Muscle Memory: Only for “Smart Musicians”?

What can you tell us about muscle memory? I was given a piece that I haven’t played in 12 years and it was like my fingers knew where to go without my knowledge!

–Marla Maertin

I can definitely tell you lots about muscle memory!

It can improve or worsen your playing without you knowing it.

Let’s take a look…

Having Happy Muscles: Muscle Memory

Memory

When you do the same thing over and over again, it gets easier over time.

You start to do it without thinking.

That’s muscle memory.

For example, let’s consider walking:

Walking is a big effort for babies, but once you’ve gained the muscle memory, it gets so easy.

Note: The muscles themselves do not remember anything; rather, the brain stores memories of actions which the muscles repeat.

The popular name “muscle memory” is misleading but I’m going to use it here for simplicity’s sake (and to refer to the original question).

Interestingly, when pianists hear pieces that they’ve played, their fingers start to follow and play with the music.

This suggests that perception of music is closely related to muscle memory. (Wikipedia)

The Magic of Muscle Memory

Muscle Memory

The more you do an action, the easier it gets. Just like anything else.

This muscle memory stays with you for a long time.

If you happen to lose the muscle (or muscle memory), you can regain it more quickly and easily than if you were getting it the first time.

That’s why older athletes can still play against people who are ten years younger– they have years of muscle experience.

Studies show that experienced pianists use the motor network less than inexperienced pianists when doing complex hand movements.

Meaning, lots of movements are ‘programmed’, like walking and running, and we can walk while talking without thinking about it.

Most experienced pianists can play the notes without thinking about it, so they’re free to focus on other things like musicality.

I’ve written about how to learn quickly and getting your fingers to play properly, and muscle memory is something else that you have already, whether it’s good for your playing or not.

If you don’t bother correcting your mistakes when you play, you’ll form memories of the wrong habits– this is deadly.

(I’m sure you don’t want to be stuck with hours of frustration.)

It’s easier to learn something right the first time than correcting it when you’ve got the muscle memory, especially when it comes to memorizing a piece.

If you get memory slips, correct it right away because your memory will adapt to that mistake.

Using Muscle Memory to Help You

  1. Correct any mistake right away, whether it’s technique, posture, or memorization.
  2. Use flow to help you learn skills more quickly.
  3. Be patient. Developing muscle memory means being diligent and consistent on a certain skill before it requires less effort and concentration.

Marla, congratulations on the muscle memory you’ve managed to secure (assuming your technique is correct)!

3 Comments

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  • Suzy June 5, 2012 at 11:01 am

    Great post! Important for students to know the importance of correcting a mistake right away, before it’s imprinted in their muscle memory. Thanks for sharing!

  • Trevor May 29, 2013 at 12:06 pm

    This is so true! Your muscles will be there for you as much as you practice. In music university we were instructed to practice technique for 3 hrs daily. It did wonders for our technique! -Great post!

    • Grace Miles June 1, 2013 at 3:12 pm

      Thanks, Trevor. Sometimes the point is to practice smarter, not longer.