I have two grown children. The entire time they were growing up they took Suzuki method music lessons. My son studied violin, and my daughter studied piano. After attending one of my daughter’s piano recitals, I asked her what she was thinking about while she was performing the piano sonata piece (from memory, no music in front of her). Was she thinking about the dynamics of the music? When to get louder or softer? About particular notes or passages that were coming up? Speed or tempo? She looked at me in confusion. “Thinking?”, she said, “I’m not thinking about anything. I’m just watching my fingers play the song.” It was my turn to be confused. I turned to my son and said, “Is that how you play the violin in a recital? Are you thinking?” “No, of course I’m not thinking, he answered. I’m watching my fingers play the violin too.”
Muscle memory — The Suzuki method of music instruction (and perhaps other methods too, it’s the only one I’m really familiar with) requires students to intensely practice particular skills on their instrument. In a Suzuki recital students usually do not have music in front of them. All the pieces (and quite complicated pieces) are memorized. This requires that particular passages and songs be practiced over and over. A term that is used in music instruction is “muscle memory”. The piece is practiced so often, that the muscles remember how to play it on its own, without thinking involved.
Automatic execution? — If a skill is practiced so well that it is automatic, then it can be performed with a minimum of conscious attention. If it is really automatic then it almost allows multi-tasking. I say almost because multi-tasking doesn’t really exist.
Have you ever been listening to a piece of music and experienced intense pleasure, even chills? Valorie Salimpoor and team (2010) conducted research that shows that listening to music can release the neurotransmitter dopamine.
A wide range of music — The researchers used PET (positron emission tomography) scans, fMRI, and psychophysiological measures such as heart rate to measure reactions while people listened to music. The participants provided music that they said gave them intense pleasure and chills. The range of music varied, from classical, folk, jazz, elecronica, rock pop, tango, and more.
Pleasure vs. anticipated pleasure — The researchers saw the same pattern of brain and body activity when people were listening to their music as they see when people feel euphoria and craving when they get a reward. The experience of pleasure corresponded with dopamine release in one part of the brain (striatal dopaminergic system). When people were anticipating a pleasurable part of the music (participants were listening to their favorite music, so they knew what part of the music was coming next), then there was a dopamine release in a different part of the brain (nucleus accumbens).