In particular when practicing scales (say, C major, one octave apart, similar motion) or jazz standards, I’ve noticed that my playing becomes automated. I don’t consider every step carried out by my hands, they just do it. In one way I understand this, some things goes too fast and too many things are going on for consciously/thinking about every step. When I consider more complex things (though that scale is enough for me), such as accompanying oneself while improvising, or seeing skilled players like Chick Corea, I understand that this automation is a necessity and a goal, it seems.

My problem is, when my hands attempt this “subconscious” playing I mess up a lot. When playing my scales, or tunes I’ve practiced to boredom with, I’m too bored/neglective, resulting in that I don’t think about my hands. They attempt to do something automated, and as a result it’s almost random whether it comes out right.

Any suggestions for what to do? Otherwise I’ll go with something classic like “Slow down the tempo, break it down, and take it step by step.” The subconscious/automated stage should not be skipped I presume, the question is how to make it function, how to change it.

5 Answers 5


If you are still messing up scales, then they're not in your sub (or even un) conscious yet.

When was the last time you were running, and thought ' does my heel or toe need to hit the ground first?' Chances are, if you did think that, you'd probably fall over... Running has reached the stage where it's at least subconscious, so it's not necessary to analyse what's going to happen. It takes a lot of practice - repetition - to achieve that level. I ask students to recite the two times tables while playing scales. Successful ones have reached that state!

One of the things with improv. is not actually thinking about what's happening now but what's going to happen next. So to a great degree, there has to be some automation. And that won't happen until the playing has become automated, obviously. It doesn't have to sound automated - and if it does, that's another hurdle to overcome - but the physicality of it must be. If it's not, then it's back to the drawing board (instrument!) and work at whatever until it is. Good luck!

  • 4
    The old saying applies here: amateurs practice until they can get it right. Professionals practice until they can't get it wrong. It doesn't feel like it, but practicing beyond the point where you can get it right has massive benefits. Commented Jun 24, 2020 at 7:34

Hands playing automatically is called "muscle memory", in fact this is a misnomer because muscles don't have a memory - not this sort of memory anyway. The part of the brain called the cerebellum memorises motor actions. This takes away a load from the conscious parts of our brain.


The most important technique for getting the cerebellum to memorise correctly is to teach it correctly. If you constantly practise scales with mistakes, the cerebellum will eventually learn the mistakes. Those mistakes will become automatic and then you will have a heck of a job getting rid of them because the mistakes are now subconscious!

The answer is simple - practise slowly and carefully. If you can reliably play a scale with 100% accuracy, even at a snail's pace, your cerebellum will learn it that way too. Now, contrary to what I said, muscles do have a sort of memory, but it is very simple. They can be trained to improve physical movements (stretches and so on) but they can't learn sequences of movements.

Once you have learned the movements perfectly and slowly, all you have to do is to train your fingers to be able to keep up with the messages from the brain. Very often you you don't even need to do this. If the slow version is perfect you can suddenly just play at double the speed without any difficulty.

Note There is an amusing meme about this. Try searching for "If you can play it slowly, you can play it quickly". It has become a joke but actually the message is correct, if we rewrite it, "If you can play it slowly and perfectly, it's a small step to being able to play it quickly and perfectly."


There was a famous classical pianist (I'll see if I can remember his name and find the actual reference). The story goes that he was staying with a friend and practising one of his concert pieces very, very slowly. A visitor came to the house and, hearing this, innocently asked "Is that a child playing in your sitting room?" The host replied, "No that's Maestro ____. He always practises like that.

P.S. If anyone knows who the famous pianist was, please let me know so I can find it online. Thanks.

  • Is it Liszt? I'm not sure though
    – Divide1918
    Commented Jun 24, 2020 at 15:56

'Eye to fingers' playing - barely hitting the brain - is a very useful accomplishment. As is the development of muscle memory for tricky patterns and passages.

But if it's letting you down on a particular piece, yes you'll need to backtrack and sort it out.


It depends on whether your goal is improv or classical recital performance. Your description of "automatic playing" is featured as a goal in Pepe Romero's book on Classical Guitar technique. From his father he learned that a piece of music should be memorized, not only the notes but the feeling of playing every note, chord, etc. To the point where you can sit quietly and hear the entire piece in your mind, and feel as if you are playing it. With this level of automation the performer can transcend any mental stress during a performance. You are almost having an out of body experience.

If your goal is improv and you find your self drifting into terrain that is not harmonious the one exercise is to play over changes slowly. The most basic (and doesn't mean it's easy) is I --> V --> I etc. Just toggle back and forth and try to "walk" through the major scale hitting chord tones as you go. The skill being developed is not in the hands but Voice Leading, in the ear. Once you can hear key tones then as you fly up and down the instrument you need not worry so much about being in key as you can really play anything.

I might be misunderstanding your question but I hope one of these paragraphs is helpful. It is worth noting that some people might argue that improv is really rehearsed, whether the player realizes it or not.


Unconscious means that you are able to play the motifs, figurations, passages like you handle chords, triads, arpeggios and scales and ornaments (mordents, turn-arounds and trills) in classical music and riffs and licks in pop and jazz.

This means you have to analyze the form, the harmony, the chords, the chordprogression, and you must have the entire passages in your mind.

This is possible if you know the figurations like letters, the motifs like words or elements of phrases.

My own approach is

a) reducing the music to the harmonic content

b) to practice the ornaments playing them like a single note, a figuration or ornament like a passage.

c) transposing a piece in other keys (section by section)

This means: the music has to be 100% in my consciousness and also in my fingers ( motoric memory) before I’m able to play it unconsciously.

Otherwise I always struggled and stuttered if the fingers were missing a note. It was very hard to enter again in a passage and I had to start from the beginning.

  • Playing pieces in different keys won't really help motor memory using piano. It may well be the case on guitar, but that's where the similarity ends. I agree it'll certainly help knowing the piece. But then I always start to think 'why did the composer write this in this key?'...
    – Tim
    Commented Jun 24, 2020 at 10:02

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