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Gary Marcus: Why We Are Musical

Monday, March 05, 2012

The last time that cognitive psychologist Gary Marcus was on Soundcheck, he discussed his book “Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning." Today, he returns to Soundcheck to address further questions about how we become musical - and whether someone must be musical in order to make music.

Do you have a question for psychologist Gary Marcus? Leave it below!


Gary Marcus

Comments [13]

Diana from Long Island,NY

Has anyone heard of the Absolute Pitch Study? don't know if Peter Gregersen's, MD/geneticist/musician was mentioned in this show but he has set up a web based study to assess perfect pitch at

Mar. 07 2012 12:31 PM
Mike from Garden city

I build violins and cellos. Have been fo 40 years. I only play guitar and people always ask why i dont play the cello or violin, the say hw is it possible? Well it is possible now im 55 and just started cello lessons. I love it but cant sight read at all

Mar. 05 2012 10:55 PM
harley from nyc

There is the theory that Talent doesn't actually exist. What does exist is a combination of natural ability/physiology and then thousands of hours of focused practice. So just having ability doesn't guarantee that you will be a great musician you need to work at it in a certain way.

Mar. 05 2012 02:58 PM
Alistair from inwood

Sorry to say but the Ravi Coltrane example is a bad one. While his father died when he was very young, his mother, Alice Coltrane, is a very talented jazz pianist, and I would be very surprised if she didn't raise her son totally immersed in music.

Mar. 05 2012 02:50 PM
Clif from Manhattan

People definitely have different skill sets. Not all people make good doctors, or carpenters, or musicians. It's just the way it is. People who don't naturally have a given skill set have to work a lot harder at it and, often, for a smaller reward. It's good to know yourself and when you should or shouldn't pursue a given field.

Mar. 05 2012 02:48 PM
Will from Brooklyn

I've succeeded at teaching myself overtone singing. I finally mastered it after years of sporadic attempts to practice. I only had a verbal description of the technique of Tuva singers. It turned out to be one of the more difficult techniques to start with, but I eventually got some overtone resonance. As I practiced I discovered many of the other points of articulation, and now I can get some resonance from laryngeal up to the dental-palatal articulation points, and on a good day I can even muster up some overtones from nasal resonance. And on a very good day I can manage a triple stop using both nasal and palatal.

Mar. 05 2012 02:44 PM
Sue from Greenpoint

Is the ability (or inability) to read sheet music at all related to musical talent? As a teenage flautist, I had a scary ability to play almost any piece by ear after a couple of tries, but my inability to sight read a novel piece and play it on command got me kicked out of the school band. Any hope of vindication?

Mar. 05 2012 02:41 PM
Kevin from Astoria

There is a whole body of literature directed to exactly what Marcus talks about regarding how musicians practice and learn. It closely parallels what he was saying about, say, starting in the middle of a piece, or mentally practicing away from one's instrument. It's great to hear a neurological basis for why what works, works. The book Musician's Way by Gerald Klickstein is a good example.

Mar. 05 2012 02:41 PM
Carol from Maplewood, NJ

After teaching voice for 20 years, I decided to learn vocal anatomy and acoustics as it relates to the voice. It had been years since I tried to memorize anything but words and music. I felt like my brain was a rusty wheel -slow and squeeky- and that I was oiling it. I, in fact, went on the get my Masters in Vocal Pedagogy, write papers etc. and graduated with Distinction!

Also, I've been teaching a voice student for 18 years and she started when she was 60. She's doing great!

Mar. 05 2012 02:40 PM
Peter from Westchester

With the Suzuki method starting children learning an instrument at 3 or 4 years old does a musician need "innate" talent or is there plenty of time to train these young minds and fingers?

Mar. 05 2012 02:26 PM
Jim B

I'll repeat my question to Prof. Marcus from his last appearance, which he was given but didn't have time to answer:

Is the ability to compose music distinct from the ability to appreciate it? I can enjoy a song and even play it on the guitar, but I'd give my right arm to be able to write one (well, almost).

Mar. 05 2012 02:20 PM

John Coltrane's son Ravi never really had a chance to play with his father yet he keeps the flame alive. The family Marsalis plays together and all follow their own muse. I don't think it's instinctive but it definitely is genetic. The Schuman and Bach families just continue this. I could go on and on with the number of families that are involved in music. I think we all sing or whistle when we are happy, there's an outpouring of our psyche and some choose music. Thank you.

Mar. 05 2012 02:19 PM
Lee from Manhattan

What about the rocking that mothers do "instinctively" with infants - which seems always to move into some sort of humming/

Mar. 05 2012 02:17 PM

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