Can You Learn to Play an Instrument at 40? Q&A with Psychologist Gary Marcus

Have you got zero musical talent, but a burning desire to play? NYU psychologist Marcus says there's hope for everyone.

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Can someone with no musical talent learn to play guitar as an adult? That’s what New York University psychology professor Gary Marcus wanted to find out when he turned 40. Along the way, he discovered that the struggle to learn was as rewarding as playing music itself.

In honor of national Wanna Play Music Week, Healthland spoke with Marcus, author of Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning.

Why did you start this project?
I always wanted to make music but at the same time, thought it was completely out of my reach. I had several very disappointing experiences as a child trying to learn.

I tried to learn the recorder in 4th grade and my teacher suggested that my talents lay elsewhere when I couldn’t play “Mary had a little lamb.” In graduate school I tried to take something called “miracle piano.” At each point, I got stuck on rhythm. It was no miracle.

Then, I started playing [the video game] “Guitar Hero.” I was terrible. My wife helped me to play. The first time I ever did anything vaguely rhythmic, I got excited. I practiced the game for a while and made it through beginner and medium. I thought, Maybe I should try a real guitar. The video game was a gateway drug that gave me confidence to try the real thing.

What was the most fun part of your learning experience?
There were a lot of fun things. The most fun, but also the most scary, was that I went to a summer camp with 11-year-olds and played in a band. On Day One, you had to start writing a song and by Friday, you had to play it on stage. The kids bring their parents to the performance and I brought mine, too. It was frightening but super fun. (Listen to Marcus’ performance here.)

What are some of the differences between the way children and adults learn?
Kids and adults are differently able. They bring different skills. Adults are more analytical. One thing I was able to do was understand music theory and comprehend it in a way [that kids couldn’t]. Kids are more patient and willing to practice the same thing over and over. They don’t have the same expectations about being good right away and probably cut themselves more slack and probably have faster fingers.

Some people say that music must be an innate human capacity, which evolved the way language did. But you disagree.
For the better part of our evolutionary history music wasn’t even on the scene. You can engineer a technology that everyone loves like the iPhone, but that doesn’t mean that the thing was itself in [our evolutionary history].

All cultures do have music and it taps into lots of things that our brains come prepared with, like a love of novelty and familiarity. Music has really cool ways of delivering both. There’s a steady drumbeat that makes the brain happy and that it can anticipate, and then you have novelty when you change the melody or lyrics.

Both predictability and novelty [release] dopamine [a brain chemical associated with pleasure and desire]. It’s seemingly contradictory but music packs it all in.

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Does learning to play music make you smarter?
One thing we know is that on average, people who play musical instruments are smarter but we don’t know if it’s causal. Among Nobel Prize-winners, there are a disproportionately high number of musicians, but whether [their music lessons made them smarter or vice versa] is a classic chick-and-egg question.

My guess is that at the very least, music teaches you self-discipline and the rewards of working slowly to build something awesome. When you first start, you are lost and after a few years, you can do it. It’s a wonderful way of learning the power of patience. There maybe other things: it makes your ears more sensitive and that may make you better at picking up languages. There’s some suggestive data on that.

To the extent that you are thinking about how your instrument fits in with an ensemble, it might help you [connect with other people and empathize]. But it might be that giving acting lessons would do the same thing even better. I don’t want to say that music is necessarily better than drama.

Do you think playing music makes you healthier?
There might be some health benefits. I talk about the idea of eudaemonia, the pleasure of self-actualization or fulfillment. There’s a kind of pleasure from immediate things like food or sex, but [eudaemonia] comes when we’ve done all that we can to be the people we can be. Part of what keeps me going is that [music] brings a kind of balance into my life that I think is a wonderful thing.

Even though you learned to play after a whole lot of effort, you don’t believe that practice is the only thing that differentiates excellent musicians from lesser ones.
I guess I know why people want to believe that, but I don’t know why they do. It’s manifestly the case that in music some people work really hard and do well, and some don’t. There’s a lot of data out there that makes clear that practice is just part of the equation. None of it actually shows that talent doesn’t matter. It’s bizarre that that idea got as popular as it has.

I’d love to learn to play an instrument, but I don’t have a sabbatical like you did during which I could spend hours at it every day. Do you think it’s still possible?
I think it’s totally possible. I’ve gotten literally hundreds of emails from older adults who have been learning music for the last 10 or 20 years and they really love it.

That doesn’t mean that if you start at 50, you’re going to be playing with the symphony orchestra at 60. If you only practice once a week, you’re not going to get anywhere. If you can do a little bit every day, almost anybody can make progress.

I’m someone who doesn’t have any natural talent. I’m likely congenitally arrythmic. I’m close to tone deaf. I had almost no talent. I had more time but less talent than most people. If you have even a little more talent, you might get there faster with less time.

Do you think people will stop learning to play instruments eventually and just do it all with computers? Will something be lost if that kind of skill disappears?
There’s certainly an amount of music you can make with iPhone apps without knowing a lot, but to really put together an ensemble that works, you really need to know something.

I don’t know what the place of instruments will be. I think some people will always love them. There’s a kind of physical joy that comes from playing that you just don’t get from the iPhone, but there’s more than one route to music.

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With computers, you don’t need to learn a physical skill just to make the right sounds, so it seems like it would take less practice.
You can to some degree cut out some of the practice in terms of learning where the notes are, but not the practice of learning to understand what actually sounds good.

What should you look for in a music teacher?
I’ll tell you what you shouldn’t look for: a great musician. They might be good, but they might not be. You want someone who understands how you learn, who cares about the learning process itself and has a good eye for what you’re doing wrong and can in a constructive way tell you how to practice and get better.

A good teacher is a little like a car mechanic who can know what things look like when they go wrong and how to fix them, not just what they look like if they work correctly.

Should parents make their kids stick with their music lessons and practice?
I think that being a good parent is like being a good guidance counselor. You have to help people find from within what they like to do. If they are very young, you probably do need to nudge them, but not everyone has to be a musician. A good music teacher will often involve the parents and teach parents how to be supportive of their kids. [They will] teach parents not to be very critical and to be supportive, but at the end of day it is the child’s decision I think.

See more of Healthland’s ‘Mind Reading’ series.

Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.