Muscle Memory of Musicians Explained by Tacit Knowledge

The August 2015 Issue of BBC Music Magazine contains two interesting discussions on the “muscle memory” playing of musicians. The Theory of Tacit Knowledge offers some insight into this practice. Oliver Candy in his editorial (page 5) worries that too much familiarity with a score can lead to the musician playing along while their minds wander and then later come back with a start realizing the performance is over and they cannot be sure if they did a good job of it or not. My book talks about how Polanyi would apply his tacit knowledge concept to this experience. On page 47 of the same issue Benjamin Goodson discusses engagement with the music by relying on fingers knowing what to do hence freeing up the mind to focus on interpretive niceties of the performance. His comment offers a great example of how the structure of tacit knowledge demonstrates the subsidiary awareness of muscle memory enabling the mind to focus on larger aspects of music making. You can read about this effect on page 22 of my book. When indulging in a skillful act we rely on our tacit awareness of the manipulative details of the act to throw our attention to the higher levels of what the act is accomplishing. In this example the artistic quality of the performance.