Using mental instead of muscle memory

Discussion in 'General Instruction [BG]' started by belzebass, Jul 11, 2013.

  1. belzebass


    Feb 21, 2012
    Hello, folks!

    I've been reading the "Talent Code" thread (an excellent one, btw, check it out. )

    I'm relying extensively (if not uniquely) on muscle memory when I play. So i have problems that, IMO, come from there:
    - Hard to break out of learned line (adding substracting/substituting notes is difficult, and it throws me off from the groove)
    - Songs take an eternity (and two of three days more) to learn
    - Impossible to cram much learning in shorter period
    - Improvising often sounds the same over and over, even though I try to play differently
    - Hard time transposing and using different fingerings
    - Difficult to correct/modify the line once it is learned

    Did you have the same problem and what did you do about it?


    PS: As for my background, I've playing electric bass for roughly 2 years, mostly pop, some rock, a bit of reggae

    TL;DR: How to let play the head instead of fingers?
  2. belzebass


    Feb 21, 2012
  3. Ewo

    Ewo a/k/a Steve Cooper Supporting Member

    Apr 2, 2008
    Huntington WV
    Ear training has been time well spent, for me. I've worked with Gary Willis's and Bruce Arnold's methods; they have you hear pitches in relation to a tonal center, which I've found extremely helpful.

    When I'm learning a tune, I just listen to it and try to hear the chord changes and lines as they relate to the tonic, whatever it is. Then I find the key center on the bass, and go back and listen again, and imagine the fingerings on the bass without playing. And I'll sing other instrument parts, and imagine them on the bass, too.

    But mostly I don't try to play the tune until I've gotten it in my ear as well as I can. Then I play along and check how accurately I was hearing it.

    Like practicing anything else, I get quicker and more accurate the more I do it. But to your question, OP, this gets me thinking from the get-go about harmony and lines (pitches, IOW) rather than finger patterns.
  4. Clef_de_fa

    Clef_de_fa Guest

    Dec 25, 2011
    I've learn to play bass and music in general with a teacher and I've learn classical DB as well so I learned to correct my pitch and reading music very early.

    I also learned pitch recognition in a solfege class during my college degree in music.

    I also delved into jazz music at some point because you can play more freely to me, the walking always change and the opportunity to solo.

    I also played music not intended for bass and I think this open up a lot of ground. I also think that thinking in term of melody instead of groove that repeat ad nauseam is a good way to free yourself.

    Now I often just pick up my bass and start singing and playing, total improvisation, throwing chords here and there and jsut listen to where it will brings me.
  5. belzebass


    Feb 21, 2012
    Well, it's not about playing what I hear in my head (for the moment I'm really far skillwise from it). It is more about conscious control of what I'm playing instead of relying on muscle memory.

    For example, I'm playing a simple blues riff like 1-5-b7-8 at a fast tempo. Eazy breezy fosheezee. But now I play a blues and I want to use 1-5-6-8, and I just can't go directly playing this pattern because I need to run it several times first to get it under my fingers :mad:

    Or when I knox exactly the notes I must play, I must first create muscle memory before I can play it. It seems like I can play only with subconcsious finger-level control, and I have a really hard time going without it or overriding it.

    It takes a lot of time to create that finger memory. It's frustrating too, because I (in my head) know very well what notes to play, but my fingers don't know it yet
  6. wrench45us


    Aug 26, 2011
    It may take more than 2 years to get good at these things
    and the way you get good is to practice the things you want to do well.

    I'll be at 2 years on bass come fall. I've played other instruments and got to the point where learning a song and improvising came more easily -- not to say my improvisng on piano didn't rely on the same few patterns. But playing chords it was always easier to 'learn' a song than it is on bass
    Bass is a very different kind of instrument -- single notes, but not the chords and not the melody, but somehow providing harmonic and rhythm support.
    Give it some time.
  7. iiipopes

    iiipopes Supporting Member

    May 4, 2009
    The difficulties listed are common. I've encountered them also.

    Overcoming these difficulties is where classical training comes in really, really, handy, so that instead of just thinking about the bass lines in terms of notes or string-and-fret (for EB) or string-and-position (for DB) placements, they are thought of in classical music theory terms so that transposition, changes, modifications, how to set up turnarounds and landmarks for the rest of the band to play off of, etc., are navigated and songs become easier to learn as the ear and brain recognize the concept of the bass line instead of just hunt-and-peck for string-and-fret placement.

    Last year, a band called me that I had not played with in almost twenty years. Their then-current bass player had suddenly taken gravely ill (and later died), and they needed someone to learn three hours' worth of music on a Thursday for a gig that Saturday right before Memorial Day, 2012. Without the classical music theory/ear training/sight reading/piano proficiency/small ensemble requirements training in undergraduate school thirty years ago, I would not have been able to do the gig. As it was, a few hours with YouTube, their head charts (sometimes just words, sometimes just chords, nothing on some songs, and correcting some of their dictation errors as I went along), and sometimes original dictation off the recordings into notation of my own, both tab, chords, and where necessary actual bass clef notation, and I was there. This included their changes to the arrangements, both in order of verses & choruses, and the keys the singer wanted to sing the songs in (transposition), and accommodating the different styles of the different players on the groove they wanted on any particular song.

    Oh...BTW...after their bass player died, I was asked to be their bass player permanently.

    Learn the stuff. It will get you more gigs and help you keep more gigs than anything else ongoing.
  8. Milestones


    May 28, 2012
    He's right. With enough time and experience you'll get more comfortable and the problem will go away. But you can speed up the process. The key to playing what you want instead of what the fingers want is to think ahead of the current moment. Actually, that's the key to playing music well in my opinion. Concentration is essential.

    Once you start looking for it, you may notice that your mind often wanders when you're playing which is why the muscle memory takes over. Pull yourself back into the moment and concentrate on the music. Then you'll be able to think ahead and will start to overcome your muscle memory.

    This is a difficult process and it will take at least a year to notice marked improvement. And it will take several years to feel like you've fixed the problem altogether. So you've got to be dedicated to it. But left unchecked it will take much longer, if it ever happens at all.
  9. Coming from a classical background i find it very easy to sight read/learn stuff. This has come from years of practice and learning to listen.

    When i started bass it was interesting as i never had the opportunity to improvise, all my music was firmly written in stone note-wise. Sight reading and technique has never been a problem on bass for me but i have put the hard graft in on the cello.

    You will get better, you just need to develop a practice method that maximize your learning and growth. 15 minutes of focused practice/ear training a day is way better that 4 hours of farting around.

    I don't know if anyone else has experienced this but when i sight read one eye is reading what I'm currently playing and the other seems to look ahead 3-4 bars its really strange? Am i crazy?

    Also listen to a LOT of music in different genres, it really helps, when you think about the bass lines you start to notice and predict where the bass is going to go. When that translates to your playing (which it does eventually) you will be able to sit down and site read during a gig.

    First time i realized i could do it was when i was asked to play for an orchestra where a cello player had fallen ill the night before... i filled in and had to site read a symphony i had never heard and about another 4 pieces....... i made it through with minimal cock-ups and rather enjoyed the challenge!
  10. 1958Bassman


    Oct 20, 2007
    You said that playing 1-5-b7-8 fast is easy- that means you have developed muscle memory for that group. Practicing scales and arpeggios is exactly why this is an extremely important part of practicing. Practice is for developing muscle memory.

    Since you mentioned I-V-b7-8 etc in your posts, I'll assume you have learned a bit about scales and arpeggios but the fact that you can't play them easily makes me think you haven't played them very much. If you haven't, get into that, ASAP. Practice specific intervals- you could start with whatever interval you want in ascending/descending order, but you don't seem to be thinking in terms of where your fingers are on the neck. Knowing where the 1, 5 and 8 are, you can learn where any other other interval lies. Memorize the sound of the intervals. Play them as arpeggios. Play whole tone scales, all minor 3rds, 4ths, 5ths, etc and above all, listen to the sound of these intervals but don't play them mindlessly. Play notes, intentionally.

    If you make a point of knowing where your fretting hand's index finger is, you can learn to think about where the 3 is, the 5, the 8, etc. These are the easiest to think of- the ones that fall in-between these are a bit harder, but definitely something that can be learned. As an example, if you look at the notes played when you fret a note (let's use the 5th position A on the E string) and then fret the D on the 5th fret of the A string and the A at the 7th fret of the D string, it's the I-5-8 that's so common in bass lines. Knowing where the 1 is makes playing the major 2 easy- it's two frets away from the 1. Minor 2 is only one fret away. Playing the same fret of the string above the 1 is the 4 and the 3 is either 3 or 4 frets from the 1.

    If you know where the intervals are when you think about your index finger, it makes playing easier. Knowing where the 1 of each chord is, you can move that finger to the 1, 4 and 5 (and other intervals of the key note) while playing the arpeggios and if you watch other people play, that's really all they're doing as they move around the neck.
  11. belzebass


    Feb 21, 2012
    Yes, it's definitely partly a concentration problem. I tried playing the lines and humming them at the same time (I just hum bum-ba-bum-bim-bah for stuff I play). It somehow locks my head better on the bassline :)
  12. wrench45us


    Aug 26, 2011
    I know when I'm learning a new song, at first I'm concentrating on reading the notes, but as I go along, I find I need to have a macro level that keeps me posted that I'm on the Eb7 chord and this will last 4 measures and headed for a Bb7.
    If I start to pay atention to how those 4 measures are filed, I can get a sense of alternative ways to fill those 4 measures and still arrive at the Bb7 measures.
    I went at walking straight on without much other preparation. Now I've learned enough alternative patterns to improvise in one bar patterns -- that's the starter pattern kit for walking, and my pattern repertoire may get repetitive and may not really contribute to the song structure in many cases, but I'm starting to get a sense of how this could work, though it's decidedly more difficult with more bars on the same chord.
    It has a great deal to do with staying on top of the song, knowing where you are and where you're going and deciding how you're going to get there. Muscle memory is useful, but you can't let it drive and that takes alternative muscle memory a lot of quick thinking seqencing. In may ways the best players perform their concentration and focus as much as their instrument.

    Here's a book that opened things up for me as far as recognizing certain chord patterns and song structures. It may not seem like it pertains to every genre, but whan these posters talk about their classical training -- this is coming at it from a different angle.
  13. INTP


    Nov 28, 2003
    Dallas, TX
    What most people call "muscle memory" is also called Procedural Memory
    While it can get fairly detailed, it can also be summed up simply:
    ...but that's a little vague.

    For what you're talking about, you might find it useful to work on finger independence or technique exercises, like those found in "Bass Fitness", or "Bass Aerobics". I have found them very helpful to deal with the concerns you mention like variations and alternate fingerings.

    I also think that knowing theory also provides a mental schema which allows you to store the information in a way that is easier to process when you're playing. At least, my brain finds it helpful...

    Of course, just learning more songs will help in itself. How much depends on the songs, of course. This should absolutely be part of your routine, I just think the other suggestions will supplement that.

    Practice mindfully, and consistently, and you'll see the progress you're seeking.
  14. AngelCrusher


    Sep 12, 2004
    Mesa Boogie, Tech 21, Taylor
    It helps to change up how you play scales. A lot of people play scales conventionally in a more cramped box.

    Example Amaj, at fret 5 - they play 5 then 7 then 4 on the A string.

    I play it like Jaco did - 5, than 7 and than the 3rd on the 9th fret.

    So by laying out the first 6 notes of the scale on the first 2 strings, I have found it a lot easier to run through the scales and make a mental connection that way.

    For whatever reason it makes playing though scales like the melodic minor a lot easier.

    Now I always go back and play the scales multiple ways, but my preference is the one I described.

    It requires more of a finger stretch, but it really changes your phrasing and can allow you to play extremely fast passages as well.
  15. ^
    This. Playing shifting/interesting basslines and improvisation comes down to "how many ways can you manipulate the major scale", since 95% of western music (jazz, country, whatever) can be played with the notes of the major scale. Even when you apply things like melodic minor or harmonic minor, you will only be changing either 1 or 2 notes within some basic major scale.

    This includes knowing how to harmonize the major scale, i.e. knowing and being able to manipulate all the arpeggios that can be built from the major scale, all the pentatonics associated with it and the intervals. Ultimately all you can do with music is either play a linear scale line, an arpeggio based line, a pentatonic line or interval line.

    The trick is to weave all of those aspects into your playing without thinking about it.

    You start with one aspect, learn it well, then move onto the next. It's a brick by brick process. You can't learn every aspect at the same time. If you try to do that, you most likely will never learn anything very well. It's an easier process if you don't try to overwhelm yourself with the fact that it's a lot of stuff to learn.

    It goes faster than you think, but you have to apply yourself. There is no magic or mystery about it.
  16. fdeck

    fdeck Supporting Member Commercial User

    Mar 20, 2004
    Madison WI
    HPF Technology LLC
    Coming from a classical background... scales and exercises. What they do is give you a chance to play lots of different combinations of notes until you internalize the logic of turning the music in your head into fingerings that work, on the fly.

    If you haven't done so, ditch tabs. They take too much concentration.
  17. SidMau


    Sep 3, 2012
    learn the song by mental memory - eg learn the chord changes, and then let muscle memory (and your ear) take over when playing over the chords