Muscle memory can best be described as a type of movement with which the muscles become familiar over time. For instance, newborns don’t have muscle memory for activities like crawling, scooting or walking. Although almost every thing we do requires a certain amount of muscle memory.
The only way for the muscles to become accustomed to these activities is for the baby to learn how to do these things and then practice them with a great deal of uncertainty. Gradually, as the baby improves walking skills, he falls less, is able to balance, and finally is able to incorporate other activities into his life such as running and playing the guitar. Like students such as beginner guitar players, repetitive motions create circuits in the brain to increase your capacity to perform the tasks at hand, guitar players and muscle memory work together in a close marriage of sending a brain signal instinctively to your fingers.
Although the precise mechanism of muscle memory is unknown, what has been determined is that anyone learning a new activity, or practicing an old one has significant brain activity during this time. The walking child is gradually building neural pathways that will give the muscles a sense of muscle memory. In other words, even without thinking, the child is soon able to walk, and the muscles are completely accustomed to this process. An automotive transmission mechanic learns the process of rebuilding transmissions out of a book or some one teaches them. Does it take a while, of course, maybe you are not aware of it, but over a long period of time, by doing your task over and over you become instinctive and a better transmission re-builder. The child develops an instinct to walk, therefore not having to tell the body to walk; the body just knows how to do it, largely because neurons communicate with the muscles and say, “walk now.”
Muscle memory thus becomes an unconscious process. The muscles grow accustomed to certain types of movement. This is extremely important in different types of training for nearly any task that needs to be learned, from a medical surgeon (who has a residency and internship to complete before they get a hold of you) to an athelete. The more often you do a certain activity, the more likely you are to do it as needed, when needed. If you’ve kicked thousands of field goals, exercise physiologists assume that the likelihood of being able to kick one during an American football game is pretty good through muscle memory. You don’t have to think, “I need to make this kick.” Your body already knows how to do it.
This is one of the reasons that with many activities that involve the body’s muscles, like playing the guitar, reading guitar tabs and learning the appropriate technique is always stressed from the start. You want your muscle memory to reflect the correct way to do things, not the incorrect way. Your muscle memory can actually play against you if you’ve constantly been practicing something the wrong way.
Music teachers, especially teachers who help learn how to play the guitar often make this contention. It’s a lot harder to teach someone who’s been playing an instrument for a few years because the first step is breaking them of all the bad habits they’ve acquired, which are now part of the muscle memory. Similarly, if you learn to bat, throw, kick or pitch wrong, your muscle memory has to be overcome, and new neural pathways formed to be a better athlete. Same thing with a guitar player.
Most top level guitar players and performers in a variety of fields believe that muscle memory is best developed when the same activities are practiced over and over again, with any corrections of form that are needed. Continual practice may mean you can make that perfect golf swing every single time (or almost), or hit a high note every time if you’re a guitarist.
It does appear though, that despite practice, attitude problems can interfere with muscle memory. Nerves can lead to tightened muscles that can’t quite perform, reading the article on Greatness and what it really takes to become great at your discipline discusses the ability to block out distractions and relax in order to achieve your goals. A sense of being unable to perform as you would wish may also affect muscle memory. The processes are still complex, and the “confidence factor” needs to be taken into account when developing a logical and effective strategy to accelerate at whatever it is you want to become proficient in.
When Guitar Players Center feels like it is time to bone up on something related to the guitar, then we figure you may need a refresher too. Refreshers are a form of muscle memory. It’s good to refresh your memory periodically concerning some of the elementary things we learn early on as a guitarist, but tend to get lax on as we tend to forget that the early teachings which in most cases are the foundation of what we learn. Remember: Enjoy. Or practice until you instinctively enjoy.