A Cognitive Approach to Guitar

Why should we use science to understand guitar skill?

After all, there are many hundreds of guitar method books out there as well as thousands of websites, online videos, blogs & magazines (including this one). So there is more than enough material for any beginner or intermediate guitarist to get their feet wet – right?

There is also evidence that jazz guitar undergraduates struggle when they begin undergraduate degrees due to a lack of technical skill (Odegard, 2004; Elmer, 2009; Balistreri, 1995; Tedesco, 1998; Matone, 2005; Berard, 1998). Considering the mountain of prep materials available, and the fact that over 75% of guitar undergraduates use published materials*, this seems unusual. Why is this the case?

One explanation for this phenomenon could be the typically late start to jazz training for guitarists. Degner & Lehmann (2003), found that both professional and student jazz guitarists (n=18) started their instrumental training later than classical musicians (at around age 13), and began jazz training even later (at around age 20) transitioning to jazz from playing folk, rock and other popular music. By way of contrast, other studies have shown that classically trained individuals often begin their lessons between 5-10 years of age (Ericsson, 1993).

The inefficacy of method books and other pedagogy in early jazz guitar education have also been indicated as a potential source of this problem. Odegard (2004) specifically blamed poor teaching materials and a lack of university support for the struggles he saw new undergraduate guitar students dealing with. Elmer (2009) noted that most method books follow a strict ‘behaviourist’ format, with an emphasis on rote learning, which he found to be unsuitable to the task of fostering creativity. In addition, he argued that any method relying on memorizing scale patterns instead of fully learning the notes of the fretboard is apt to be limiting to the creativity and facility of the student. Balistreri (1995) found that most methods do not give an overall comprehension of the instrument, and limit creative possibilities. Tedesco (1998) felt that jazz guitar method books too often focused on copying the styles of famous guitarists at the expense of a student’s creative development. Matone (2005) found all methods lacked comprehensive fingering information. Berard (1998) noted that most method books at the university level were not comprehensive and quote “too specific to one topic, lacking in the presentation of prerequisite knowledge for the skills being taught” (p. 18).

Jody Fisher, in his 1995 method book ‘The Complete Jazz Guitarist‘ puts the problem succinctly, saying “…in spite of the mountains of instructional books and tapes that are available, most students remain in the dark about some very basic concepts regarding jazz and jazz guitar” (p. 5).

So what can cognitive science contribute to guitar education?

Firstly, evaluation and testing. Most guitar methods (even the best) are untested and centered around the philosophies of the individual author. These methods can be evaluated using the scientific method to discover whether they actually work, or whether other cognitive factors are at play. After all, many instruments are studied in this way (particularly piano). Secondly, by drawing from existing fields such as music cognition, motor learning, neuroscience & psychology, we can begin to build a picture of how people acquire complex guitar skills with related research. What is currently missing from the pedagogical landscape of guitar is concrete evidence of how guitarists acquire particular skills. This evidence can only be gathered through scientific research that extends beyond the individual experience, through investigation by multiple scientific disciplines.

Guitarists (amateur, student or professional) are always needed as research participants – to contribute check out our Current Studies.

*In his experimental study with fourteen Concordia University jazz guitar students, Michael Berard (1998) found that 78.6% had used a guitar method book before attending university. Berard, M. (1998). Production and evaluation of a self-instructional method for teaching jazz guitar. (Unpublished M.A. Thesis). Concordia University, Montreal, Canada, 61.

2 thoughts on “A Cognitive Approach to Guitar

  1. Hi, Amy. As a scientist (astronomer/statistician) and guitarist (amateur), I find this post really intriguing! I clicked on your link about “methods can be evaluated using the scientific method,” but it redirected to my own Dropbox page (this might be because Dropbox is changing how to link to public content). If that resource is still available, I’m interested in reading it. Thanks! -Tom


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