When I am learning a new piece on the piano, at first I struggle to get it together bar by bar. It depends on how tricky it is, but most of the time I start out real slow, trying to get it 'down'. At this stage I often have to stop and think what comes next, sometimes even try the hands separately. Anyway, I stop at almost every note or chord and I am acutely aware of what I'm doing.

Then, it starts to flow naturally. It may take a day or two, but eventually I get it up to speed and I don't have to think about every note. Eventually, especially during rapid passages, it is so fluent that I'm not actually aware of the keys I'm hitting any more, the hand just flows by itself. This always freaks me out. Does it mean that I commited it to some sort of muscle memory and forgot what I'm actually playing? Sometimes if I stop and don't play the piece for a while, I am not able to recall those sections that I was able to play so fluently.

I'm self-taught on piano and I am currently struggling to connect all the music I know to the theory and eventually be able to play things I hear clearly in my head, but at this moment that seems far away. What I wanted to ask is, am I just sloppy, lacking in knowledge of theory and pushing the burden of recall on muscle memory or is it natural? Do other people (playing classical piano) always rememeber every single note of a piece they are playing, or do they let their hands go on autopilot from time to time? Thanks.

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    Then you find you actually know it by heart without realising... if someone steals your music you can keep on playing without knowing what any of the notes are. Isn't the brain amazing?!
    – Mr. Boy
    Dec 19, 2014 at 11:42

2 Answers 2


You should check out the book Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner.
My first instrument was piano, but I eventually got my degree in Music Composition with a concentration in Double Bass. The tricky part for me about this instrument is that it is physically daunting to play: it's a large instrument with thick heavy strings, and a neck the size of a baseball bat. I was fighting myself in order to gets notes out of the instrument, and my teacher recommended this book.

Kenny is actually a pianist, so it's a great example from your point of view. He goes into the concept that there are really a few separate stages of mastery. At first, you are really trying to ingrain the technical aspects: fingering, rhythm, tempo, etc. After you master that portion, your focus is devoted to the actual process of adding musicality: putting emphasis on the right parts of a phrase, phrasing in general, building the intensity to a climax and releasing it, etc.

The primary thesis of the book is that you can't move to effectively mastering your performance until you essentially "surrender" your conscious effort to the subconscious part of your mind, and begin "automatic playing." The muscle memory aspect is essential for this process, because you should be focusing on the direction your music should be taking, not the actual notes you're playing.

That being said, I think the typical understanding (from a Bruce Lee sort of Zen and the Art of Mastery perspective) is that the ultimate achievement in mastery is transcending form, and overcoming it. But in order to do so, you have to go THROUGH the process of learning all the forms and techniques. It's essentially the same story you'll hear in everything: learn all the rules then you can break them.

As to your fear of being on "auto-pilot," it sounds like you already have two very important tools: you have the discipline to practice something until it becomes ingrained, and you have the ability to not crash and burn once you realize that you're flying without a net. I'm doing some assumption on the second part, but typically once people look down and realize they're just playing and don't know where they are, they stop and then get stuck.

So really, what you want to do is keep doing what you're doing, and learn as many pieces as possible. Eventually, it becomes like riding a bike: you may forget it after leaving it for awhile, but it'll come back to you. And the more you practice, the faster you'll find it all comes back. Break a leg!

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    All good stuff. Think about all the effort it takes to, say, walk across a busy concourse while avoiding bumping into other people. Yet we do it without thinking, because we've practised all our lives. They key with music is, once you're able to play the notes in the right order without thinking too hard, that you apply the "freed up" mental capacity to putting some expression into the music -- rather than planning your next meal!
    – slim
    Sep 22, 2011 at 13:49
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    If you like the answer you can always upvote it. : ) That being said, I totally agree. I think the problem with mastering music is that people expect to learn it faster than it took them to learn to read or write, and honestly it's a very long process with a lot of degrees of skill. Mastery comes not when you're able to achieve great things by overcoming others, but when you're able to overcome yourself and achieve greatness itself.
    – NateDSaint
    Sep 22, 2011 at 14:11
  • This is a cognitive process which transcends music by the way. It is often studied and remarked upon in all fields. I think it may be referred to as subcognition, but my memory is poor.
    – horatio
    Sep 23, 2011 at 18:13
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    The OP mentions a related (or the same?) concept a couple of times: "flow". And @horatio is right: this "it has to go into your subconscious" can be found everywhere. Learning a language: fluency is only reached when you stop thinking about grammar and spelling and pronounciation, when you stop translating from your native tongue, but start to think in the new language. Programming: when you can stop thinking about the syntax, and semantics, about the language you work in, and are free to think about the problem. Sep 25, 2011 at 13:09

I somewhat recognise what you are struggling with. Many of the pieces I know are kind of like muscle memorised. If I don't practice them regularly, some rot occurs and I forget parts. However, that doesn't happen as fast with the pieces that I understand theoretically (chord progression, form, etc...) as well as memorized with the ear.

What I mean is that sometimes, especially with difficult pieces, we tend to memorise where we place our hands when playing piano. But actually, ideally, what you should memorise is the music, the sound and from there, you should be able to find back what you should play on the piano. The pieces that stay the longest in my memory are precisely those where I managed to do that. And often, it will be pieces that are way easier than the most difficult pieces I can play technically. But that's OK. As I progress, both will shift up.

As to how to get there, I think that has been answered already in another thread you started.


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