Muscle Memory: Good or Bad?

Muscle Memory: Good or Bad?

This may seem like a silly question for now, but hear me out.

I was talking with one of my piano students about muscle memory, and she told me how when she would forget the password to her phone, she would just throw her thumb around on the keypad and her thumb would remember it for her. This is when the idea was planted into my head that muscle memory may not be 100% positive.

Lately I’ve been more consistent with learning Tai Chi movements, and it baffled me that it takes so long to learn just one, even after doing it, watching it, and listening to someone explain it over and over and over again. I think it’s because the "muscle memory factor" has been taken out. This is when clear questions came to me.

Is muscle memory a cheat? Does it make us lazy, does it cause us to not be motivated to learn things deeply and thoroughly?

Apparently, our fingers, hands, all limbs can remember a motion, even after our mind has began to forget the details. I remember sitting down in front of pianos and letting my muscle memory remember a piece for me instead of checking a manuscript.

How much better musicians would we be if we took the time to learn things thoroughly and 3-dimensionally instead of shallowly and 1-dimensionally? I mean really, the idea of slowing down and taking our time has to be one of the most universally applicable lessons that music teaches us. With this, we don’t have to depend on muscle memory, because the methods, techniques, and patterns will be learned inside-out, mentally and physically.

What are your thoughts on this?

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Well, ofcourse, just muscle memory is a bad thing. Lets say if you would mute the sound of a piano and only played the notes of a song without any sound attached to it. But that’s not what happens is it. Other than muscle memory you’re also linking that note pressed to a sound produced, isn’t that core to what learning music by ear is about?

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I don’t think it’s a silly question at all. Have you been following the thread on slow practise? Daniel Coyles’ book, The Talent Code? Or Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers?
You should google "myelin memory" and browse the net to learn how learning is facilitated by a substance (myelin) that sheaths the nerve axons, resulting in what (I think) people refer to as "muscle memory." While the muscle as such doesn’t have a memory, the brain remembers patterns and as you practice to develop a skill, the myelin sheath is built up and enables the nerve axons to send messages from the brain to the muscles faster and more completely.
"There are several main ways in which this can happen:
1) The synapses themselves become stronger and so transmit the signals more reliably
2) New synapses form, so the neurons are more strongly connected
3) Myelin growth leads to faster transmission of the electrical signals down the axon, and better timing of neuronal signals." http://tinyurl.com/o6fhyxl

It’s more complicated than this and I am not a scientist. It might seem as if the muscle remembers but it is the brain that remembers and your neural system that is doing the work without your conscious control.

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It’s good. If the basic tune is in your autopilot, then you can concentrate on how you’re going to play it today, and how best to complement/embellish/fit in with your fellows.

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Can anyone actually separate what aspects of their playing come from "muscle memory" and what comes from "knowing the tune?" I’d venture that the answer is probably no. To a certain extent, some things have to be autopilot, or you just couldn’t play at all. There would be too many processes to keep track of. You’d never get past the "how do I make a noise on this damn thing again" stage of learning your instrument.

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"You’d never get past the "how do I make a noise on this damn thing again" stage of learning your instrument."

I completely agree with the doctor on this one, the moment I start to think about a tune I’m playing is the moment I cock it up. The sole aim of the hours I put into my practice is to remove just about every aspect of conscious thought from my performance. When I play at my best I am on autopilot feeding off the sound of my instrument and the response of what audience there may be.

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If you know the tune autopilot style, you can use that as a basis for inserting small variations, as you play. This is utilising your so called muscle memory as a platform to express your individual interpretation. Wikipedia (again) does a good article on "muscle memory":
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muscle_memory

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That too. I find that I can only really play melodic variations once I know a tune well enough for it to be on autopilot. If I am devoting most mental resources to, "how does the next bit go again?" I haven’t any left to play a clever variation.

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‘Muscle memory’ is probably not a very appropriate description, although I think everyone knows what you mean. If we didn’t have it, we would die pretty quickly, or at the very least fall over. The number of things your body has to keep track of in order not to die starts out very high, and only increases as you grow. Babies aren’t much good at anything (except staying alive); and as you learn to speak, walk, dress, wash, brush your teeth, ride a bike, drive a car, take a radio apart, fly a space ship, etc., all the routine processes — anything no longer novel or unusual — are delegated to other parts of the nervous system so that the limited resources needed to deal with the immediate environment are freely available.
Playing music, or any similar activity, takes up a lot of resources. Remembering to breathe and not drool down your front while learning a new instrument is not as innate as you might expect. As things become repetitive, they are relegated to the parts of the nervous system that work independently of conscious thought; although you can resurrect them more or less at will — there is nothing to stop you changing your stride as you walk along the street (mind the lamp-post).
The trick, I think, is rather like driving a car, or better still, a motorbike: you concentrate on where you are going while keeping half an eye on your speed, position on the road, other traffic etc., without paying any attention at all to the spinning wheels and cogs and churning liquids that allow the bike to move. Unless, of course, something goes wrong, in which case it all goes pear-shaped. If you find yourself on a strange, rough road, you concentrate on what you are doing. After a few times, all becomes familiar, and you start to appreciate the scenery as your nervous system takes over for you.
In short — good.

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"Remembering to breathe and not drool down your front…is not as innate as you might expect"

As a piper I have a lot of shirts that testify to this very fact!

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>‘Muscle memory’ is probably not a very appropriate description, although I think everyone knows what you mean.
No, it’s not, but they call it that on Wikipedia and the term has been referred to as such from Plato & Aristotle. What about "consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition" then?

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Hi fiddlelearner

As a long time tai chi practitioner, I can assure you that the learning/improvement process is never ending.

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And yes, as you say, it does take up a lot of energy; a disproportionate amount of the body’s blood flow goes to the brain. After a 3-hour music session, or a motorbike ride in London upwards of an hour, I feel pretty drained. As much as a 40+minute run.

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What gam said. I think one problem with an instrument arises when I find I can’t over-ride it at will, or when the alternative itself requires practice to ‘get my fingers round it’.

The main problem is when it fails though 🙁

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A week ago, while visiting a nursing home, I heard an Altzheimer patient who had lost the ability to speak play Beethoven beautifully on a piano. Cherish your muscle memory. One day it may be all you have left. Case closed.

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I agree. For older learners like me, muscle memory - doing it ‘automatically’ after lots of goes - is the main way to advance.

But really you need a combination of thinking and understanding *with* muscle memory. For example, my teacher showed me how to do ‘rolls’ last year, but just doing the movements didn’t make any sense to me and could not seem to ‘come to me’. Then I found a YouTube clip where a man explained it and then did a demo of ‘The Swallow Tail Jig’ which made the rolls part of the tune. For me, knowing a tune to be able to sing it is vital for learning. Once I heard the ‘tune’ of the roll, I could play it - practise it - and finally absorb it as muscle memory.

And I agree with the poster above who says it’s never *just* muscle memory. I find that it’s only when I can play a tune ‘automatically’ and do not need to think about where my fingers go next that I can start to put expression and emphasis into it to bring it alive.

I have just started a book about music and the brain & it says that music is not associated with one side of the brain, as was previously thought, but is spread throughout the brain, so that a man may not be able to read a shopping list but *can* read music, or he may be unable to do his shirt buttons up but he *can* play the piano. We are all combinations of the automatic and the thought out, and we need to know ourselves and know how we learn best.

Ye’re aye welcome, Muscle Memory!

Mollie

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I talk with my students a lot about kinesthetic memory. It’s a really important step in the learning process. One that allows you to go from having to think about what your fingers do next to letting a string of notes flow. But I also encourage my students to be cognizant of what’s happening, and encourage them to not rely on the muscle memory too much, because what invariably happens is that they will miss a note, and all of a sudden they get lost, and can’t pick up the tune again until the beginning of the next part.

Of course we rely on kinesthetic memory a lot, but where it becomes important is for your hands to know how to make the notes that your brain wants them to. Your hands remember how far to reach, or how to slide into a note, or how to make vibrato over a hole on the flute or pipes. But if you rely on your hands too much remember what comes next in a specific tune, then you’re not directing the music with your brain, you’re just regurgitating a string of notes that you taught to your fingers.

The analogy that I use is typing. Most of us can type pretty fast (from spending hours pontificating about things on thesession.org, for one thing…) But you don’t rely on the muscle memory to direct what words are coming out, you just rely in it to know how to make the words you want to type appear on the screen. The same should apply to music. Music is much more than just a string of notes played over and over. Music can be played with expression. Little subtleties, like the attack, volume, articulations, and timing are all things that should be directed from your brain (or your heart, some might argue). That’s what makes the music sound alive, and gives it the lift and nyah. And I didn’t even mention melodic variation. That’s another thing that ultimately needs to be driven by you, not some rote finger pattern.

So be aware that while kinesthetic memory can be helpful, and even necessary in some ways, it can also contain a pit that can hinder your development as a musician after a certain point!

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Surely ‘muscle memory’ is just an ordinary part of learning and playing. Everyone has it and uses it whether they want to or not!

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I’m going to play devil’s advocate a little bit here: It’s neither good or bad, it just is.

All the good points have been pointed out above, but muscle-memory also can ingrain how you play right now (making progress harder if you don’t apply new skills), bad habits and inflexible music.

Muscle memory is good, to a point - but I’ve known more than a few players who get stuck in a rut with it. They play the tune the same way, same swing, tempo, same triplets and everything; every time. While it’s good for recording studios and certain band performances, it’s not good for being a well rounded musician. You need to be able to adapt on the fly. When another musician starts a tune in with a more or less swing or faster/slower ‘rote muscle memory players’ usually have the nasty, albeit subconscious, habit of changing the tempo and swing back to ‘their’ way.

Sometimes if a musician lets a tune ‘rest’ and let their fingers forget the rote muscle memory they can come back to the tune and give it a more musical treatment instead of a merely mechanical/technical one.

I’m a big advocate for moving the tune to different keys and not just moving it over a set of strings on the fiddle, I mean take a standard D tune and relearn it in C or a Am tune and push it up to Bm. The ‘shapes’ are removed but the tune is still there to re-learn.

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"The ‘shapes’ are removed but the tune is still there to re-learn." If know a tune well enough I can often make a reasonable stab at playing it another key without having to "re-learn" it - *if* I am used to playing tunes in that key. Isn’t that muscle memory ? The fingers knowing how to make the note that is in my head ?

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I think it is. I often forget what note to start a tune on and play it perfectly well in another key. Good point.

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David50, it is muscle memory, but it’s the kind that remembers how to make notes on your instrument, not the kind that remembers what note comes next. So that’s the good kind, which won’t get you stuck in a rut…

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@ b.maloney
"Muscle memory is good, to a point - but I’ve known more than a few players who get stuck in a rut with it. They play the tune the same way, same swing, tempo, same triplets and everything; every time. While it’s good for recording studios and certain band performances, it’s not good for being a well rounded musician. You need to be able to adapt on the fly."

I agree totally. On some rare occasions I’ve played with people where we decided to something in another key, and some people were totally lost.

Muscle memory is good, but unless you have the music in your head, it’s pretty useless.

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I think you can have the music in your head, but get lazy and just go on auto-pilot. I’ve heard it called ‘session burn" where you just play the same tunes, in the same sets, the same way while zoning out.

It happens to me pretty often, I’m not immune.

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I’ve been trying to remember where I heard someone talking about this exact topic, and now I recall — it was the BBC program that I mentioned in an earlier post
https://thesession.org/discussions/32902
about six minutes in, there is a cellist describing what happens and what she does about it — worth a listen if it’s available in your neck of the woods, Jerone.

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@ b.maloney - good point you make there. Being pattern-locked can be a bit of a setback.

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Wow, a lot of good points up there. I would explain my case of ideas further but others have already made my point i.e. Reverend on kinestetic memory. b.maloney on redundancy.

I don’t mean to say that muscle memory is a cruel adversary to our musical wholeness. I was more trying to ask the question if we, an impatient and instantaneous species, use it just to sweep through learning something.

Yes muscle memory is great in the long term and helps us in a lot of ways. But what about when we assume that we know something well enough to remember for a long time just because we remember a pattern?

I mentioned how when I would forget how to play a piano piece and my "muscle memory" would help me relearn it, but I didn’t mention how sometimes muscle memory didn’t the piece well enough. Sometimes I had to learn over again, whether by sight or by ear because I didn’t get it ingrained enough in the first place.

I’m not talking about something I tried to learn over a few days and then forgot it a few weeks later. I’m talking about pieces that I practiced for weeks and months, but was in a hurry to learn(probably for a performance or special occasion). You say, "I know that well enough, I don’t have to practice that anymore…". Then it’s, "Aww man… How did that piece go?! Come on hands, do your magic! ……Dangit, I don’t remember :("

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Gam—thanks for the link to that program. Very interesting. Later on in the program, the cellist talks about performance cues—places where she can get back into the music if the muscle-memory autopilot fails. She mentions a key change, specifically, in a Bach piece. For most of the traditional tunes, I’d expect that our performance cues tend to be centered on repetition of a phrase. So it should be a mix of conscious and unconscious.

I think the ideal muscle memory is, as has been mentioned above, is simply knowing how to get a particular note or interval out of your instrument. Combine that with knowing a tune—being able to sing or hum the melody you want to play—and you’re probably on your way to being a pretty capable musician.

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Hey gam, it won’t let me watch the video outside of the United Kingdom it says.

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My unconscious memory lets me down less frequently than my conscious memory, so I say muscle memory is good.

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Jerone — maybe you can navigate from the BBC website?
try this first — it’s from the World Service, so there should be a way to listen to it.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/discovery
the episode is ‘The Power of the Unconscious’

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Thanks, I’ll give it a try.

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I use a thingme called "modify headers" to watch Daily Show episodes in the UK, where you have the same sort of issues. It’s an add-on to Firefox and you have to do a wee thing after adding the add-on, which will probably be explained if you Google something like "watching BBC iPlayer in the US."

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From a dancer’s perspective, muscle memory is generally considered a very positive thing. It gets us through a routine if our stamina or concentration fail us. Interestingly, while we may lament ingrained bad habits (which are probably also a form of muscle memory), dancers I know tend not to label them as such. The upshot is, I’ve usually heard muscle memory spoken of in an extremely positive light.

I think auditory memory, or whatever you what to call "tune recall", is not the same as muscle memory, although sometimes remembering a fragment of how to finger something can trigger tune recall for me.

One thing I find really interesting is that in both playing and dance, sometimes starting not at the beginning (like half way through the A part, or starting on the B part) can get me to a beginning I just can’t remember. It’s very hard to separate out at that point if it’s muscle memory taking over, or some other kind of memory recall carrying me though. Clearly I’m tapping into a remembered pattern, but where that pattern resides is a good question.

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On your instrument particularly, muscle memory is extremely important. I was just thinking today about the fiddle, there are three major angles that have to be just right to get good tone. Your right hand up and down, and side to side, and your left hand up and down. This stuff can only be accomplished through practice and muscle memory.

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Doc and Rev hit the nail on the head.

For me the point at which the tune becomes embedded in "muscle" memory, and plays on autopilot, is the point at which I really begin to learn to play it. As my preferred instrument is the box, reaching the autopilot point can take a while, because there is plenty of scope for different fingering patterns for sequences of notes.

I can’t do meaningful phrasing on autopilot alone.

My particular problem is then that fingering has a great influence on stress and timing, so it is almost always necessary to return to autopilot learning stage to embed different fingering pattern(s) that better suit the phrasing(s) that seem right to me once I’ve played the tune through a few dozen times at the proper speed.

Then I play the damned thing a few times more and decide to change the phrasing again……

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Pretty much all of the points have been very good, but I would like to emphasize one point. From a classical standpoint (here we go again! 🙂 ) muscle memory in an ensemble can be EXTREMELY important. If you can learn your part so well that you don’t really have to think about what you’re playing, and still be able to play it perfectly (no improv allowed though), then you suddenly have a huge amount of mental space to listen to all the other players and keep time, dynamics, emotion, etc. with them at all times. This can be with anything from a duet to a full symphony, you just redirect your attention to other players.

When I played in a quartet at string camp a while back (I played viola), we played some Mozart, and once I memorized my part (which didn’t take long), I pretty much locked eyes on the cello player, and occasionally the 1st violin. The cello is the ground that we "build" off of, the 1st violin rules everything. As viola, the inner-lower voice, I give most of my attention to the cello, who gives most of his attention to the 1st violin. In the end it works out, but only because of muscle memory.

In a symphony, I will memorize most of my part (these can be very long and intricate parts) so I can watch the conductor, unless there’s a solo, in which case I direct nearly all of my attention to listening to and following the soloist. Being a violist, my part can be pretty repetitive, despite being difficult; thus memorization isn’t all that difficult.

Now, with all of this paying attention to other members, I do still pay attention to my own playing, keeping it in check, making it expressive, or whatever the piece calls for. But without muscle memory, I’d be screwed.

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I would think muscle memory would be what it takes to be able to play what you hear in your head, on the spot, without thinking about where the notes are. If you want to be able to improvise variations/ ornamentation etc, your fingers need to have memory of where those pitches lie, not as in a memorized pattern, but in relation to your ear.

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I’m surprised no one has simply stated that there is no such thing as muscle memory. If your brain ceased to function, you would be incapable of doing anything. What you are calling muscle memory is simply those actions for which you don’t use conscious thought, which is what all the other animals do, since they don’t have language. Without language, there would be no conscious thought, at least not as we generally think of it. Conscious thought gets in the way, which is why children, who don’t have enough vocabulary for as much conscious thought as an adult, learn so much more quickly.

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"Did you read all of the thread?"

Yep.

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[*I’m surprised no one has simply stated that there is no such thing as muscle memory.*]

You are absolutely right, but that phrase is probably the easiest way to describe (in layman’s terms) what is a complex neural process. I could have said that earlier, but it’s a bit like splitting hairs, you know, calling Trad ‘Celtic’ and tunes ‘songs’. It matters not. Everyone gets it 🙂

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Jim, I understand the use of the phrase and I object to what it implies. What I infer when I read the question that is the title of this thread is that we have jurisdiction over whether or not we use the so-called muscle memory. This muscle memory is the base upon which all other conscious thought rests. The optimum would be to use it alone, but alas, we cannot help intellectualizing the process of playing so that we can become nervous and make mistakes that we know better than to make. Yet, if I were to say that we should depend on muscle memory, it would imply that we use some voodoo that precludes learning how to play properly, or as the OP states, "Is muscle memory a cheat? Does it make us lazy, does it cause us to not be motivated to learn things deeply and thoroughly?" That is the notion I wish to dispel.

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Re: Muscle Memory: Good or Bad?

If you drink a pot of good muscle memory it helps sort out the bad…