The ability to remember motor acts like changing lanes is called procedural memory, and it is a type of implicit memory—meaning that your brain holds knowledge of something that your mind cannot explicitly access. Riding a bike, tying your shoes, typing on a keyboard, and steering your car into a parking space while speaking on your cell phone are examples of this. You execute these actions easily but without knowing the details of how you do it. You would be totally unable to describe the perfectly timed choreography with which your muscles contract and relax as you navigate around other people in a cafeteria while holding a tray, yet you have no trouble doing it. This is the gap between what your brain can do and what you can tap into consciously.
The concept of implicit memory has a rich, if little-known, tradition. By the early 1600s, René Descartes had already begun to suspect that although experience with the world is stored in memory, not all memory is accessible. The concept was rekindled in the late 1800s by the psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus, who wrote that “most of these experiences remain concealed from consciousness and yet produce an effect which is significant and which authenticates their previous existence.”
To the extent that consciousness is useful, it is useful in small quantities, and for very particular kinds of tasks. It’s easy to understand why you would not want to be consciously aware of the intricacies of your muscle movement, but this can be less intuitive when applied to your perceptions, thoughts, and beliefs, which are also final products of the activity of billions of nerve cells.
How much of the following delicate musical skills are processes that are completely conscious, and how much are they skills that, once learned, we are able to access from our mental toolkit just underneath the horizon of conscious thought while we focus on what's going on in the present moment:
- Following a singer's vocal line from the piano, being in the present moment so much that we can react to their every nuance, hesitation, and forward motion based on the play of consonants and vowels.
- Following a violinist's bow, either watching or merely listening, and being able to tell exactly when, in the space of a microsecond, the bow slows down, stops, and changes direction for routine bow changes. Being able to perceive these bow changes is integral to being able to play together with a string player, especially a very good one who freely uses rubato.
- Being able to walk the fine line between the composer's intentions and our own musical instinct.
- Becoming so comfortable with the technical demands of a work that the hours upon hours of work spent learning the notes allows us to make the work a part of us while we concentrate on the present moment of the music.
- Being able to sight read a piece of music for the first time, making on-the-fly decisions about quality of sound, phrasing, and musical style.
What are some musical abilities that you've worked hard for, achieved, and learned to rely on once you internalized them?