Guitar Zero

Tuning Up

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How do owls manage to calibrate the visual world with the auditory world? The Stanford biologist Eric Knudsen explored this question by raising owls in a kind of virtual reality world, in which prisms shifted everything by twenty- three degrees. This disrupted the owl’s normal capacity to see and forced the owl to adjust its internal map of the visual world. The earlier the prisms were installed, the better the owls were able to cope with the altered world. Young owls could easily learn to compensate for the distortion, whereas old owls could not. If that were the only paper I had read, I would have given up on the guitar right there. But I soon stumbled on a more recent study, less widely known, in which Knudsen discovered that older owls weren’t entirely hopeless after all. Although Knudsen’s original results still stand— adults definitely aren’t as flexible as baby owls— adult owls can often get to the same place, so long as their job is broken down into smaller bite- size steps. Adult owls couldn’t master twenty- three degrees of distortion all in one go, but they could succeed if the job was broken down into smaller chunks: a few weeks at six degrees, another few weeks at eleven degrees, and so on. Maybe I didn’t have talent, and maybe I was old (or at least no longer young), but I was willing to take it slow. Could adults like me acquire new skills if we approached them bit by bit, owl- style?
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With a guitar in one hand and a laptop in the other, I set out to understand the limits of human reinvention and how humans, young and old, talented or otherwise, become musical.

Take Me to the River

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The second prerequisite of expertise is what Ericsson calls “deliberate practice,” a constant sense of self- evaluation, of focusing on one’s weaknesses rather than simply fooling around and playing to one’s strengths. Studies show that practice aimed at remedying weaknesses is a better predictor of expertise than raw number of hours; playing for fun and repeating what you already know is not necessarily the same as efficiently reaching a new level. Most of the practice that most people do, most of the time, be it in the pursuit of learning the guitar or improving their golf game, yields almost no effect. Sooner or later, most learners reach a plateau, repeating what they already know rather than battling their weaknesses, at which point progress becomes slow.
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Ericsson’s notion of practicing deliberately, not just fooling around but targeting specific weaknesses, bears some relation to an older concept known as the “zone of proximal development,” the idea that learning works best when the student tackles something that is just beyond his or her current reach, neither too hard nor too easy. In classroom situations, for example, one team of researchers estimated that it’s best to arrange things so that children succeed roughly 80 percent of the time; more than that, and kids tend to get bored; less, and they tend to get frustrated. The same is surely true of adults, too, which is why video game manufacturers have been known to invest millions in play testing to make sure that the level of challenge always lies in that sweet spot of neither too easy nor too hard.

It Don’t Come Easy

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the only known way to defy the speed- accuracy trade- off is through practice, using the only technique that the brain can bring to bear, a process known as automatization or proceduralization, in which the brain makes a transition from explicit or “declarative” knowledge, which can in principle be verbally articulated (albeit slowly), to implicit or “procedural” knowledge, which can be executed rapidly. As knowledge becomes proceduralized, we sometimes feel as if we know something in our fingers or muscles but lose the capacity to explicitly explain what is going on.

Talking Heads

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Music and language may draw to some extent on the same parts of the brain, but it is very likely that the parts of the brain they share first arose in the service of language and only later became recruited in the service of music.
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both language and music represent an interesting mix of the universal and the culturally acquired, but that mixture itself is not unique. You can see the same sort of juxtaposition in religion, which is also nearly universal yet instantiated in different ways in different cultures, and in dietary preferences (every culture has some, but as foods like sushi and grasshoppers show, one culture’s taboo may be another’s delicacy). Music is like language, but it isn’t language; it’s just one more wondrous skill that a suitably motivated human brain can acquire.
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The comedian Martin Mull once said, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” Although one can certainly use language to describe music, it is painfully obvious that words at best offer only a distinctly limited window into the true nature of music, akin to the underpowered adjectives like “dry,” “flinty,” “grassy,” “chewy,” and “rounded” that vintners settle for if asked to describe their wares in verbal terms. Even words that we take for granted aren’t universal; pitches that we describe as “high” and “low” are described as “light” and “dark” in Norwegian.

Back to School

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Why do we need teachers at all? The most obvious answer is that teachers know things that their students don’t, be it the most efficient fingering for a sequence of notes in Beethoven’s Ninth or the difference between a diminished chord and an augmented chord. Another reason, of course, is that teachers can serve as motivators, either through carrots (gold stars and stickers) or through sticks (mortification, shame, or bad grades). For an adult learner, teachers also likely provide incentive: most of us probably practice less than we should, and then race to catch up when our next lesson is coming up. Good teachers can also impose structure, helping us to know what to practice and when. It is not enough to say, “Go home and practice”; a good teacher says what to practice, and how: the most skilled teachers aim to help their students practice efficiently. But beyond all this, the most important role of a teacher may be to help the students pinpoint their errors and target their weaknesses; beginning students, especially, are often too busy trying to make music. They don’t really hear what they are playing. As one sage academic of music teaching put it, “[ Often, too much of a student’s] attention is devoted to the production of the music, not [enough] to monitoring the result of the sound.” Teachers can be brilliant in this regard.
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The single point that Michele was most adamant about was a rule for when parents should correct a child’s mistake: never, ever, until the child had made that error at least three times. Wisely, Michele saw that her role as teacher was to guide children into developing proper habits; parents who corrected their children could easily wind up destroying their kids’ motivation. If practice with Mom or Dad got to be a drag, the whole game was lost.

School of Rock

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My own reading of the literature is that our memory skills slowly decline from the mid- twenties onward but that there is also a serious issue of interference and habits: the stronger your habits are with your native language, the harder it is to do something different in a second language.
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Many people probably imagine that kids are simply quicker learners, but laboratory research suggests otherwise. In the few direct comparisons of “procedural” learning in children and college- aged adults, adults actually tend to be quicker learners than children.
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If kids outshine adults, it’s probably not because they are quicker to learn but simply because they are more persistent; the same drive that can lead them to watch the same episode of a TV show five days in a row without any signs of losing interest can lead a child who aspires to play an instrument to practice the same riff over and over again. Although adults initially learn the patterns more quickly, with enough practice kids are ultimately able to achieve the same level of accuracy.
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What really governs the speed of learning is probably not so much age as experience. Factoring out my complete lack of native talent, the single element that seemed to make the difference at any age was sheer practice.
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Why does practice matter as much as it does? As we saw earlier, when we master any domain, be it guitar or algebra or squash, our brains get better at two things: recognizing what the pieces are (known as chunking) and knowing where to look (known as attention).

True Talent

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Richard, it turns out, is congenitally blind and also (I infer from Tobias’s description) autistic. Because of his visual impairment, Richard plays with the guitar in his lap, and he knows the fretboard perfectly, by feel alone. The autism likely helped, by allowing for a level of concentration that many other children wouldn’t be able to match; along with that concentration came an extraordinary sense of pitch and rhythm: as a sort of party trick, Richard had learned to identify different cars by the sounds their engines made, and he could keep such careful track of time that he could estimate a car’s velocity over a certain wood bridge by the tempo of the tires thumping against the slats. Tobias recounted an incident in which he played for Richard a Steve Vai song called “For the Love of God,” a ridiculously complex seven- minute song that is filled with alternations between slow melodic lines and insanely fast shredding. It’s by far Vai’s most famous piece, and it took Tobias months to master. Richard? All he had to do was listen once. He slowed down a few of the faster bits, almost as if he were translating them into his own language, but otherwise reproduced the entire piece on his first listen, almost flawlessly. “I will never be able to do that,” said Tobias, one of the world’s great shredders, “no matter how much I practice.”
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Cognitive activities are a product of the mind, and the mind is a product of genes working together with the environment. To dismiss talent is to ignore all evidence from biology.
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that doesn’t mean the human genome contains genes specifically tailored to music (or, for that matter, major- league baseball). Individual genes build proteins, not behaviors. The chain of causality from gene to protein to neuron to behavior is vast and immensely complicated;
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if you want to be technical about it, practice itself isn’t entirely independent of biology. How we respond to experience, and even what type of experience we seek, are themselves in part functions of the genes we are born with. It’s not nature versus nurture; it’s nature working together with nurture.)
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rhythm turns out to be deeply tied to the balance- tracking vestibular system. Since I was a child, my vestibular system has been lousy. I could never bear to ride on a swing, despised being bounced up and down, routinely became nauseated when sitting in the back of the car, and opted out of roller coasters altogether. A new study showed that electrical stimulation of the vestibular system can directly affect rhythmic perception, and in retrospect it is easy to see why rhythm has always posed a challenge for me. It’s a pretty safe bet that Jimi Hendrix enjoyed being bounced as a baby a lot more than I did.
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I got a chance to talk with Pat in great depth, and he explained that he saw musical talent as a sort of grid. Some musicians, he said, moving his fingers as if on an invisible fretboard, are blessed with physical dexterity, others with exceptionally sensitive ears. (Hendrix probably had both.) Metheny saw his own physical dexterity as limited, developed more by brute practice than natural instinct, but he also knew that he himself had been an adept listener since his earliest days. As a child, he’d gotten a perfect score on a musical aptitude test, and in the time since, he’d honed his ears in ways that few other musicians could ever hope to match. Metheny has an astonishing sensitivity to the details of other musicians’ styles, not just at the coarse level of who was good or bad, but exactly which elements of music they were most proficient at, and exactly how any given musician fit into the pantheon of predecessors. Metheny could decompose every note he heard into a mini history lesson. A question about Wynton Marsalis, for instance, led to a disquisition on how Wynton’s breathing techniques drew on both Miles Davis and a lesser- known trumpeter who had once played with Marsalis’s father. Talking to Metheny was like talking to a baseball scout who knew the exact mechanics of every young phenom’s pitching motion, which minor leaguer lifted his shoulder in a funny way, and which ones released a pitch a moment too soon. Metheny, it was clear, was born with golden ears.

Into the Groove

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The dominant theory of music evolution— introduced by Darwin, developed by Geoffrey Miller, and endorsed by Daniel Levitin— is that music is all about sexual selection: guys play music because girls like music, and guys like girls.
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But I’m not convinced, and not just because Beethoven appears to have been childless. Although the sexual selection theory sounds very clever, it has a slew of serious flaws.
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First, in most aspects of physiology that are shaped by sexual selection, we generally see a significant dimorphism, which is to say noticeable variation between males and females.
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At one point in human history, one might have conceived of human music in the same way— as the product of males alone, and Miller’s data on recordings initially seem consistent with that. But in hindsight, that apparent dimorphism is most likely more about opportunity and sociology than a necessary fact about human biology.
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Precisely parallel issues arise in all the arts. Why do we love poetry? Sculpture? Painting? Forty- eight- minute crime dramas? For every art, there’s an evolutionary theory. But none of them is particularly persuasive. The standard explanation for just about everything in evolution is that we engage in a certain behavior because it’s in the interest of our genes.
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For the vast majority of people, investments in the arts are, from a strictly genetic perspective, weak bets.
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Time spent on art— especially as a spectator, but even as a participant— is time away from gathering food, building shelter, developing new skills, or making babies. People don’t indulge in the arts because it’s good for their genes; they do it despite their genes.
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As the late Stephen Jay Gould once pointed out, over the decades Disney has slowly but surely retooled Mickey’s image every few years, in ways that might initially escape the eye. Yet the direction of change has always been the same, toward cuter and cuter: less adult, less threatening, more juvenile, more adorable. My contention is that music is like Mickey: not the direct product of evolution at all, but the product of artists evolving their craft in order to tickle the brain in particular ways. Music, art, and iPhones spread not because we have innate circuitry for funky dance beats or electronic toys but because musicians, artists, and inventors are often uncommonly talented at reverse- engineering the human psyche.
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Flow, according to Csíkszentmihályi, is a state of being fully engaged in a challenging activity requiring skill, a merging of action and awareness. It is characterized by a sense of concentration on the task at hand and a sense of control, a loss of self- consciousness, and an altered sense of time.
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This defines jamming almost perfectly, and it also, I believe, gives a big clue into the true prehistory of music. Music isn’t a special inborn modular mental mechanism; it’s a technology, refined and developed over the last fifty thousand years, in no small part to maximize flow.

The Worst Song in the World

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In some respects, music is quite similar to other arts. There is, for example, in all arts an affiliative component: other things being equal, if you like the paintings I do, we’re more likely to be friends, and ditto for sculpture, movies, and music. The human mind longs to divide between us and them, and each art gives us a fresh dimension in which to distinguish friends from foes
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Composers have an almost infinite supply of tools for tapping into two of the most important yet complementary systems that drive human reward simultaneously: the one that rewards us for making successful predictions, and the one that rewards us for discovering something new.

Knowing Without Knowing

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Declarative knowledge has been optimized for conscious knowledge; procedural knowledge has been optimized for rapid reflexes that aren’t necessarily accessible to consciousness. If we sometimes find it hard to consciously articulate what our muscles are doing, it’s because the memories that feed our conscious thoughts are largely separate from those that control our muscles. It is only with considerable conscious effort and reflection that one can really learn to traffic back and forth fluidly between the two.

Take It to the Limit

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Becoming an expert musician requires the alignment or calibration of at least four distinct sets of representations (five if one happens to read sheet music): the notes the musician hears, the notes the musician wants to play, the location of those notes on the instrument, and the physical actions that the fingers must undergo in order to play the right notes at the right time (and, if applicable, the notes to be read). The musician must draw direct mappings between a mental representation of the instrument and a physical location of where those elements (say, the frets on a guitar or the keys on a piano) are instantiated on the instrument being played at a given moment. The player must have both “egocentric” representations (of where his own body is) and “allocentric” representations (of where things lie on the guitar, independent of how the guitarist is holding the guitar)—and, most important of all, fluent mappings between the two, which must be updated in real time as he and the instrument shift position. (All this is bumped up an extra level of difficulty for a guitarist who plays different guitars, since different guitars often differ in their precise physical layout; the strings on a classical guitar, for example, are farther apart than the strings on an electric guitar.) One of the most important yet seemingly moronic pieces of advice that an aspiring rock guitarist may hear is “Make sure your strap is adjusted so that the guitar is in the same relation to your upper body when you stand up (onstage) as when you are sitting down.” Guitarists who don’t heed it are often skewered by the discrepancy between the allocentric and the egocentric coordinate frames. Alignment is all.
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you could imagine memorizing the fretboard in the abstract and then using some sort of formula to calculate exactly where your fingers should go, factoring in your own posture and the three-dimensional angle and position in space of the guitar at a given moment. A robot might do exactly that, but the human brain doesn’t work that way. Instead, our brains solve these sorts of problems not so much by running equations as by tapping large databases of experience, retrieving similar episodes from memory. (The data for this come from experiments in which researchers performed prism adaptation experiments on human beings: participants relearn mappings between visual and motor space bit by bit, rather than by formula.) The upshot is twofold. First, the fact that our maps between visual space and motor space are piecemeal means we need an enormous amount of practice. Second, our knowledge of the relation between the fretboard and the dynamics of one’s fingers is fragile; tiny alterations from what we are accustomed to can slow us down or lead to error.
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poor singing is generally an alignment problem, an often correctable issue of properly aligning the pitch they hear on the inside with the precise motor movements they need to adjust their larynx into proper position for a given note
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A great deal of singing training is thus (explicitly or implicitly) about helping novices learn to coordinate the motor control of their vocal tracts with their internal models of the sounds they want to produce. Especially important is the complex mapping between so-called chest voice (rich and resonant, but lower in pitch) and head voice (thin, and higher pitched). Amateurs “flip” crudely between head and chest voices, with noticeable breaks as they shift between registers. The first step toward effective singing is to coordinate those two “voices” (which, literally speaking, consist of two different techniques for controlling the vocal apparatus) into a single smooth mix. Expert singers are able to perform such shifts effortlessly, and without conscious thought, precisely because they’ve learned to put all their representational ducks in a row.
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On the scientific side, substitution errors help to illuminate what’s going on inside the brain: the novice’s brain represents individual notes as arbitrary, almost meaningless letters in an alphabet in a language he may not understand. In the brain of the expert, each note is part of a larger meaning, precisely because the song is understood more abstractly, in terms of things like scales and harmonic motion, rather than just random notes that some composer happened to have written. To the novice, the first measures of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” the notes G, A, B, G, might as well be some mysterious incantation; to the expert, they are simply a ride up and down the G major pentatonic scale.
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Chunking example!
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The really good pianists know this (intuitively, if not explicitly) and therefore often devote the greatest portion of their practice to the transitions between larger units
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these transitional moments are the moments at which the musician can least afford to be on autopilot
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“There’s a separate category between being able to replicate something and being able to create something. The first requires enormous technical skill and musicality. But the ability to improvise and create new music as a writer is a separate skill. Some people possess both, and some, such as classic studio musicians, are people great at playing, not great at writing or creating something new. Those are two different talents. Sometimes they are embedded in the same person, like Hendrix had both talents.”

Heavy Metal

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There is a difference between the pleasures of the moment (hedonia) and the satisfaction that comes from constantly developing and living one’s life to the fullest (eudaimonia)