While on sabbatical, NYU A&S Psychology Professor Gary Marcus decided that he wanted to learn to play the guitar. The interest was prompted by playing the popular video game, Guitar Hero. As an expert on cognitive development, Prof. Marcus understands the consensus that, in order to learn a second language (or an instrument), one must pick it up at an early age, before the brain is fully developed. He states on NPR:
We used to believe that that was the case — that if you didn't learn by the time you were 16, you'd never become fluent. What we know now is that some adults actually do become fluent. And although it's definitely easier to learn some things when you're a kid, it's not the case that you just absolutely lose the ability later in life. There's more of a gradual decline, but it is still possible.
So, Prof. Marcus learned to play the guitar. And in his own personal experiment on cognitive development, he proved that an adult, despite lacking musical aptitude, is perfectly capable of picking up a new instrument. That is, as long as he or she commits to practicing!
In his new book, Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning, Prof. Marcus describes the experience of learning a new instrument as an adult, and he challenges certain beliefs about musical talent and training.
Be sure to listen to this podcast by National Public Radio that features Professor Marcus speaking with NPR's Rachel Martin, and read this article in the New York Times, "Applied Neuroscience, the Six-String Method," which delves further into how he learned to play the guitar.