Being able to pull off a really fast piece of proficient playing on a musical instrument is something almost everyone would like to be able to do. How we go about doing this is surprisingly simple and quite well known. You practice something you want to be able to play fast at a slow tempo. Then, gradually, you crank up the tempo using a metronome (or something similar) and after some time, you should be able to reach the tempo you’d like to be able to play at. The same process goes for any fast-twitch reflex type action – for example, a deft dribble with a basketball or even slight-of-hand for a magic trick (although you probably wouldn’t use a metronome in those cases!).

Physically, you are training your muscles to develop ‘muscle memory’. In other words, by repeating the action over and over again, you are essentially ‘programming’ it into your muscles so that it feels natural. If you have gotten this far with any bit of physical skill, you might realise that you don’t actually need to think as much about what you’re doing once you get quick enough.

This is what I’ve been thinking about, and I want to offer a few of my thoughts on the matter. Apologies in advance for the lack of coherence to follow…

What goes through our mind?

The point that interests me the most is the one I just mentioned. I find it a little strange that we actually think less about something the better we get at it. Surely, in the process of acquiring greater skill, wouldn’t you think that the brain is doing more work because it has to handle more information in a given space of time?

What seems to be going on here is a form of subliminal processing. It reminds me a lot of reading. Remember when you were a kid and learning to read? You might have followed each word with your finger and pronounced each word carefully by combining the individual letters in it. How about now? I’m sure you can just look at the word and subconsciously know what it is without actively having to look at each letter. In fact, you may have come across the famous Cambridge study which found that people only need the first and the last letters of a word to be in place to recognise the rest of it. For example:

The fcat taht you can udnretnasd tihs whiutot mcuh dfiflcituy is qtiue azmiang, dno’t you tnihk?

The same sort of thing seems to be going on when you’re internalising some sort of muscular motion by way of playing the guitar.

Fast Hearing

Returning back to music (and I’ll use the guitar as my example here), suppose you’ve just learnt a 4 bar riff inside out. You can play it at practically any tempo without any errors. If I asked you to play it now, would you sit there and think ‘hmm, I need to play an A and then move my finger 2 frets to play a B…’? You might have done that when you were first learning it, but you wouldn’t do that any more. Instead, your fingers would automatically get into position and your brain would do the processing in the background. You would have become so efficient at the process that the amount of conscious thinking that is required by you is minimal.
And in fact, I think that this is a very important step in being able to play something quickly and accurately. The brain just isn’t fast enough to actively think about each note separately. You will only become fast when you can relegate those thought processes until they become as natural as breathing. Think of The Matrix if you want an exaggerated version of the kind of thing I’m thinking of! I would conjecture that the faster the player, the lower the level of conscious activity in the brain will be. Efficiency of the mind, if you will.

The same goes for hearing music. When you play the notes, you will likely only ‘zone in’ at key points in the riff. You might consciously pay attention once each bar at places where your brain deems it necessary to focus in order to get your bearings right. It’s somewhat of an ongoing calibration process that only needs to come to the forefront when something significant (physiologically or musically) is about to happen in the piece. As a result, you won’t actually ‘hear’ each note, but you’ll intrinsically know whether it’s right or not.

Ever notice how the listeners of more complex genres of music are largely comprised of musicians in their own right? I think this is far from coincidence and links into this subconscious ‘fast hearing’ phenomenon. Where the untrained ear just hears a blur or flurry of random, seemingly unrelated notes, those who have this ability to process quickly in the back of their minds seem to be able to pick out the relevant parts and make sense of the aural information coming their way. I know that in my case, I’ve gone from thinking that a Red Hot Chili Peppers solo was unfathomably fast and incomprehensible to being able to mentally pick out runs that Dream Theater use in their music, just by internalising a lot of the extraneous information that comes with playing certain things on the guitar.

OK, so is there a point here?

Well, yes and no. I’ve pointed out something that I find quite fascinating: the way our mind becomes proficient at something by effectively minimising the level of conscious effort required. To me, it seems like a very fundamental optimisation exercise, and is a great example of how nature seeks to simplify and streamline everything as much as possible (which, as a side note, I think is why mathematics captures natural processes so effortlessly).

Although this information is not going to make you the next Michael Angelo Batio, I think that understanding the principles by which our minds work is important if we want to achieve a higher level of proficiency in anything we choose to do. At the very least, I hope this brain dump has provoked a bit of curiosity!