Many people claim that you must focus completely on what you are doing. If not, the end results will be far inferior to what you would achieve if you give it "everything". However, muscle memory and behavioural patterns are not a product of intention alone, but also repetition, amongst others.

How can we really argue that practicing, say, guitar scales or drum rudiments to a metronome while watching a movie is bad? Even though our focus might lay elsewhere, are we not improving our muscle strength and muscle memory?

I would argue (although it may come off as aggravating or radical) that technical workouts, while of course demanding a certain level of discipline and focus, mainly requires muscle activity, not right brain activity. Building technical skill is more a battle of time and discipline than it is of thought, so why should we not allow our brain to work on other things while the muscles do the "heavy lifting"?

Can muscle memory and strength be developed by doing guitar scales or drum rudiments while focusing on something else, like watching a movie?

  • The edit seems okay. It does a good job summarising into a single question. I can reopen. You may find it gets closed again as too subjective, but lets see how it goes.
    – Doktor Mayhem
    Commented Dec 26, 2013 at 23:49

6 Answers 6


Can muscle memory and strength be developed by doing guitar scales or drum rudiments while focusing on something else, like watching a movie?

Learning a new concept is much more than being able to repeat (or even reproduce) given information. Learning also encompasses how to take the learned concept and apply it to new scenarios. This type of thinking is called Cognitive Problem Solving and is important for demonstrating how well a given concept is understood.

When I took conducting pedagogy classes as an undergraduate, the professor tested our knowledge of different time signature patterns by giving us a set order to conduct (say 3/4, 4/4, 2/4) while reciting our personal information or while having a candid conversation. Our ability to multi-task while simultaneously performing the exercise illustrated that our brains formed enough neurological connections to be able to allocate the remaining resources to having the conversation.

Now, this type of learning is not always appropriate.

When learning a concept for the first time, it is important that the person give the learning process as much intellectual resource as possible to ensure the most thorough initial understanding possible. This is because neurological connections are being made as the person asks questions and makes correlations in their brain between the new concept and previously learned concepts.

Since multi-tasking divides your attention, you are less likely to form meaningful neurological connections, and the connections that are made will also be mixed in with connections that are created while you're doing the other thing that you were doing. For example, if you're learning how to juggle, but you're also listening to Journey while someone's explaining juggling concepts to you, the information you learned about Journey will be stored with the information you've learned about Journey in your brain.

Since those divisions in your brain would then not be clearly defined or organized, it may take a trigger like Journey to help you remember a specific juggling technique.

Initially, dividing attention reduces the probability of learning, reproducing, and re-contextualizing information. It is only when the person feels confident with the information that they should apply it abstractly to other situations (such as watching a movie.) An old teacher of mine calls this "creative performance practice".

Hope that helps.


I would suspect (but would probably be unable to prove) that a great many factors play into this. A large role, I suspect, is played by an individual's personality type. In Jungian terms, personality traits can be roughly classified by two somewhat independent variables: one's attitude (introvert/extravert) and one's primary and secondary functions (intellect, emotion, sensation, intuition; usually considered as two poles: intellect/emotion, sensation/intuition, so that the primary and secondary functions come from separate poles). A point made forcibly by Jung, but largely ignored by the later writers I've read, is that this theoretical description is a posteriori, not a priori -- that is, you can use these tools to try to determine the "type" of a single individual and make predictions about how that individual may respond to certain situations or stimuli. But you cannot legitimately take this theory to make a hard categorization of the types of people of the world; well, you can try.... Um, enough digression on that.

I think that your idea to divide the attention and practice a physical exercise while applying the intellect elsewhere is likely to work much better (or at all) for introverts rather than extraverts. This may be part of the source of the pedantic insistence upon being focused that you're rebelling against, as this would tend to be a necessary course of action for an extraverted intellectual, the type that writes the most instruction manuals :).

For myself (an introvert), I find it to be very true that too much focus inhibits my ability to get the technique into my fingers. My question here has more details.

  • I think you provide a good answer, but "focus" is a very fuzzy word. I expect that the "focus" in the aphorism is more akin to "fewer distractions" than "don't take your eyes off the object." I agree about your problem with focus which you intimate in the linked question. I think that type of hyperfocus is a problem because your analytical mind is trying to evaluate and adjust to something which has already happened and this just introduces timing problems and interferes with what people call "flow".
    – horatio
    Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 16:57
  • Perhaps the aphorism is more about providing a place for meditative study rather than speaking about an almost obsessive attentiveness.
    – horatio
    Commented Dec 27, 2013 at 16:59


I can play drums and sing at the same time. Not too unusual, but at one point I had to do one or other or I fell over in a gibbering mess. To be able to do both, I had to "set the rhythm going" using muscle memory etc, and kind of ignore it while I try singing as well.

That's not to dissimilar to practicing a rhythm while watching a film. Nor changing gear while indicating and braking at some traffic lights.

This then leads to being able to play syncopated rhythms while keeping the "main" rhythm going. Or playing guitar riffs while singing something else whcih doesn't follow the same rhythm/notes.

Then try playing that stuff you were practicing without singing or doing something else as well. It feels easy.

Depends what you want to do, but I'd say practicing one activity while dividing your focus among other things is pretty essential !

  • Well, for multi-hand or multi-instrument stuff (voice and instrument, left/right/bellows for accordion, left/right for piano, multiple voicings for basically all keyboard instruments etc etc) you acquire stuff into "muscle memory" one by one. And then the important thing is doing the whole coordinated thing while focusing like anything on the various voices, and perfecting them individually. That's very important to get a truly polyphonic rather than mushed-together result, providing a multidimensional experience to the listener.
    – User8773
    Commented Feb 21, 2014 at 14:12
  • I agree (I think) - by focussing on one voice but onot others, varyingly, you're effectivel almost ignoring the "other" voices. Commented Feb 21, 2014 at 15:01

Many people claim that you must focus completely on what you are doing. If not, the end results will be far inferior to what you would achieve if you give it "everything". However, muscle memory and behavioural patterns are not a product of intention alone, but also repetition, amongst others.

Well, yes. That's why it is a bad investment of your time to keep repeating stuff that is not good. A musician that just cranks out his notes in a more or less recognizable way in a more or less correct speed will make his audience recall the good performances of the piece they heard from other players rather than let them focus on this performance.

That's distracting their attention rather than catching it. Once you proud yourself of having a piece admitted into "muscle memory", play it at half speed, with good and consistent articulation, controlled leggiero, proper inner dynamics and crescendi, controlled and regular tempi.

Should be easy, right? The problem is that you now have to fight your muscle memory. The sooner you notice shortcomings and work on incorporating them into your practice focus, the less you will have to fight them later on.

The half speed exercise gives you enough time to actually watch yourself. A less direct way is recording your play and listen to it separately without the distraction of playing. I prefer the former: the recording/listening takes more than double the time and is vastly more frustrating and less direct.


I have perfected a fingerpicking part of a song while watching a movie. It was Travis picking piece that required the same motion continuously. The reason this worked was by allowing my mind not to worry about mistakes and let the hands take over (muscle memory).


Personally, I would have to say that practice without focus is wasted practice. Yes that's an opinion but it is based around 30 odd years of my own practice and watching the development of many of my students. I often tell students who have trouble dedicating the time to practice, to only practice when they can devote full attention to it, even if that means they practice for less time. In nearly every case this results in an acceleration of their development. It's a common fallacy that we as humans are good multi-taskers. Many studies have shown this is clearly not the case.

Norman Doidge in his book, "The Brain that Changes Itself" talks about a study where a group of non-musicians were taught a simple melody on keyboard. All of them had practice sessions on this melody for a week. But half had to sit in front of the keyboard and imagine playing and hearing it whilst the other half were actually allowed to play the instrument. The surprising results were that the 'mental practice' group were not far behind the real practice group, and in fact when all participants were given one more session where they could all play the instrument, the differences were negligible.

I'm not advocating sitting around thinking about it instead of doing it, but what I would say is practice what you need to practice in a focussed manner, and then go and enjoy the movie. From my own experience and those of my students I'd have to conclude that focus is essential to maximise your practice results.

Finally, it probably won't do any harm to practice in an unfocussed state, UNLESS you are doing something odd technique wise that you don't pick up on. In that case surely you are practising a bad habit.

Hope that helps. (And in general I strongly recommend that book, its a fascinating read).

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