Muscle Memory or “Motor Learning” is the reason you can play anything more than simple, slow parts on any instrument over time. Playing any music involves some kind of interaction between the muscles (usually of the hands) and the brain. We are not born to naturally play the violin, cello or any other stringed instrument so our body as well as our brain must be taught.
The problem is that if we relied on our conscious brain to operate the whole process we would require so much concentration, effort and time that we’d never be able to play anything with any speed or fluency and even if we played the same piece or similar over and over we’d always struggle to play it.
In order to teach ourselves to play music we first have to teach our muscles how to behave. Muscle memory / motor learning allows learning to occur without the need for conscious awareness. Repetition of the same act using our full attention to begin with results in learned motor skills being stored in the memory section of our brains. This process can be so effective that even if we have learned a task decades before and not performed it since, we can quite quickly return to completing that task with minimal effort. Muscle memory is a kind of fast track to a motor / muscle memory bank that allows us to perform complex tasks while freeing up our attention to cope with other things at the same time e.g. reading music and turning a page while playing + being aware of the world around us at the same time. Even when we’re ‘in the zone’ of playing the muscles in our hands are still using their own kind of long lasting memory bank (which is actually mostly located in the cerebellum part of the brain).
Experiments into this physical phenomenon began in the early 1900s with much of the early findings being accredited to learning theorist Dr Edward Thorndike 1874 to 1949 (pictured with this post). Although physical practice and repetition are central ideas to how muscle memory / motor learning is developed it has also been noticed that observing a skill also leads to its initial learning. This is one of the reasons why YouTube can be such a valuable learning tool.
Many violin teachers will know, especially with younger pupils that early learning and establishing good habits is as much about teaching the body as it is teaching the music.
The next time you play and you watch your fingers and the bow move and hear the music coming out just as it should it’s all thanks to your own muscle memory. Even if you put the violin down now and didn’t play it for another 10 years the chances are that you’d still have a muscle memory bank left that would enable you to pick up your playing again very quickly.