: congenital arrhythmia.

… How could such a basic scientific question remain so unanswered? I wondered about this for months, until Caroline Palmer, a professor of psychology at McGill University in Montreal, explained the answer to me. The problem wasn't a lack of scientific interest; it was a lack of subjects. To learn a musical instrument, you need to put in a lot of work – 10,000 hours is an oft-mentioned (if somewhat oversold) number – and to do a proper study, you'd need a reasonably large sample of participants, which is to say a big group of adult novices with sufficient commitment.

Nobody has studied the outcomes of adults who put in 10,000 hours of practice starting at 42 because most people of that age have lives and responsibilities – few adult learners are prepared to invest the kind of time that a teenager has. No subjects, no science. At that point I decided to become a guinea pig..."