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Musings On “Muscle Memory”

October 18, 2012

We hear the term “muscle memory” (Wikipedia Article) when referring to learning finger positions on the glorious (and seemingly endless) fingerboard of the upright bass, or its more modest descendant, the fretless bass guitar. I’ve often tossed around that term, never really thinking about precisely what it meant, until it was brought into focus by a recent television program. Surprisingly, it wasn’t a musically-oriented show – and it wasn’t on PBS.

Actually, it was the poorly-named (but surprisingly informative) show “Dark Matters: Twisted But True” on the Science Channel. I think the producers chose the suggestive name and then hired John Noble, complete with creepy Fringe voice, to lure viewers who’d otherwise skip over “educational” programming. Because, let’s be honest: calling it the “You’re Going to Learn Something Interesting Show!” wouldn’t bring much in the way of ratings.

This episode begins with the story of Nobel Prize nominee neurologist Antonio Egas Moniz, who performed radical brain surgery on a patient with a serious seizure disorder. The operation (Spoiler Alert) is a partial success; his seizures cease, and while he can recall pre-surgery memories, he loses the ability to store new memories. In short, this leads to the conclusion that there are two distinctive long term memory types.

There’s further, much more in-depth info at The Human Memory site, from which I’ll be gently borrowing.

  • Declarative, or explicit memory (knowing what) is that stuff we remember, like the names of people we met yesterday, and other things one might term “knowledge.”
  • Procedural, or unconscious muscle memory, is the “knowing how” memory that we hope blesses us (bass players) with accurate finger placement on the fingerboard. So in the case of a patient like Moniz’s, while the patient’s manual skill tests improve each day, he has to be reintroduced to his post-surgery doctors every day!

What’s it all mean? I’ll be darned if I know. Perhaps it explains why I can play the bass, but can’t remember the name of the guitar player I met yesterday. While these musings may not have enhanced your procedural, practical bass playing memory, it is fun to discover that the phrase muscle memory actually has some science behind it.

–Bob

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