What Is Happening When I Play Music In My Head?

By Kirsty McIntosh

When I hear a piece of music in my head, I know it’s only remnants not the piece in full glory. It’s almost like it is playing in my ears. What I as a drummer, hear strongly are the drums and bass guitar. Sometimes my memory can recreate a guitar or piano but because my body hasn’t played these instruments well or my association with them has been limited, I cannot play the riff, melody or sometimes the tone. Why is this?

I am not a neurologist, so the conclusion I have come to is this.

I remember a drum sound and can connect with it because I can see the movement or the tab in my mind. The bass I can somewhat put on a stave merely by tone, but without accuracy. My visual part of the brain kicks in, placing what beats I hear into my eyes and then my muscles. Is this how everyone does it? When you recreate or make up a new composition do your muscles respond?

The way I teach has more to do with movement and memory than skills taught from a score. I am not an amazing musician but over time I’m sure this will change, after all practice makes perfect. When I go out and watch live shows I am learning new skills or awakening old ones. Even the old 4/4 played by someone new can teach me how to position my body and sticks without me focusing too hard on the players sound. I can pre-empt their moves merely by the music’s structure and character of the musician. We’ve all heard & seen bad performers who mess up a fill or their timing is way out and how do we react? With a cringe or a yikes. Even non-musicians do this because they remember what a good drummer should sound like, well most of us do anyway, unless you are tone def or music blind with a medical impairment.

Do people who are lacking in one or more of the senses have a problem finding the beat? Do people who are blind from birth feel or hear music in the same way? I can only guess, as I have not done any research yet, that they must not. I know that the body overcompensates and heightens other senses when all are not being used. Vibration & movement can tell the audience what they are supposed to feel, but do they get the full effect if they cannot see the performance. I will research this as much as I can, but for now I can only look into my own workings.

Today I played along with White Room by Cream. Firstly I listened to the song a couple of times to refresh my mind and awaken my body. I then looked at a video of other drummers’ covers. From that, I was able to break down the movements needed to undertake the task. It’s a very simple rhythm but the feel is unique to whoever was executing it. After a few minutes I was able to play along from memory. The song played in my head and my muscles reacted to what they previously viewed & heard. Had I not watched the videos before I could’ve played along but not with the same muscle memory. True, I have skills in the area due to years of practice and knowledge of drum scores and genres, but I have not played all genres. For instance, Jazz drumming is not my forte but with practice and many video hours I could master it no doubt, but even with my understanding of drums I possibly could not achieve an honest interpretation of this genre without using my sight in the learning process.

For the first lesson with a student, I will play what I have planned for them and get them to listen, watch and absorb the rhythm. I ask a student to pick up the sticks, get into position and then close their eyes for a moment. I try to get them to feel everything, from how their feet rest on the pedals, how the sticks sit in their hands, the position of their fingers, wrists and arms and then I ask if they are comfortable. I ask them to soak it up and get their body to remember. From there I get them to open their eyes and play all voices on the kit so they can hear the sound they, the player, makes when striking them. With these first few steps I get them in control of their body and their sound.

I instruct them to play one beat at a time, repeat and feel their own response. Playing slowly is harder, as control is lacking or weak in many limbs and the student becomes stiff with the unnatural movements. After a few repetitions I get them to speed up not stopping after mistakes just letting the flow come to the surface. When the student is capable of playing the beat faster (even with mistakes) I then get them to assess their version against mine.

How did it sound and feel? What was your body doing when you made the mistakes? What was your mind thinking?

I ask them to close their eyes and play the piece again, assess and repeat the questioning. The response is one of surprise from them, they managed to feel it better, hear it better and therefore play it better. I don’t carry out this act every lesson but after giving them a new piece that they conquer with sight a few times, I remove the score and get them to play from memory vocalising the tune as they play. Nearly all the senses are used when playing and by giving my students these skills they can eventually play along with anything.

When I practice sometimes it’s from a score, sometimes memory, sometimes from video or music. When playing without any knowledge of the piece obviously, as one would imagine, it is harder. In the past I have gotten up and played with people I do not know and songs I’ve never heard, that’s when something incredible happens. My body picks up on the vibe, the other performers body language, the songs structure the law of musical notation & composition and memory kicks in.  This works because of the practice and musical knowledge gained over time but sometimes, it doesn’t work, and when it doesn’t I put it down to human chemistry. Some people just can’t play together even if they’re proficient musicians. Are their minds not allowing them to remember the genre or are they just not on the same wavelength? I bet when they get off the stage they kick themselves knowing they could’ve done better and the tunes they played run around in their head with muscle twitches reacting.

My experience of muscle movement when listening to internal rhythms is, the body knows through memory of sound, sight and musical knowledge what should be played. If one of these is lacking my movement slows or ceases. When a new instrument is being studied and all of these skills are yet to be gained, new pathways are opened firing up fresh neurons, which will then embed on the brain starting new memories for that particular instrument, almost like a filing system separating each instruments muscle memory.  Even with my understanding of music the brain never ceases to amaze me and encourage me to explore.


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