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Research News at Vanderbilt

Why learning guitar is different from learning other instruments

by | Nov. 13, 2012, 5:03 PM | Want more research news? Subscribe to our weekly newsletter »

Gordon Logan, Jerry Kimbrough (Vanderbilt University)

Gordon Logan has always thought that he and his fellow guitar players were different somehow. As a psychologist at Vanderbilt University, he set out to prove it.

Through a set of experiments, Logan, Nashville musician Jerry Kimbrough and Matthew Crump (now of Brooklyn College-CUNY) have illustrated that guitarists – and players of other related instruments like mandolin, banjo and bass – tend to acquire their skills differently than most other musicians.

“Guitar players learn on the street, compared to musicians such as piano players,” said Logan, Centennial Professor of Psychology at Vanderbilt and an expert on how people acquire skills.

Though many aspiring guitarists have started out learning and using music notation like brass players or pianists, Logan and quite a few others taught themselves by watching other guitarists and copying them.

“If I wanted to teach you to play guitar, I’d sit you down and show you a G-chord and a C-chord and a D-chord,” Logan said. “If you have those three chords, you could play 50 percent of country and rock songs. And if you learned one more chord like E-minor, you could do 80 percent.”

To test their theory, Logan, Crump and Kimbrough performed a series of tests. The results were published in the September issue of Music Perception, published by University of California Press.

“What we wanted to do was marry standard techniques of cognitive psychology with the guitar,” Logan said.

First, they took pictures of Logan playing various chords on the guitar, made diagrams of the musical denotation of chords and also letters that denote chords. Then they tested how fast guitarists could either say or play the chords based on these cues.

“We found out that letters cue the fastest responses compared to diagrams and pictures,” Logan said.

Unlike with the other cues, responses to the picture version of chords were faster or slower depending on how the picture was rotated, showing that guitarists are faster to recognize chords from familiar viewpoints, like when they are watching themselves or another guitarist play a chord.

For another test, the researchers showed subjects pictures of chords while at the same time playing a chord – sometimes the correct chord and sometimes not. When the wrong chord was played, guitar players were fooled by the photograph, while non-musicians were not.

“The point of that was that the guitarists were influenced by the visual representation of the chords, and they couldn’t turn it off,” Logan said.

Reading music is harder for guitarists because any given note on the guitar can be played on different strings of the instrument. So simply knowing what note to play isn’t enough information for guitarists; they need to know the most efficient way to play the note in the context of the piece of music they’re playing.

“There’s also the reality that guitarists playing popular music usually need to display a bit of showmanship, which is much easier to do without having to keep your eyes glued to a music stand,” Logan said.

“The fact that guitar players don’t read music too often frees up their eyes so they can look at their hands,” he said. “When you play piano or violin, you are trained not to look at your hands.

“We’re showing that guitar players know what they’re doing,” he said. “There’s evolution working there.”

Media Inquiries:
Jim Patterson, (615) 322-NEWS

  • Jesse

    Very Cool!

  • Michael Edelman

    So guitarists are more often self-taught than are pianists and violinists. This is not exactly breaking news. As for being free to look at your hands- good musicians, including guitarists, rarely, if ever, have to look at the instrument.

    This article is full of nonsense and misinformation. Consider: “Reading music is harder for guitarists because any given note on the guitar can be played on different strings of the instrument.” Well, so what? The same is true of violin, viola, cello, and bass. There are multiple fingerings for many notes on brass and woodwinds, too.

    All this study does is to replicate studies from the 50s, 60s and 70s using chord symbols and labels instead of pictures and words. See, for examples, Ehri, Linneac: Do Words Really Interfere in Naming Pictures? Child Development,1976,47, 502-505.

  • Mike Evans

    I think the article is right on. Guitarists are a different breed and shouldn’t be labeled in with other musicians. It’s true about great guitarists having difficulty to read music and not having interest in written music. Jimi Hendrix and the Beatles didn’t read music.That’s because music was played before written music and it has to come from the soul and not be mechanical as in written music. Written music is too binding. It’s like a person on a bike having to rely on training wheels when they are unnecessary and a crutch.

  • MrWhiffle

    As someone who plays both piano and guitar, these definitions seem more likely to fit someone who tends to read lead sheets, or plays more contemporary music as opposed to classical or specific arrangements. The learning environment for either is very different. Not sure if this is science or not. Next we’ll see that guitarists need to look at their Youtube videos more often during live shows than Tubists (Tubaists, Tuba Players, Tubers?)

    And as everyone knows, it’s the bass players that are truly “different.”

  • Ed S.

    I found that studying Classical Guitar and learning to read music to be the best match for my guitar brain. I learned country blues, flat picking, bluegrass, Mandolin, failed at lead guitar. Never got “really good” or felt authentic. But a formal learning method was what I needed. So don’t stuff yourself into any mold. Surprisingly, Bass has an excellent structured method and i did master electric Bass. Recently i found that there is no structured way to study and practice triads on guitar! Told by everyone i ask to just “memorize” them, but no etudes or studies. I followed one link that described Pat Methany doing a 10 minute improv with Larry Grenadier but they just raved about Pat. I guess Larry’s part was easy. How do you get a guitar player to stop playing? Put sheet music in front of him/her.

  • disqusaurus_rex

    As a self instructed guitar player, I was always taught that because I was a guitarist, I was a dummy who did not know how to read music.
    It was a very pleasant discovery that as I began working with sight reading singers and instrumentalists, that I in fact very much DID know how to read music. The recorder lessons I had taken as a kid had stuck – I knew all my note lengths, knew the names of the spots on the staff, knew treble clef vs. bass, knew how many flats and sharps each key had. More importantly, once I realized I could read, it was immediately useful to me, allowing me to play with people of high caliber, and in no small part helps me get work.
    I think we do a disservice to guitar players in helping them to assume they aren’t on a real instrument. Yes they are.