Ah, Guitar Hero. Who would've thought that hitting rainbow colored buttons on a Fischer-Price toy while watching cartoon characters dance on screen would be so popular amongst adults and teenagers, who are usually very self-conscious about that kind of thing? Everyone has wondered whether Guitar Hero skills translate to actual musical skills. Alas, just about every real musician will tell you that they don't. That's only the quick answer though, and it's not entirely true. I think there is some benefit to your musicals skills by playing with that little plastic toy guitar, even if those benefits are subtle, basic mental ones. I'm no neuroscientist, but I decided to do some research on the subject and then come to some hasty conclusions after that. Here's what I found.
When you play Guitar Hero, you are sort of performing a simplified version of sight reading: watching as the nodes come down the line and then hitting the associated note. Now, obviously you aren't reading from a real musical scale, and you only have a maximum of five notes to keep track of. But there's one crucial difference between Guitar Hero and actual sight reading: Timing.
In sight reading studies, people display two different eye movement behaviors, saccades and fixations. Saccades are the rapid movement of the eye from one location to another, and fixations are when the eye lingers on a particular note. Though the musician is keeping time, this is not necessarily true for their eye movements. A musician may choose to occasionally move his or her eyes ahead briefly to see what is coming up, or they may have to perform rapid saccades when the melody gets complicated. With Guitar Hero, the "musical staff" is continually moving, forcing both the player and their eyes to keep up. The player cannot see very far ahead, so they can't plan. During the first several rounds of a song in Guitar Hero, the player goes through some very rigorous sight reading exercise. Now, if someone would make an educational Piano Hero, with a moving musical staff (thanks Joe, for that idea), we could have a truly amazing way to learn to sight read.
There was a study done in 1997 by FE Truitt on peripheral visual input. This refers to the ability of the eye to capture more data around the point of focus without actually moving. The study found that even the most skilled sight readers could only see about 5 beats ahead when focusing on one note. Unskilled sight readers could only see about 2 ahead. With a constantly moving "staff" and a very short viewing distance, Guitar Hero is most certainly exercising your peripheral visual ability. Both the musician and the guitar hero will be exercising their short-term musical memory, storing what notes they can, and processing them to be played. Will Guitar Hero help with sight reading actual music? Nobody knows for sure, but it probably can't hurt.
Of course, after several rounds of a particular song, the player is mostly relying on pattern memorization. But really, the same is true for musicians. A musician, when practicing a piece, will play a particularly difficult part over and over again. A Guitar Hero player is forced to play the entire song at the same tempo every time, where a musician can play however they want. Once again, the guitar hero is only playing different combinations of the same five notes, so they have a severe advantage over the musician.
Of course, the most obvious benefit of playing Guitar Hero would be the exercising of the fingers of your 'fret' hand while hitting the five buttons. I don't believe this really does a lot for your fret ability on a real guitar, since that involves moving your hand in very bizarre and unnatural positions. But it does exercise your finger muscles and improves your coordination, which can translate, at least, directly to better piano skills. For your left hand, anyway.
So does being a master at Guitar Hero make you a better musician? I'm going to say no. Does it help with some basic motor skills that are required for a good musician? After doing some simple research, I would say yes. However, the amount of time some people spend becoming a truly scary Guitar Hero hero might be better spent actually learning guitar or piano instead. At least then you have the potential for real groupies instead of pretending to have them.
This is certainly not an exhaustive report, just me gaining a little bit more knowledge on the subject. There's plenty more to read about neuroscience, muscle coordination, sight reading and all manner of other things related to pushing giant, brightly colored buttons to a beat while pretending to be cool.
For the record, I absolutely love Guitar Hero, but I'm embarrassingly bad at it. Guess you never can tell, eh?
Some interesting reading:
Wikipedia - Eye Movement in Music Reading