Posted by: laurie689 | November 22, 2019

Can You Learn Kinesthetically?

It sounds like some kind of game, but “kinesthetic” refers to learned movement that becomes automatic. I’ve been writing about it for years. It’s the result of consistent and focused practice; the point at which a specific sequence of movements becomes a kinesthetic habit is the point at which you can feel the effort decrease, the flow of the music improve, the ability to play expressively increase, and you get the feeling that your movements are on “autopilot”. Professionals know all about this, and it’s at this point and beyond that music playing becomes the lovely thing that makes music playing look easy.

Interestingly, I’ve been slammed for saying so, with claims that musical kinesthetics doesn’t exist. Naturally, there are exceptions to everything, which means that everyone learns a bit differently, and a few never develop a kinesthetic sense.  (Some might, however, if they practice not more but differently.) That doesn’t mean they can’t play; it only means they have to think about and focus on their movements whenever they play. No student should ever get the idea that they cannot or should not play just because something that works for most doesn’t work for them. I teach according to each student’s needs. But those who cannot develop their kinesthetic sense are rare; with practice and patience most players do. It can take a long time if you’re a beginner, so don’t get discouraged.

After many years of teaching ways to develop the kinesthetic sense, I was recently gratified to read in Malcolm Gladwell’s well-known book What the Dog Saw a lengthy and detailed treatise on the subject of learned movement which he calls the difference between explicit learning and implicit learning. Explicit learning is when you are beginning to practice a new physical skill, and it still feels a bit stiff and contrived due to its unfamiliarity. But with time and practice it becomes more automatic and more fluid; it become implicit. One can then rely on it to happen properly and masterfully without having to concentrate too hard on it, which frees up the mind to focus on other important aspects of the activity. Gladwell states that implicit physical learning  –  what I call kinesthetic movement  –  happens in many kinds of physical activities (I would venture to say most). He cites golfers and tennis players as examples. I can cite tying your shoes as a prime example. If you can tie your shoes without thinking too hard about it, you can probably develop a kinesthetic sense for your music-playing.

Gladwell also cites what happens, using actual occurrences, when someone who has developed implicit knowledge (kinesthetic movement) stops trusting it and reverts back to explicit knowledge. It usually happens under pressure. In sports, it’s disastrous. In my personal experience in music it is equally so.  Therefore when I practice for a gig I always purposely practice both ways: with attention to details of movement and patterns, and also on autopilot  –  explicitly and implicitly. I never know until I’m on stage which state of mind I will be in; if I’m nervous it’s always the explicit one, which is far more difficult. Better to practice for that state of mind than to assume I will always be in implicit mode just because I so easily achieve that at home.

The section I’ve referenced is only a small part of the book; Gladwell’s book covers many subjects; it’s about how what we assume or what we consider common sense or common knowledge isn’t always accurate, and how we can benefit from looking at things from other and sometimes opposite viewpoints. His writing is always well researched and responsible, which is why he’s a respected best-selling author. I highly recommend the book.


  1. Absolutely… yrs. How else could a blind person play an instrument? I have experienced it in my playing as well.

  2. Hi Laurie–I’m just now playing Marian Paroo in The Music Man and I know exactly what you mean. If I’m comfortable when I walk on stage things just flow naturally. If there is some catch that makes me feel stressed (costume change snafu, someone’s lines dropped in a previous scene, etc.) I have to concentrate more. Remembering lines then becomes more intentional and more about “acting” than feeling. I much prefer the implicit version. Thanks for recognizing this effect and writing about it. I think your idea about learning to do both is spot on because it allows you to do your best with whatever circumstances present.

  3. This is really well put. Thanks, Laurie!

  4. I really enjoyed this thank you, makes lots of sense. Perhaps those inclined to slam the concept of kinesthetic sense rely on sight reading, or have played long enough where it is most always implicit for them. I think being able to conceptualize and recognize both goes a long way, especially when losing one variety.

    • Reading notation can be used with the kinesthetic sense. I think I’ll write my next blog on the difference between reading and sight-reading!

  5. Implicit playing is also so much more fun! There’s a feeling of freedom and ease, where you can almost sit back and let your hands do the playing, while you pay attention to the feeling and mood of the song.
    It has also saved me in performances where a major distraction occurs, but my fingers keep doing what they know to do!!

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