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Gary Marcus, PhD ’93

Author finds it’s never too late to learn music
August 21, 2012

In Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning, cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus investigates how humans learn to be musical, a quest he began on the eve of his 40th birthday.

In an effort to debunk the theory that the language of music is best acquired in childhood, he did his own first-hand research, playing guitar alongside both adults and children, and examined earlier studies done by Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, the director of the Music and Neuroimaging Laboratory at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School. Marcus concluded that hours of daily practice can stimulate brain activity and musical learning at any age. Consultation from iconic guitarists like Tom Morello and Pat Metheny didn’t hurt, either.

“My only prior guitar experience was playing the video game Guitar Hero,” he says. “When I started, I had a terrible time maintaining a constant rhythm and no natural musical talent. But it’s true: adults actually can learn new tricks.” 

To Marcus, ambitious goals are hardly new. He skipped his last two years of high school, graduated from Hampshire College in three, began a doctoral program at MIT at 19, and received his PhD in brain and cognitive sciences at 23.

“Being young at MIT was hardly unusual,” Marcus says. “The toughest part was not joining my classmates for drinks at the Muddy Charles Pub.”

He was really young when he first arrived at the Institute—for the 20-year reunion of his father, Philip Marcus ’63, SM ’65. “As soon as we got to campus, I knew this was the place I wanted to be,” he says.

A Baltimore native, Marcus is a professor at New York University and the director of its Center for Language and Music. From 1993 to 1997, he was a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where in 1996 he won the American Psychological Foundation’s Robert L. Fantz Award for new investigators in cognitive development. 

He credits two professors he had at MIT, Steven Pinker and Noam Chomsky, with forming the foundation of his professional research and writing. “What I learned at MIT set up the questions that I think about now,” he says. “Pinker taught me it was important to care about writing for the larger public. He and Chomsky gave me an appreciation of the subtlety and power of children’s minds as they begin to acquire language.”

Guitar Zero is the fifth of Marcus’s books, all of which deal with the evolution and development of the human brain. His 2008 work Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind was a 2008 New York Times Editor’s Choice.

With traditional guitar playing conquered, Marcus has a new ambition: to play guitar while riding a unicycle. He expects to achieve it by the end of 2012. 

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