Pitch agnostic tune memory - normal or weird?

Pitch agnostic tune memory - normal or weird?

In a recent discussion somebody expressed difficulties in playing a tune on a whistle which is different to the pitch at which the tune was learned (e.g. playing on a Bb instead of D whistle). The fingers wanted to work it back to the original "correct" pitch.

Another poster seemed to have a strong "muscle memory" in playing tunes - no problem switching whistle but challenged in transposing on the instrument (e.g. moving from G to A on a D whistle).

It never occurred to me that tunes might be "stored" at a given pitch or in a muscle memory of finger movements rather than as a stream of notes relative to a starting note (of any pitch). I don’t read ABC or scores - so perhaps not having these reference points in recalling a tune affects how I process it.

For other whistle players out there… would you "notice" yourself playing a tune on a different key? Or would you struggle to play a piece transposed from the key in which it was learned (muscle memory taking over)?

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Re: Pitch agnostic tune memory - normal or weird?

I believe muscle memory is the norm. Especially for fast playing. I believe that people who have trouble transposing because the pitch is different than that which was originally learned is an indicator that the person has perfect pitch memory.

Re: Pitch agnostic tune memory - normal or weird?

I agree that muscle memory is the norm, particularly for instrument players. Guitar players, for instance, might use capos to change keys, but tend to use the same chord formations. I think that many vocalists, while they might be quite adaptable in terms of preserving a melody while singing in different keys (using relative pitch), also have a form of muscle memory that allows (some of) them to maintain their learned/expected pitch.

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Re: Pitch agnostic tune memory - normal or weird?

I have no trouble playing on a different pitch whistle so long as I can close the holes properly.

That is probably mainly ‘muscle memory’ in the sense you seem to mean it, in that if there is an awkward bit that I had to practice to ‘get my fingers round’ it transfers to the other whistle.

However, providing the tune is simple enough (e.g. Amazing Grace, Britches Full of Stitches) I can often make a decent stab at playing it in a different key on the same whistle. Sometimes if someone starts a tune in the ‘wrong’ key I can follow, sort of, until I run off the end the whistle. I don’t think that is ‘finger memory’ in the same way. It is knowing the tune as a set of relative pitches and knowing the instrument well enough for my fingers to fall on the next note from the one I am on.

If someone else plays a tune on a whistle that is more that a couple of semitones different from a D whistle I can usually tell, but it is more a sense of overall tone - mellow if lower, brighter if higher - than of pitch. If singing I can, and often do, hear a phrase in one key and sing it back in a slightly different one! I am getting better at hearing a note and playing the correct one on a D flute.

Re: Pitch agnostic tune memory - normal or weird?

I’m probably having a Senior Moment here. Not the endearing forgetful kind but the "hey you kids get off of my lawn" kind. Bear with me or ignore me, we’ll still be friends. Here goes. There is no structure in a muscle that is capable, in any way, of having " memory" It’s just me, but I find the term annoying. It’s, meaning memory, all in the brain. I get that synapses form differently in individuals through pathways that I don’t fully (by that I mean "at all") understand and these connections manifest themselves differently in all of us. Thus it’s easier for me to play a tune in F on my D flute than it is for me to play it on my F flute. But the "muscle memory" has no part in it. Heck think of this…the are no muscles in your fingers at all. Maybe "muscle memory" is shorthand for well worn synaptic pathways. To play a tune in a different key or on a different instrument takes developing new pathways and sometimes, for me at least, that can be a b***h.

There, it’s off my chest! Keep calm and whistle on.

Re: Pitch agnostic tune memory - normal or weird?

My memory for tunes is perhaps more like the suggestion that David has made, about thinking of successive notes in tunes in terms of their relative pitches or intervals. I only play whistle a little, but can move, say from a D to a C or Bb and play the same tune in those respective keys, as it will be the same pattern of fingers covering holes (albeit holes a bit further apart on the bigger whistles.)
I have seen fiddle players play a tune in a different key from usual, just because they have started on a different string from the usual one, so they will be playing either a fifth up or a fifth down, but using the same finger positions.
But for me, as a buttonbox and piano player, transposing a tune to a different key involves playing a whole new pattern of buttons, or white and black keys, so this is where the thinking in intervals (relative pitches) comes in. But if I know a tune well enough, I can do it, and I don’t think I’ve experienced the problem that gbyrne describes.
And Ross is right: your fingers are full of tendons and nerves, but the muscles that work them are farther back in your hands and arms, so it is all about nerve pathways from fingertip to brain!

Re: Pitch agnostic tune memory - normal or weird?

@Ole Man Faison: Personally, I think “muscle memory” is a decent enough term for the phenomena. While the motor cortex is basically the CPU for organizing complex movements (like playing a musical instrument), coordination relies on nerve ganglion all the way down to the fingertips—as well as the strength, flexibility, and stamina of individual muscles and other tissues.

Now, can I have my frisbee back? It’s on your roof. :-P

Re: Pitch agnostic tune memory - normal or weird?

OK, when we talk about muscle memory we’re really talking about a neural process. Although there do seem to be physical & perhaps chemical changes that occur in muscle structure as part of activity, training & repetition. Worth a read.

According to Wikipedia ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muscle_memory ):

"Muscle memory is a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition, which has been used synonymously with motor learning."

https://i0.wp.com/vitaguard.blog/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/photos-medleyphoto-10787391.jpg

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Re: Pitch agnostic tune memory - normal or weird?

1) I have absolutely no difficulty playing tunes I know on different keyed whistles.
2) When I intentionally start a tune I know well, I think I am almost always relying on muscle memory to start it. That is, I don’t usually think, say, "This one starts on an A!", and there isn’t any fumbling around while I try to remember the key I play it in. I just go for the right sequence of finger motions and I’m into the tune.
3) However, if I’m just noodling around, sometimes I will start a tune in the "wrong" key. This usually works pretty well right up unto the point I hit some especially tricky place (especially if that’s running off the playable range of the instrument).

(Just as a point of reference, I just grabbed Newfoundland single I learned in D with an octave plus two range and tried playing it in G. Starting it was rough because no muscle memory, I had to figure out the first couple of notes. Had it up to my normal playing tempo by the second A, and second time round the whole thing was at tempo and only with three bobbles — that’s basically purely by ear with no muscle memory.)

Re: Pitch agnostic tune memory - normal or weird?

The term muscle memory is indeed a poor one. Kinetic Memory is closer, I think. It’s probably rare for someone to have difficulty changing whistles if the fingering is the same. However, I cannot easily play in the same key going from, say, a D whistle to a C. I don’t have that problem with pop and folk, but itm is to brisk and densely noted for my ability.

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Re: Pitch agnostic tune memory - normal or weird?

I would propose kinaesthesia as the proper word. Kinaesthetic Memory relies on proprioreceptors which are sensory location organs throughout the the muscles, tendons, and skeletal system to aid in our movements.

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Re: Pitch agnostic tune memory - normal or weird?

The term "muscle memory" is a widely-used, accepted, simple (using two words basic to English vocabulary) term to indicate a phenomenon that 99% of people (but only about 1% on this thread, apparently) have no understanding of.

Most of the fiddlers I learned from would have had a tough time just trying to say "kinaesthesia", I’m afraid ….

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Re: Pitch agnostic tune memory - normal or weird?

It’s the same number of syllables (5): how so tough?
It’s all Greek to me, even if it is more accurate! ;-)

Re: Pitch agnostic tune memory - normal or weird?

If ya’ll are going to walk on my lawn at least bring your instrument with you for a rousing good time! And yes, I agree with the items posted. Without being maudlin about it I spent many years taking care of people of all ages (mostly children) who, for many reasons, had some, even complete, disconnections between muscle and brain. We can call it muscle memory, like I said, as shorthand for complex processes in our brains. I’m really OK with the term as long as we all know what it really means. Live Long and Fiddle!

Re: Pitch agnostic tune memory - normal or weird?

Hey Ross, just a fun fact: in the fitness community, muscle memory refers to the phenomenon wherein a muscle that has been built to a given size can, after a long workout layoff, regain any lost size more quickly and with less effort than was needed for the original gain. Since I have a foot in that camp, I find the use presented here as strange, although I don’t really care so long as we all understand the context.

Cheers, my friend.

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Re: Pitch agnostic tune memory - normal or weird?

"It’s the same number of syllables (5): how so tough?"

The term "muscle memory" consists of two very common words with common combinations of sounds, in English, very easy for uneducated speakers to enunciate - and consisting of only four syllables as it is often pronounced. And it seems to have the meaning built into it. "Kinaesthesia" is one obscure polysyllabic word containing a combination of sounds rare in English - "aesthes" - , outside the diction of academic/educated circles. And, unless you have a background in Greek - I guess - it is utterly meaningless until someone explains it to you. It is the kind of word that most of the fiddlers I learned from would avoid, even if they had no trouble with it.

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Re: Pitch agnostic tune memory - normal or weird?

apparently most of us have relative pitch - except for those few suffering souls who have perfect pitch and have to put up with our key-changing obliviousness

Re: Pitch agnostic tune memory - normal or weird?

I don’t have perfect pitch, but I think there is something else that might be called pitch memory. If I’ve been listening to a recording of a tune online or in our home digital library often enough, I can go into the music room and find the starting note of a tune I want to learn, and most of the time it’s the right pitch from the recording. That’s not perfect pitch, but it sure is useful.

On the OP’s topic, I learn tunes and burn them into whatever we’re calling muscle memory, and it’s easy to shift into different keys on an instrument with the same mechanics. Like using a C whistle to play Julia Delaney’s because it’s easier than on a D whistle or keyless D flute. Shifting keys on the same instrument means re-programming the fingers. I don’t do that unless there’s a very good reason, like a session playing the tune in a key different from the one I’ve learned it in.

Re: Pitch agnostic tune memory - normal or weird?

I like thinking about Pitch Memory vs Perfect Pitch.

I’ll bet most people here can jump into a tune halfway through the A-part on the correct note. Is that Perfect Pitch?

I’ll bet most people could play a familiar tune in a different key (a common one, like G to D), without a lot of fumbling unless it runs off the end of the whistle or something. Fiddlers can sometimes just go up or down a string.

Re: Pitch agnostic tune memory - normal or weird?

Well, that wiki article linked to by kkrell is very interesting, especially the section on playing musical instruments. It doesn’t mention drummers (of drum kits), who somehow manage to do 4 different things at once!

I don’t have a problem with the term kinaesthesia (even pronouncing it, and I am no Greek scholar, though recognise that it is derived from Greek): but I accept that far more people have a better idea of what we’re talking about when we speak of "muscle memory", and am guilty of using the term myself. :-(

As for what Tom said above, yes there are plenty of people who can jump into the middle of a tune on the right note, but I remember a very laborious workshop with a tutor who was incapable of breaking a tune down into short phrases, and had to keep going back to the beginning of the tune each time. I think that has more to do with pitch or audiological memory than muscle memory.

Re: Pitch agnostic tune memory - normal or weird?

I think of what Conical Bore and Tom Stermitz talk about more a case of recognising how a fragment of a ‘session tune’ falls on a familiar ‘session instrument’ rather than a memory for pitch. Quite a lot of tunes only fit in one place in the normal session tune pitch range.

With a recording that is a semitone high (playing in Eb rather than D), or if I don’t notice someone is holding a C whistle rather than a D, I sometimes start with some hope of finding the tune and quickly fail. So it’s not the pitch I am recognizing. In fact with a recording, once I have worked out the problem, I can often hear a phrase in one key and play it back in one that suites my instrument, though I generally don’t persist long but pitch-shift the recording so I can play with it.

Re: Pitch agnostic tune memory - normal or weird?

Interesting topic.

I play fiddle and sometimes when just playing around at home, I start into a tune a string over, as fiddlers sometimes do, and I noticed that it can sometimes take me a couple times over the tune before I realise which tune I’m playing. Versus when I just get into a tune starting on the right string it doesn’t take me long at all before I’m aware of which one I started into out of the mindless noodles/technical workout that preceded the tune :)

Re: Pitch agnostic tune memory - normal or weird?

"Kinaesthesia" is a word thrown about on courses where the lecturers often turn out to know little more than you do but have quickly swotted the subject up because they are getting paid. I know this because I did a course into how to swot things up and teach them and get paid - and I was told on that particular course that I am a "kinaesthetic learner". This apparently means that I learn best by physically copying and repeating actions rather than by listening to or reading instructions into how something is to be done. This is true - but not necessarily useful to know - except when arguing with someone who says you should do as you are told: ‘Sorry mum! I can’t do as I’m told. I’m a "kinaesthetic learner"’.

I automatically play in the original key if, for instance, I move from a descant recorder (bottom note C) to a treble (bottom note F). This is because the tune is in my head and my fingers know the notes and reproduce them but I can also use the change of instrument to transpose the tune - for the same reason. With some pain and the odd slip, I can even play the same tune in any of the other keys commonly used on that particular instrument but not for that particular tune and shift the notes which run off the instrument’s range up or down an octave. (Though moving the key by only one note - say from A to G - is harder to maintain than shifting it by, say, a fifth - presumably because I don’t have absolute pitch - only relative pitch). If I try to play it in B major or G minor, however, which are keys we almost never use, then the result will be missed notes punctuated by agonised screams. I have no path through the tune in that key.

Re: Pitch agnostic tune memory - normal or weird?

For myself, totally lacking Perfect Pitch, but with a strong sense of Relative Pitch, it’s all about remembering how tunes go as the notes relate to whatever the baseline pitch or key is, combined with muscle memory.

I have a roll of whistles in nearly every chromatic key (I currently lack Ab and Gb) and it doesn’t matter at all which whistle I pick up, I play my tunes just the same.

Due to a pretty good sense of relative pitch it’s not much of a transition for me to play the same tune using the "six hole note" or the "three hole note" as the tonic (for a Major tune).

(Due to the common practice of playing both the sharp and flat 7th on whistle, uilleann pipes, and Irish flute you get two Major scales readily under the fingers, one starting on the bellnote and one starting on the 4th.)

I think the main explanation for my pitch-blindness is initially playing only Highland pipes. Yes in the c1940-c1980 period the pipes were usually settled in around Concert B Flat. But the pitch began rapidly rising in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s until once again more or less settling around A=452/Bb=480 by the 1990s.

Throughout the period of rapid pitch rise you might have a contest where each band was at a slightly differnet pitch (each band being internally in tune).

Re: Pitch agnostic tune memory - normal or weird?

I’m no expert on the nervous system, but I just finished a half-day anatomy class that discussed the nervous system. Reflexes were part of the discussion. There are two types of reflexes: autonomic and somatic. Autonomic reflexes control things like hear rate and blood pressure. They are not "learned." Somatic reflexes - like the reflex that causes you to pull your whole arm back sharply if your finger gets too close to fire, are learned responses.

Somatic reflexes are triggered not from the brain but from the spine. While the spine may report the event to the brain, the spine calls the shots.

Now, I have not read anything that might support my surmise (I have hardly looked), but I think that fingering evolves from a brain-mediated activity to a somatic reflexive response with the shorter neural pathway from finger to spine and back rather than finger to brain and back.

So I would think a player would impulsively reach for original fingering for a well-ingrained tune. Personally, if I start a less ingrained tune in a "wrong" key with different fingering, it occurs to me pretty quickly that something is amiss.