Practice Makes Perfect

Practice, practice, practice. Why practice guitar?

I started taking music lessons when I was eight-years-old. Throughout elementary school, middle school and into high school marching band, I played several instruments, including the accordion (yes, accordion!), drums, bells and vibraphone.

Guitar, the subject of my NC Science Now story The Marvelous Music Machine, was an instrument I always wanted to learn to play and I even started to take lessons. However, I was so busy with other high school activities that I was never able to practice the way I needed to in order to learn the instrument.

In other words, I was never able to practice enough to acquire what everyone calls “muscle memory.” 

Think of it this way. Say you haven’t ridden a bicycle for years. But the first time you are able to ride again, you simply hop on and take it for a spin. That’s muscle memory. Tendons, muscles and joints repeat an activity enough times to get in sync with the brain and easily perform an activity. Psychologically, you also have the confidence to know you can ride. You’re not overwhelmed by fear.

But it’s the “muscle memory” that makes it happen. Ironically, “muscle memory” has more to do with neural pathways than muscles.

Every time I played the guitar, or climbed on a bike to learn to ride, the brain sent messages to the muscles and tendons telling them to fire. At the same time, receptors around the muscles and tendons sent feedback to the brain, reporting their positions and movements. That feedback is what helped me with my guitar, and on the bicycle, to make adjustments that were needed to play the song or ride the bike without falling down.

Over time, neural pathways are developed between the brain and muscles, tendons and joints needed to play the guitar or ride. It’s the same thing that happens with a section of carpeting over time; a path is worn into the fabric. The brain and muscles then use that same pathway every time the activity is performed. What’s even more interesting — that pathway remains intact for years.

Fortunately, the pathways I created while learning to ride a bike still exist, unlike the ones for playing the guitar. Although, playing guitar is still on my bucket list!

- Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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