muscle memory vs mental memory

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    OK, I’ve got “Song in the Night” all together now.


    Hi, Kay. Don’t try to rely just on muscle memory. That’s what causes problems because if anything throws you, you’re sunk, especially if you’re at that stage where it’s in your fingers but you’ve lost contact with where it is on the page.

    You need to really learn the music in your mind, too. Solfege it and practice it in your head while you’re stuck in traffic. Create repair points throughout the piece. Start from the very last phrase and play to the end. Start from the phrase before that, and so on. Practice randomly stopping and then pointing to just where you are in the score. Tell yourself, “Now I’m going to start HERE,” and pick a random spot and do it. The more places you can pick up again, the better.

    The more your brain knows it knows, the more confident your performance will be.


    Thanks Barbara!

    ;-) K


    My first introduction to music was in a marching band, and I played the glockenspiel (at the time it was almost as big as me), and dealing with sheet music playing glockenspiel while marching is next to impossible, so I just used to memorize it.

    When I started the harp I just naturally tried memorizing everything and I had that exact problem. If I lost my way I was stumped. My teacher was always pushing me to sight read when I played and try to memorize just through repetition.

    She would literally stop me in the middle of playing, point to a random measure, and say “start from here now”.

    At first it drove me crazy, but eventually it really made a difference. It not only helped me not get tripped up like that, but it also greatly improved my sight reading abilities. I learned to look for the patterns and the underlying structure of the music.

    The hard part about that is that when you are just starting you don’t know you way around the harp. Feeling your way around is hard. You have to spend a lot of time looking at the strings, then back at the music, then back at the strings…

    But by forcing yourself to sight read the music and not just memorize it through muscle memory you also learn your way around the harp without having to look as much. Before you know it you are only looking when absolutely necessary. When I just memorized music I looked at the strings all the time. Once I really pushed myself to follow the sheet music I quickly learned to find my way around with far, far less looking to the strings.

    Of course eventually you just have it in your fingers from practicing it so much, but by then you also have it down visually from the sheet music. I can almost see the sheet music in my head by that point, and I have associated what is on the page with what my fingers are doing that if you point to a random measure I can pretty much just start from there with almost no difficulty.

    The other thing I find really helpful is when I have a passage in a piece of music that is just stumping me, I copy it by hand. I find that really forces me to take note of the patterns and what is going on. Often when I copy a section of music it just clicks suddenly, and things just start making sense.


    All excellent posts here. I would only add the following comment. The problem with muscle memory is that it turns the piece you are playing into a series of physical movements that have to happen in a specific sequence. If you have a problem-missed pedal, wrong notes, then the sequence is broken and you have to start over. That’s why playing from muscle memory alone is so dangerous.

    You need to take the music to the kitchen table and study it away from the harp. That will help you to analyze patterns, see exactly where pedal changes occur, etc. And you have to have several points during the piece where you can start cold. These “repair points” end up being like sign posts as you progress through the piece. As you get to each one, you know what the pedals and notes are at that point.

    Philippa mcauliffe

    If I know that I am going to want to learn a piece by heart I


    In my experience, muscle memory is the one most reliable form of memory. If you have enough repetitions under your belt, it will carry you through all sorts of distractions. Mental memorization, ie. analysis, is part of the learning process, but not very reliable for me. Visual memory is more reliable. When I have a piece well learned, I can see an image of the page. I have not mastered literally reading the music from visual memory, but that would be a good trick. If you can start anywhere in the piece, working backwards as well as forwards, if you can say every pedal change, and say the notes as you play, I think that is enough. I don’t know if I’ve ever gone farther than that, technically speaking. Perhaps others can. But, really, the good old essence of it is getting it by heart, literally. If you can put your heart into every note, you’ve got it. Also, you have to practice performing it, and memorize the performing experience as well, and what can go wrong.

    It is very important as you practice to learn your mistakes as well. Every time you make a mistake, you must stop and explore it, and figure out ways to recover from it. I am convinced that is why we make them. As for distractions, they need to be acknowledged, and then absorbed into the music.

    Sarah Mullen

    Muscle memory is fantastic and vital to your performance.


    Saul and Sarah- I agree with both of you completely. However, my experience is that, if you have a really bad case of nerves when you perform-and I had that for many years before taking beta blockers- that no amount of preparation, no amount of repetitions, no amount of studying the music or having repair points can overcome a bad case of stagefreight. For me, once the adrenaline kicked in, then all preparation went out the window, and my performance was badly degraded. So my point is that, for anyone who does all of the great things suggested on this thread and still ends up with badly degraded performances, you then have to address the issue of nerves, because that is probably the root of the problem.


    Does it help to play with music? Otherwise, perhaps acupuncture would lessen the reaction.

    Sarah Mullen

    I don’t know why this just popped into my head so long after the fact, but I know somebody who specializes in this stuff.


    I am back on this again. I used to think that one should memorise a new piece during the first stage of learning, especially tricky sections and pedalling, but now I think that you might as well stick with the sheet music until you need to polish the piece, make final corrections and improve accuracy, tempo and articulation. All these come together once you start focusing on getting off the page , remembering the pedal changes and dispensing with page turns and gives a freedom with the harp for a more musical performance. Also trying to memorise before your ears know what to expect is too mechanical, the listening stage allows the solfge and the harmony to reinforce the learning and retention and internal thought process as you play.


    HI Kay:

    I’m glad you posted this question…what a wonderful group of responses from some very knowledgeable and talented harpists. The collective widsom on this message board is terrific.


    Rod C.

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