I’ve seen this phenomenon time and time again: You’re in a jam session, someone calls a song, and you know you’ve played some time in the distant past, then the circle begins to play it, and you remain puzzled – drawing a blank. But your hands – on your fiddle, bass, mandolin, or guitar – seem to remember and begin playing the song without obvious conscious input from your brain!
For instruments for which you don’t use a capo, this muscle memory will serve as an accurate recall of the key you played the song in – because you (your hands anyway) remember where they were on the instrument even as your brain struggles.
Of course, your hands have no brains and no real memory. Your brain stores some information not connected to conscious thought.
It’s remarkable to enjoy this beneficial aspect of brainpower, and from the same brain that allows me to walk into a room and wonder why I walked into it in the first place.
I have learned to rely on this magical “hand memory” and I have confidence in it. I have enough confidence in it to argue with a bandmate over what key we used to do a song in. Instead of relying on possible foggy memories I know I can count on the hands to be correct. If a bandmate swears we did the song in A, but my hands know they plucked it in G, I am confident I am correct.
To some degree, this unconscious memory can apply to singing as well, though, for me at least it’s not as sure. You go to sing a song you haven’t sung in years and you can feel this subconscious recall nudging your tongue and voice towards what it used to do. Since lyrics themselves are in a different part of the brain (the part that won’t tell you why you entered the room!), the muscle memory seems to be more effective in general phonetics and phrasing, but even this can kick you regular memory in its behind and dredge up what you’re looking for.
Anyone over 40 knows this odd fact – the harder you try to remember something, the more it slips away. As hard as it may seem, the only way to unlock that thing you KNOW you remember but can’t bring to the fore is to stop thinking about it. The search will go on, in the background, and maybe in the middle of the night, you’ll sit bolt upright and yell out the answer.
This mysterious muscle memory can be that way, too – you have to trust its subtleties and never press it. Instead, take a patient Zen approach, Grasshopper, and all will (eventually) be revealed.