Q: I keep hearing bassists talk about muscle memory. What is that?
A: Good question! And one that can open up a bigger discussion on the purpose of daily practice.
First, let’s look at the Wikipedia definition of muscle memory, which is a good one:
“Muscle memory has been used synonymously with motor learning, which is a form of procedural memory that involves consolidating a specific motor task into memory through repetition. When a movement is repeated over time, a long-term muscle memory is created for that task, eventually allowing it to be performed without conscious effort. This process decreases the need for attention and creates maximum efficiency within the motor and memory systems. Examples of muscle memory are found in many everyday activities that become automatic and improve with practice, such as riding a bicycle, typing on a keyboard, playing a melody or phrase on a musical instrument, playing video games, or performing different algorithms for a puzzle cube.”
Basically, it’s repeating a physical task enough so that you no longer have to think about it while doing it. This is crucial for musicians, because the more we have to think about how to play, the less brain power we have to consider what to play. We don’t want to have to think about our hands or fingers at all.
Technique, ideally, should be developed to a point where it is no longer a consideration when it comes to playing anything. It is the tool that allows us to spend more energy exploring what we want to play and how to better make a complete musical statement.
This is why practice is crucial!
Regarding technique: We need our fingers to just do what they need to do in order to produce the sound we want to produce, without conscious thought or intention. This can only come about through thousands of hours spend playing the instrument, hitting a wall, figuring out how to climb that (metaphoric) wall and keep going.
Regarding harmony: This is why shedding scales, arpeggios, chords and so on is so crucial to being able to play freely over changes. We want to spend our energy considering the melodicism of what we are playing, thinking in phrases (complete sentences, musically). If we have to think, “what is the 3rd of a half-diminished chord?”, it’s already too late… we’ve missed our chance to play it.
This is also true for knowing your fingerboard. You absolutely can not waste time in the middle of a tune trying to remember where C is on the D string in order to play that melody or lick. We need to have played so much and read so much and worked so much on every aspect of musical performance that the vast majority of what we do is un-conscious. Muscle memory (whether that muscle is in your hands or in your head).
This is why there are no shortcuts to learning and proficiency. You simply need to do the work if you want to get the results.