Piano Technique: Muscle Memory

Mental or Physical?

People who can do things that require fine motor skills do not have more skilled muscles. They have more knowledgeable and experienced brains.

Is This Your Experience?

Do you ever have the uneasy feeling that your fingers (and hands and arms) have a mind of their own, that they are completely disconnected from your intentions, that they seem to be playing all by themselves as if YOU did not exist, and that they are constantly on the verge of becoming hopelessly lost? If so, don't despair. There is nothing wrong with you. Your body and brain are working just fine. In fact they are doing exactly what they were trained to do. And you are not alone. You are in the vast majority of eager, but poorly-taught piano students who do not understand how their brains work and who subsequently share a very common disease, a disease caused by two very bad habits that are inter-related: practicing before studying and practicing too fast.

Let's remedy the situation by making sure that we profoundly understand "muscle memory" and how it can be made either our friend or our enemy.

Muscle Memory Defined

Muscle Memory is developed by practicing. Practicing is the act of repeating a complex motor activity until it becomes automatic. When a certain movement is repeated over time, a long-term, sub-conscious memory is created for that task; eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort. This process, called automization, makes complex motor tasks easy and eliminates the need for conscious attention, thus freeing our brains to attend to other important things such as the artistic elements of our performance. It is through this mysterious process that we learned how to walk, speak, tie our shoes, and ride a bicycle... and how we can still do so without trying to remember how.

Danger Lurks

The automization process is completely unconscious and non-selective. It will try to create muscle memories for everything that we practice, even things that are incorrect or sloppy. In other words, if we practice motions that are wrong or inconsistent or unclear, we will develop muscles memories that are wrong and inconsistent and unclear. Thus, muscle memories will play against you if you practice the wrong way.

Implications for Expert Study-Practice

Muscle memories should never exist in isolation. You need to create a muscle memory for each piece of music. In other words, a sequence of body motions must be associated with a particular sequence of sounds.

<top of page>