The Frontal Cortex

Guitar Hero 2 and Plasticity

Watching this clip of a kid who has spent way too much time on Guitar Hero 2 reminded me of the classic study of the somatosensory cortex in string players:

Magnetic source imaging revealed that the cortical representation of the digits of the left hand of string players was larger than that in controls. The effect was smallest for the left thumb, and no such differences were observed for the representations of the right hand digits. The amount of cortical reorganization in the representation of the fingering digits was correlated with the age at which the person had begun to play. These results suggest that the representation of different parts of the body in the primary somatosensory cortex of humans depends on use and changes to conform to the current needs and experiences of the individual.

I’d love to check out the somatosensory cortex of this prodigal eight year old. The agility of his fingers is pretty impressive. It’s just a shame that he has invested so much time in a guitar video game instead of practicing an actual guitar…

Via Kottke


  1. #1 rpsms
    November 28, 2007

    My daughter can thrash out on “hard” and “expert” GH3 on a regular controller. She also plays violin, guitar, and bass.

    I think you are jumping to a conclusion about the amount of skill and effort required for GH2. I also presume you don’t actually know if he plays guitar. His hand position at first glance looks like the classic guitar position.

    I have been playing guitar for 21 years, but being self-taught, I still don’t place my left hand in quite that position.

    All that said, it is an impressive video.

  2. #2 John
    November 28, 2007

    I think you are jumping to a conclusion about the amount of skill and effort required for GH2.

    I don’t know that he was saying it wasn’t hard but it definitely has less value. I can still play songs I learned 20 years ago and enjoy them or impress other people. Whatever video games I was playing 20 years has zero value to me or anyone else.

  3. #3 Jonah
    November 28, 2007

    RPSMS: I didn’t mean to disparage the amount of talent involved in GH2. I posted that video of the kid because it was so impressive. I’m curious if your daughter thinks that the GH series taps into the same skill set as playing a real instrument. (Alas, I don’t play anything with strings, so I don’t know the answer.) In other words, does “practicing” on GH2 improve her cello skills? Just curious.

  4. #4 torea
    November 28, 2007

    There’s an interview of the guitarist or Rage Against The Machine who said he’s not so good at Guitar Hero game even with his own music!

  5. #5 Epistaxis
    November 28, 2007

    As someone with a bit of formal training on a stringed instrument, I can give a couple of comments about how this relates, though I don’t know much about GH outside of what I see in the video.

    No, I strongly doubt this is good practice for playing any kind of musical instrument, even if the fingerings are the same. A friend of mine takes conducting lessons, and his teachers forbid him to conduct along with recordings, because that would teach him how to follow a given beat rather than produce the motion from his own inner metronome. It’s the same playing an instrument – you should be learning to perform from your own steady (or intentionally unsteady) beat, rather than simply moving your fingers when the screen says so. The key is to create the rhythm and the sound, not react to them as you seem to do in this video game.

    So there’s obviously a lot of skill involved in Guitar Hero, but it’s a very different skill set from actually performing music, or maybe a subset. Playing Guitar Hero eight hours a day probably won’t make you worth listening to on an actual instrument without the video/audio prompt, and all that practice is actually a major liability if you’re not fingering the same way. On the other hand, a good instrumentalist (and if you think this kid is good, you should see what a halfway decent, full-grown, professional, classically trained musician is expected to be able to do) might be able to pick up the game pretty quickly. I wonder.

  6. #6 Bill (just a journeyman) Loomis
    November 28, 2007

    I think you have to actually be a musician to fully comprehend the awesome gap in skill (“enormous” is just not superlative enough) between this level of GH (“just missed 3 notes”) and the journeyman adult professional, not to mention Eddie Van Halen, Joe Satriani, or other actual guitar heroes. Recitals by followers of the Suzuki Method of violin instruction routinely get together dozens of kids this age to play tunes no less difficult than what’s in the video.

    The GH controller itself is an impediment to growth beyond the most basic level: it has only half a dozen buttons that are either on or off, while an actual guitar has six strings X 24 frets, can activate all six simultaneously, and (here’s where the real artistry enters) can articulate each note through about five different dimensions of attack and release, and bend each note in pitch and tone color throughout its duration. Not to mention running around on stage and making faces all the while.

    You can hear much of this in the GH soundtrack, which is OK technically, but nothing to write home about artistically. Any winner of a high-school “battle of the bands” should be able to duplicate the GH soundtrack on a real guitar without too much effort. That would get you a weekday gig at a local bar at sub-union scale pay (think of the bar scene in the Blues Brothers movie), but it’s ages away from stadium-filling talent.

    Neurologically, size of representation in primary sensory and motor cortex is probably the least of the changes between non-musician and professional. There should be huge changes in temporal cortex (the way a performer listens is radically different from the way an untrained person hears music), with much greater frontal cortex involvement. I would expect difference in parietal activity between classically trained musicians who can read music, and “musically illiterate” untrained pop and folk musicians. Based on the work of Richard F. Thompson on reflex learning, I’ll bet on significant cerebellar changes, too.

  7. #7 TomK
    November 29, 2007

    “It’s just a shame that he has invested so much time in a guitar video game instead of practicing an actual guitar…”

    You won’t be saying that when this kid is operating on you with a video game interface in ten years.

  8. #8 MattXIV
    November 29, 2007

    My 2 cents on playing GH vs an actual guitar:

    Playing GH is easier on one level for someone who has experience playing guitar, since you’re used to coordinating the actions of your hands and following a beat. On the other hand, it can be harder since the muscle memory from playing guitar doesn’t map to the guitar hero controller very well (ex the spacing of the buttons is narrower than what you’d expect the frets to be at the same place on the neck so I find myself overreaching and hitting the wrong button a lot, there relationships between the buttons and particular pitches or chords change), and some of the more complicate rhythms aren’t accurately represented in the game (ex tremolo picking, acciaccatura, hammer-ons and pull-offs).

    For improving guitar skills, for beginners it may help them getting down the coordination between fretting and strumming and help develop an ability to keep time, but Getting better at guitar is largely about developing the muscle memories for the locations of notes, chord voicings, and picking and muting strings, which GH won’t help with because of the simplified controller and learning enough music theory to make sense of what you’re playing. Getting better at GH involves developing muscle memories for the button locations and patterns in the various songs in the game.

  9. #9 Greg Laden
    November 30, 2007

    It would be nice if people interested in behavior would always consider the importance of neural plasticity. So few genes, so many neurons…

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