So today, for the second day in a row, I played my violin.

Whereas yesterday was like pulling teeth, today was (freakishly) … not.

For example–the violin did not willfully untune itself.

I remembered how to read the music I was looking at.

One piece I didn’t even try to play yesterday I took out to thumb through. It was a full orchestral score, so the violin part was teenyteenytiny along the top line. With my rapidly failing vision (sigh, publishing) I couldn’t read it at all. But I played my way (quite easily) through the whole (not so easy) piece. I have not played this piece at all in probably more than a decade.

It was like a trigger had gone off in my brain, and I suddenly had access to all this knowledge and muscle memory of ten, fifteen years ago. All knowledge I had thought was totally gone, since I’ve done nothing to deserve to retain it.

Makes you wonder about how the brain works. What else is kicking around up there.

Have you ever been completely flattened by a memory? This happens to me from time to time as an adult. I don’t have any, you know, clinically traumatizing suppressed memories (uh, at least not that I know of?); I’m just talking about the typical Thing that your mind hid from you for whatever reason. Something–often painful, stressful, sharp, or otherwise extreme–that had been a challenge when it happened, and maybe for a long time afterward, but had been COMPLETELY assimilated into my perseverant blob of consciousness and scabbed over. The Thing(s) one does not think about, etc. But then suddenly, for whatever strange reason, one does, and for a very short period of time it’s like the time hadn’t passed at all, there never was any scab.

I guess there are all kinds of cliches people use for this phenomenon (“it all came crashing back” etc). But at this moment cliches don’t make it any less phenomenal to me. Why would my brain block out any memory of being able to play this particular song on a violin? And why would it suddenly let me back into that memory right now?

And really. Really. What else is hiding up there? How do I get to it?

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9 Responses to trigger

  1. Karissa says:

    muscle memory is kind of a spectacular thing.

    so is the freaking brain.

    i still really really wish i could be a neuroscientist.

  2. JES says:

    Wish I knew the answers to those questions!

    When digital music downloads first came along, I started to buy MP3 versions of favorite albums I hadn’t listened to in decades. Amazed me that after all that time, on the first re-listen I knew exactly which song would start playing next as soon as one finished. I could even remember little flourishes — the way a drumstick hit a cymbal, or the squeak of the strings under a steel guitarist’s fingers — which had nothing to do with the song as such.

    The only instrument I’ve ever played with any regularity is the harmonica. Never had any lessons, and never (so far) managed to get through a self-paced course in how to play. So I pretty much noodle along with it. Trouble is, because I haven’t invested in a really good one, after a little while I always manage to blow one of the reeds out. I put the harmonica aside then for several years, until I feel like playing again. And then I pick up another (cheap) one. It’s weird how easily it comes back to me — songs I was improvising when the last one went just sort of fall back into place again.

    Neither of those stories is as powerful as yours (which I LOVE). But I think there’s something mysteriously magical about the way the brain remembers music in particular.

    I wish Karissa was a neuroscientist, too, so I could ask her about this stuff. 🙂

    • Maybe there is something particular/mysterious to music. I also remember music in the same way you talk about it (hearing individual clashes of cymbals, etc). Is it just for certain people that music and memory are inextricably linked? Or does everyone experience that in different degrees?

      I know it’s fascinating to me how I personally respond to different art forms. I LIKE visual art, and ENJOY looking at it, but music really gets to me very emotionally.

      (Although I feel like people have accused me of being a fake music lover; I never listen to music, or have very much exposure to it; I don’t own an iPod, a CD player, or a radio. I know it might sound suspect but I believe this is because I don’t NEED to listen to anything as I have a lot of music going on in my head all the time. Better music than voices? Or just as bad?)

      • JES says:

        A music lover who doesn’t listen to music and doesn’t even own a music-listening device. A Kindle owner who doesn’t read books on it. Can you say “technologically anomalous”? 🙂

        I hold all these pet theories about music (which I’m allowed to do because I don’t know anything about it). One is that music must do something to our brains regardless of genre. According to this theory, classical, J-pop, blues, techno, reggae, rap and hip-hop — only superficially different from one another; more deeply, they fire off (yes, trigger!) the same sorts of neurological signals. What we think of as “melody,” “rhythm,” “harmony,” and so on, no matter what their formal definitions, are just the touchy-feely names for all the electrochemical fizzes and pops in our heads…

        For a few months now I’ve had a draft post simmering way at the back of the cooktop, based in part on an article in Wired (published sometime over the winter) on the neuroscience of musical response. I have only skimmed the article — I need to read it more carefully so as not to embarrass myself — but it seems to bolster that pet theory.

        From the abstract of another article, this one in Nature some years ago:

        Is lack of musical ability simply the result of failure to practise? Probably not, if new investigations are anything to go by. They show that a disorder akin to dyslexia affects the processing of pitch.

        There was an old fellow of Sheen
        whose musical sense was not keen.
        He said: “It is odd,
        I can never tell ‘God
        save the weasel’ from ‘Pop goes the Queen’!”


      • JES says:

        P.S. Wikipedia, on “musical memory.”

  3. Froog says:

    Gosh, sorry I come late to this fascinating thread. I’ve had a crazy busy month, and haven’t been looking in on my blog friends as often as I should.

    Having grown up with vinyl albums, I find there’s something especially evocative about the memories associated with that musical experience. Every well-played album has its own signature whisper in the lead-in groove: you can tell what the music’s going to be just from that distinctive rumble-and-hiss in the few seconds before it starts.

    And this puts me in mind of what I think is perhaps Tom Waits’s most brilliant, most moving line, about emotional anticipation in listening to music:
    Just like before the band starts to play,
    They always play our favourite tune

  4. Kountry says:

    How is your violin coming along? I started playing the cello again. I also dug up my old sheet music, but it was too technical and difficult to play through. And what’s the point of playing something that you don’t like listening to? I found it more fun to find sheet music from popular scores that I like to listen to (e.g., Kung Fu panda and Spirited Away), and playing the right hand piano part. These are posted all over the internet, so it’s easy to find.

    • It’s gone to get repaired (thanks for asking)! I’m picking it up on Monday. I brought it to a violin guy recommended by several Juilliard students (uh, via crowdsourcing on Twitter :). I’m pretty excited, although let me tell you, it has turned out to be QUITE a Christmas present to myself (new sound post, new bridge, bow rehairing… oi.).

      Yeah, I feel the same–my technical skill is way eroded so I focus on manageable new pieces (like Henry Purcell’s Rondo, which I picked up from the PRIDE AND PREJUDICE soundtrack…).

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