In my last post, I mentioned that many people who pick up an instrument that they used to play are surprised by how much they remember, even if it’s been years since they last played. The primary reason for this is the persistence of muscle memory. Muscle memory is the reason we never forget how to ride a bike. It’s why we’re able to keep walking while trying to remember whether we fed the cat this morning. Without muscle memory, playing music, as well as most other activities of daily life, would be impossible.

Of course, your muscles are not literally remembering things. Muscle memory happens in the brain, although it’s a bit unclear which parts of the brain are most responsible. The key thing is that it happens in the subconscious mind. When we see a toddler concentrating hard on learning to walk, that child is building muscle memory. Eventually, these movements are mastered, and no longer require concentration. Then the child can proceed to running, jumping, and more complex movements. Similarly, a beginning musician has to work hard just to play the right notes, while an advanced player has enough spare brain power to focus on making real music.

While playing music is physical like riding a bike, music is also a language. Advanced players engage the powerful linguistic parts of the brain as well as the muscle memory. Great players think of music in large chunks, like skilled speakers of a language think in terms of whole sentences instead of just words.

When I play an improvised solo, something I’ve done a great many times, the executive or conscious part of my mind doesn’t really do that much. I’m usually thinking something like: “Ok play something simple to start … here comes a tricky chord change … here’s the bridge … mistake! swallow it! … ok feeling good here … coming to the end, finish strong, and we’re done.” Meanwhile I’m listening to my fellow players, looking around the room, sometimes even letting my mind wander a bit.

Music is simultaneously a language, a physical activity, and an art form. In order to use it as an art, we need to overlearn it as a language and a physical activity, to activate our subconscious. Once we do this, we are able to use music for our own purposes. When we learn music, we are stimulating all of these different areas of the mind, teaching them to work in harmony with each other. This is when we start to achieve something powerful, uniting the body, the linguistic mind, the subconscious mind, the executive mind, and what some of us call the spirit, to express something wonderful.