Muscle memory . What that ?

July 24, 2009 at 03:35 PM ·

 Why are we using the term “Muscle Memory” in the teaching of the violin or any instrument.

The term is extremely misleading, giving us the illusion that if we repeat a motion over and over, our muscle somehow magically learns this movement, with the help of the brain of course and thus able to repeat the movement with very little or no thought. The term is a “layman’s term” and doesn’t describe at all what’s really going on.

Playing the violin in tune isn’t necessary learning the exact spot on the finger  board. It’s about the minds ability to learn to control and understand the distance and perception of our limbs fingers and hands. Perception, being the key word in the understanding of how we can play an instrument with no frets.

“Proprioception” the sixth sense that makes a lot of sense. I don’t understand why we don’t use this term in the teaching of the violin. Muscle memory as we know it doesn’t exist, but proprioception is a real medical term that’s explains how our mind, nervous system, muscle and bones work together.


Proprioception techniques work extremely well, their excellent mind builders. Were as mindless excessive repetition is counter productive.


Examples of proprioception at work.


                                   At the end of this vid  at  4:oo  .It’s our sense of proprioception that learns to keep the bow straight, and helps prove that the perspective of proprioception is much more accurate  then visual perspective



  Hand drops

     We all know this one. We find a note on a string, let’s say 1st finger on” A” string, drop the hand to your waist, then bring it back to the note. You will find that students are more likely to hit the note in tune with their eyes closed then open.


The out of tune string. Paganini was onto to something here   

          First make sure your violin is in tune. Play a one octave d scale starting on open d, using 4th finger for the A note. No problem.  Now take the A sting out of tune. Now play the D scale again, using 4th finger for the A note. The first time you do it you might end up with an out of tune D note, but after a few tries you should get it. Again, close your eyes, you may learn it quicker.


Propriocetion is an important sense for a violinist that needs to be developed ,in the same way a palate is for a chief. And we need to teach this ! 

Replies (23)

July 24, 2009 at 03:58 PM ·

 You may be correct rhetorically but so what? Musicians and athletes all understand the meaning of the terms "muscle/motor memory," and all that is implied in being able to execute precise movements repeatedly. Why do we need to learn a new word?

July 24, 2009 at 04:53 PM ·

Actually I think Charles has misunderstood the term:

The points about mindful practice vs. mindless repetition are good things to remember of course, but there is a ‘mindless’ aspect to complex motor skills, and it is an ABSOLUTE NECESSITY in complex tasks such as driving or playing the violin.  Subsets of movement do in fact become automated and naturally tend to fall out of conscious control.  According to the very useful book “How Muscles Learn”, controlling the point at which this occurs so that the correct movement is automated is an important issue in skill development.

July 24, 2009 at 09:41 PM ·

I wish that the term "muscle memory" would stop being used.  It takes one further from the truth in that it implies that muscles have memory. Even though many people know that muscles don't have memory, yet they use the term "muscle memory", why would one want to use terminology that is false. Terminology should help understand what is true, not mislead. The author of the book "How Muscles Learn" is propagating a falsehood, as muscles do not learn.  It's like writing a book called "How Reading Causes Cancer".  The brain has memory and the brain learns. Muscles neither remember nor learn.

July 24, 2009 at 10:30 PM ·

Of course the brain is the most important thing when one plays violin but your muscles must alaways know a bit a sort of "automatic pilot" (I HATE to tell this) in case of emergency situations.  Even great violinists can be for one reason or another distracted while performing and this could save them... Also sometimes you loose where you were in a partition... and have to play while finding where you are. But all teachers (I think) agree that one should never totally rely on this survival automatic pilot or muscle memory.   (maybe I'm confusing slightly the two concepts)  I know that an abuse of this term could make think to someone that one doesn't need to think...

An example where a great violinist maybe had to rely on this: (I said maybe because no one can tell!) Once, Oistrakh came in Montréal for a concert and the girl who turned his pages and the pianist's pages came on too late to turn Oistrakh's page. She was too nervous and didn't know at all where he was. She just turn the page anywhere unfront of him...  Oistrakh didn't made it show a bit.  No one noticed it...  Yes maybe such great violinists almost know their scores by heart but steel it must some how push the violinist in a sort of a survival mode...  Can someone tell without doubt that muscle memory can not be useful in such a situation? I think it may be one things amongst others that can save someone in a situation like this.  When my teacher tells me that I should be able to play what I'm going to play at my recital even drunk at 3 AM : ) , she surely means that in an extreme situation, one must rely on more than just thinking.  (Of course, I never even tried to play drunk at 3 am!  I know I would fail... : )


July 24, 2009 at 11:04 PM ·

The term may be problematic, but it is decent mental shorthand for a commonly recognised phenomenon, and is in common use. Let it stand.

I'm no soloist, but I have a reasonable amount of music in memory, and I can say unequivocally that my hands can play music while my conscious mind is elsewhere; furthermore, I find that if I seem to forget how to play something, I can generally resurrect it best by not trying to remember; just let the music-playing part of me (whatever "me" may be . . .) get on with it. I rely on this more as my eyesight deteriorates. It seems best to memorise and repeat as much as possible, and let muscle memory dredge up what it will.

July 24, 2009 at 11:06 PM ·

 Your right Andres, I don't understand what muscle memory is, and if someone asked me what it was, I wouldn’t be able to describe it. I have no idea, the concept doesn't make sense to me at all. The word "fluent” makes sense to me, and this word I use a lot to describe the ease of learned fine motor skills. I would never use the term muscle memory; it throws a wrench into the forks, it’s misleading. The only form of muscle memory I know of is the way my hand forms in itself in relaxed position, the same way it did the day I was born. After 25 years of playing the violin, this natural form of muscle memory hasn’t change at all. But when we use the term muscle memory we may be implying that the muscle has evolved from its natural form to adapt to the positions of the violin. I don’t believe this is true at all. The fluency and ease of playing the violin comes from the minds ability to memorize pitch and the training of proprioception. Muscles retaining memory has nothing to do with it.

July 24, 2009 at 11:50 PM ·

I'll tell you this: If you don't know what it is, you will quickly learn what it was when you get to be old enough to begin to lose it.

Or if you don't practice for a couple of weeks (or months - or years - depending)!


July 24, 2009 at 11:52 PM ·

Anne-Marie - I seem to sound best when playing drunk at 3 am - you should try it some time.  Notice I said "seem to."  Not sure a recording device would confirm.  Pretty sure it wouldn't, in fact. 



July 25, 2009 at 05:26 AM ·

  An interesting book, "The Talent Code"  talks about myelin, a substance in the brain,  which grows the more one repeats a given activity.  If  I understood correctly, the electrical impulses the brain sends to the muscles to make a given movement apparently are wrapped in myelin and as the myelin becomes thicker the movement  becomes  reliable, repeatable, familiar,  and "second nature".  However,  myelin will grow with any physical habit one repeats consistently including bad ones.  Therefore, it is all the more important to get off to a good start so that  the habits your brain is training your muscles to do will be useful, efficient, and free of pain.

    In the past  I had the unfortunate experience on several occasions of  having students come to me because the string class teacher at school recommended that they take private lessons as well because they seemed to show a "talent"or "aptitude" for the violin only to discover that these students' brains already had practiced movements into the muscles that were either inefficient,  awkward and/or physically hurtful thus necessitating teaching a different approach that met with unintentional resistance because the "old ways" were already well learned by the brain and the muscles seemed to respond so easily to instructions that the brain or perhaps the myelin had reenforced. Perhaps  the seemingly "ungifted" students too, with the correct technical/physiological approach, might have shown just as much "talent" as the ones who were deemed "talented" and the playing field levelled.

     Thinking on it further, however, after reading The Talent Code and considering how resourceful and resilient the brain is,  I  wonder if perhaps with myelin, one can simply start with new information and bypass the bad road and build a new one and  deliberately choose to travel only on  the better path. Perhaps it is a little like going "cold turkey" and, by having  very diligent and persistent training and guidance, the old inefficient ways can be ignored and avoided and you can  make a fresh  new start.  If my understanding of  the science behind people who quit smoking is correct, the body already begins to repair and heal itself to some extent when a person gives up smoking all of a sudden as if it were trying to rebuild itself anew now that the harmful activity had ceased. Perhaps this is possible too on the violin.


July 25, 2009 at 05:38 AM ·

 I learned how to play Mozart Turkish March on piano when I was a kid, played alot of it, never touched the piano for 20 years, I sat down and played it and was able to play alot of it, if that's not muscle memory, then what is it?

July 25, 2009 at 06:11 AM ·

I had similar experience with Violin pieces. Also, with certain phone numbers, I can’t tell people the number but if I dial them, my fingers know where to go and they always get the right one.  Another example is writing certain words, be it in English or Chinese, I can’t spell them vocally but I can write or type them correctly.

July 25, 2009 at 06:30 AM ·


> I  wonder if perhaps with myelin, one can simply start with new information and bypass the bad road and build a new one and  deliberately choose to travel only on  the better path. 

Although myelin is not mentioned this is one of the basic tenets of Alexander technique.  Don`t try to eradicate a bad habit .  Bypass the habit altogether by cutting a new groove.



July 25, 2009 at 10:31 AM ·

All the good stuff happens in the brain. We can keep our hands supple and athletic, but without proper brain training the fingers won't know where to go, which is evident in people who don't practice efficiently and need to train daily for upwards of 5 hours to maintain an acceptable standard of sound and intonation. Beyond the developmental years this really should not be necessary and is almost impossible to sustain for anyone with a performing career!

 "Of course the brain is the most important thing when one plays violin but your muscles must alaways know a bit a sort of "automatic pilot" (I HATE to tell this) in case of emergency situations. "

The average performance by the average professional musician - even a soloist - is not conducted after eight hours' blissful relaxed sleep, a nutritious breakfast on a balcony with newspapers spread all over the bountiful table, a little light practice, a nap, a walk in the park, etc etc. There's usually some combination of too little sleep in a lumpy bed, being woken too early, nasty breakfast, a bus or plane journey, something going wrong at the venue, finding a stain on your concert outfit and having to wear the less flattering one and you happen to be bloated today, not enough time to soundcheck in the hall, no water backstage, didn't have time for dinner or it sucked (you get the idea), the person who is meant to tell you it's time to go on forgets or wasn't properly informed and you end up having to run to the stage because you didn't have enough notice...

In order to consistently perform well under the "average" circumstances, and these are by no means the worst (think food poisoning or having your back seize up or being drugged to the eyeballs on painkillers and antibiotics), having a vast margin of "unconscious" ability is ESSENTIAL. By unconscious ability I'm not talking about unexplained natural talent, but training the unconscious mind to take care of the basics. If you walk into this kind of situation still needing to "think" about what you're doing on stage, well, good luck. It's not going to be enough.

July 25, 2009 at 03:09 PM ·

I have had expiriences like PM Rolf, recalling and remembering things that I learned decades ago!  And relearning things I use to know is much easier than new things.

July 25, 2009 at 04:11 PM ·

Yixi Zhang wrote: " I can’t tell people the number but if I dial them, my fingers know where to go and they always get the right one."

I propose that people, especially teachers who are careful about saying true and accurate things to their students, abandon the term "muscle memory" and instead say "motor memory". By doing this, one correctly attributes the memory to the brain rather than the muscle or finger that is activated by the brain.  One's fingers (even Heifetz's fingers) don't *know* anything. In Yixi Zhang's sentence, I would prefer to say: "I know" instead of "my fingers know". The fact is that he can have a *motor memory* of the telephone number without necessarily having a verbal memory of it.  By expressing it this way, one avoids having to use untrue phrases which falsely attribute memory and knowledge to muscles and fingers.

July 25, 2009 at 10:02 PM ·

Oliver's comment is right on.  Motor memory, or brain muscle memory, or what we all commonly refer to as muscle memory... i don't think the technicality here is important...

July 26, 2009 at 12:46 AM ·

I agree. Strictly speaking, the fingers do not know; only I or my conscious mind is able to know something.  Neurology can teach us a lot about what happens in the brain regarding memory, among other mental events. But whether the consciousness or the "knower" is the same as the brain is a big issue subject to on-going debate I think.  

As for memory, if a piece of metal can have it, so can our fingers.  Can we live without metaphors?


July 26, 2009 at 12:56 AM ·

"Can we live without metaphors?"

Apparently not, if "motor memory" is the other choice.  :-)

July 26, 2009 at 07:49 PM ·

Why do people call it "muscle memory" in the first place? Mght it be a consequence of the fact that very often the same neurons are used for an experience and for the same experience, remembered?

I remember mentally practising a passage that I had difficulty playing in tune. It was out of tune even in mental practice, I corrected it "in my head" by putting the finger slightly hihger, and later actual practice  improved. Strange! So, in this violinist at least, auditory and motor memories are linked.

July 27, 2009 at 03:59 AM ·

More correctly it is "imprinting" vs muscle memory.

July 27, 2009 at 02:36 PM ·

 Dr. Jonathan Miller suggests that it might be information stored in the spinal cord rather than the brain proper.  Here's a clip of him discussing his theory with Dudley Moore, from the PBS series "The Body in Question."

July 27, 2009 at 05:03 PM ·

Absolutely fascinating, but muscle memory or spacial perception or where are the confines.On the question of myelin, would a build up myelin from any repetive movement serve for another or is each a seperate entity? 

July 28, 2009 at 10:24 AM ·

I think the term  Motor memory is correct because what actually happens is that neural circuits are built, primarily in the motor cortex and cerebellum, which allow complex movements to be automated, so that they can performed without conscious input. Damage to these areas of the brain (especially the cerebellum) can make the performance of routine activities, like walking, very difficult, because each part of the movement has to be consciously performed as a separate action. Anyone who's ever drunk enough alcohol to impair their cerebellar function will recognise this effect. Repetition of a desired action will strengthen or modify these circuits to perfect the action. Lack of practice will allow them to weaken or disappear as the neurons involved are recruited for other more needed purposes. The phenomenon of mental practice is probably explained by the fairly recent discovery of "mirror neurons". These cells fire at the same time as the motor neurons that actually control the muscles when an action is performed but they also fire when the action is remembered or mentally rehearsed. It is likely that if the mirror neuron circuits are modified by effective mental practice, they are able to effect change in the actual motor circuits.



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