Muscle Memory and its Place in Music Instruction

What is muscle memory in guitar?

When you see a master guitarist perform, you may wonder what’s going through the player’s mind. Is he or she thinking about the next note to play, what the chord progression is, where to hit or bend the string to get the sound they are looking for?

Chances are none of them are thinking about that at all. They’ve already spent a lot of time and effort working on those aspects of their performance. By the time they have reached this level, they’re relying on what is called “muscle memory.” Athletes, performers and many others use this. You can, too!

What is “Muscle Memory?”

“Muscle memory” is the term used by psychologists to describe the process of learning through constant repetition. What are some examples of using this technique in practice?

Most of us know how to type to varying degrees. We started off on a typewriter or computer keyboard, slowly hunting and pecking for the right letters to form the words we were looking for. In time, with proper instruction and daily practice, most of us were able to type quickly without thinking about the location of each letter. This is muscle memory.

A pro football player spends most of his practice time running, throwing and catching in basic patterns. Once muscle memory has kicked in, he is able to combine the elements to maximize his performance. Likewise, an actor learns his lines and his blocking (where he should be entering, moving, standing, etc.) through repetition until opening night arrives or filming begins and then he doesn’t have to think about those aspects. They’ve become second nature, and he can focus on becoming the character. Muscle memory has done its job again!

How Does This Apply to You?

You may wonder how this concept applies to learning guitar (or any other instrument).  Very simply, if you follow a logical pattern and repeat the right movements, you will become a better guitar player in a short time almost without thinking about it. Muscle memory is your friend.

Consider a beginner who struggles to put her fingers on the proper frets, hold the strings down properly, and pluck or strum. Nine times out of ten, the resulting sound is deadened rather than a ringing note or chord. This is completely normal for a beginner. So she’ll try it again. And again. And again.

After several tries, she finds that she can produce a perfectly acceptable C chord. So she keeps at it. She may falter from time to time, but after a while, she can bang out a great C chord with her eyes closed! Muscle memory wins again. Next comes a G chord, or an E, and so the learning continues.

Usually this is followed by learning to keep rhythm while changing chords, then by learning more advanced chords and playing techniques. No matter what the learning order is, the principle remains the same. With regular repetition, certain aspects of guitar playing become second nature, and you don’t have to think about it anymore.

When developing your muscle memory, remember to be patient! Everyone learns at his or her own pace. In time, aspects of playing you feared you would never master you will find have become easy.