Muscle Memory and Speed
Found in: Practicing & Playlists
Dianna E., Minnesota
I’m curious about the psychology behind the brain’s ability to increase the speed of muscle memory (play a song faster), but its struggle to decrease the speed of the same task. Anyone?
Mark M., New York
Not an expert neurological answer, but:
Speed comes with familiarity and comfort. Slowness requires control.
“Muscle memory” is in many ways exactly the problem. Muscle memory is not really at all what we ever want to be after. Muscle memory implies that we no longer need to think about what we’re doing. It becomes purely automatic. Automatic = no control.
Now, on one hand, even Neil says we want to learn things to the point of thoughtlessness — but he also says we should always still maintain awareness of the ways we got there, so that we can control things if/when we want — for example, to add expression, or to slow down.
Seem to be a contradiction? No, and here’s why: automaticity doesn’t automatically mean we *forget* the mindful aspects. It just means our brain no longer *needs* the mindful aspects. If we *allow* those aspects to atrophy, then they will atrophy. We lose them. And we are left with muscle memory, speed, thoughtlessness, zero control, and therefore zero ability to slow down. But we don’t have to allow anything to atrophy. We can consciously maintain awareness of what we’re doing.
It’s not altogether different from Neil’s discussion of why it can be hard to play pieces at lesson when it’s easy at home. We get locked into playing it in our one familiar place. We need to practice playing it in different places so that “how to play piece X in my one familiar place” gets replaced in our mind with “how to play piece X anywhere.” Similarly, we need to maintain control in *addition* to the automaticity that develops so that we can replace “how to play piece X at the one speed/expression I’ve gotten most comfortable with” with “how to play piece X with any speed/expression.”
So what we want is *not* muscle memory. We want deep familiarity — familiarity with what to do so that it can become as if thoughtless, yet simultaneously maintaining familiarity with the things that got us there so that we can also maintain control when we choose to.
Mark pretty much nailed what I would say. And I reiterate two things:
- The speed that a piece is played at is also learned and embedded as a part of the automaticity that’s developed.
- In some instances it can be easier to play at faster speeds because of the fact that the momentum established at faster speeds is oftentimes easier to ‘ride’ and flow with, than the significantly heightened control and additional self-generation of the rhythm and tempo that’s needed when playing more slowly.
Ian B., California
I’d venture to say this is more of a NEUROLOGY question than it is psychological. Then again, speed involves timing, and wherever the perception of time enters the picture, the human brain’s concept of time is actually psychological. Time is relative. But that is a different topic.
None of us here are neurologists (to my knowledge). While there are ongoing studies on music and music learning effects on neurology, I have not actually come across one addressing this question specifically. It may actually be closely related to studies being done on “practice” of all kinds – not just music. Many athletes and dancers, for instance, also employ the practice technique of slowing things down. In this instance, that is a function related to neuromuscular motor function and movement. Maybe other teachers have seen studies more closely matching this?
I agree with Mark and Neil of course that there is some breakdown of the “automatic” and the inertia aspects of what is called “muscle memory” when forced to play much slower. It’s kind of like breaking a habit when you get down to it. We are creatures of habit because the human brain is really good at bunching up lots of smaller thoughts and actions into larger groups, that then activate together in order to simplify the extraordinary complexity of our consciousness. To purposefully break down and deconstruct all of those SYSTEMS that our brains develop takes quite a bit more effort and definitely a lot more THINKING about every little piece that makes up the whole. There are definitely merits to such a process in music learning…and learning in general. While doing a cursory search for more info on this myself, I came across this article which – while it still won’t answer your question from a purely scientific or research-based perspective – will shed some light on both the potential benefits and drawbacks of slow-practice.
Mark M., New York
For posterity, it’s worth connecting this conversation to what’s known as the four stages of competence (a concept related to the Johari window — more on both of these at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_stages_of_competence). In short, we move from unconscious incompetence (“we don’t know that we don’t know”) to conscious incompetence (“we know that we don’t know”) to conscious competence (“we know that we know”) to unconscious competence (“we don’t know that we know”). Muscle memory lies squarely in that final stage — and it’s in the not-knowing that lies muscle memory’s inflexibility. We want to get to the comfort of that stage without ever exclusively “taking residence” there, always maintaining the consciousness of the third stage so that we avoid becoming rigid.
Original discussion started March 16, 2022