I am self-learning piano and in many pieces I encounter two similar, but not identical passages one after another.

For example, in Beethoven's Pathétique sonata, 1st mvt measures 12-19 and 20-27 are very similar, but differ slightly in the end.

I have a problem learning such passages: muscle memory recalls either one or the other, for example instead of "12345 12346" I inadvertently play "12345 12345" or "12346 12346".

How can I mitigate this problem? I tried learning both passages as one, but it's rather difficult when they are quite long.

EDIT: Somehow, I don't have this problem if these similar passages are far apart, I guess my brain does not group them together and remembers them independently.


1 Answer 1


The solution is to memorize "the big picture," not just which note comes after which. This is why it's easier to memorize a story in your own language, which you understand, than a string of words in an unknown language.

I'm guessing the Pathetique example is just an example and not the perfect one, because the similar sections there are only a few bars long, are immediately next to each other. I've had problems in the past when the similar sections are bigger and farther apart, like if they're actual formal sections of the piece, like say if the structure is "A, B, A1, B1." If all these sections are dozens of bars long then I forget where I am and wind up laying "A, B, A, um B, wait I'm in an infinite loop."

The best tool is analysis. In the beginning of the Pathetique... enter image description here

... the "story" of the first 8 bars is "Starts in C minor, cadences in C minor." If we expand to look at the first 16 bars, the story is "Starts in C minor, ends up in the dominant, G. How does it do this? Well, in the first phrase, working backward from the ninth bar, we set up the return to Cm with a dominant 7th chord, G7. We set that up in turn with the diminished vii of G, an F#dim7, which lasts just half a bar. But when we repeat this phrase, we stretch that F#dim7 to a full bar and then the subsequent G has been tonicised to the point that it is the resolution rather than a dominant."

(Actually, looking at the even bigger picture, we're right back in Cm by the bar after the ones that are pictured here. So the real story is just that the entire cadence has been streeeeetched.)

Or, in my bigger problems with large formal sections, the solution would be a formal analysis, which often brings in harmonic analysis as well: "Look, the first B section has modulated to the relative major, but the B prime will be in minor. So the A prime section ends in a way that keeps us in minor."

  • 1
    +1. This is my thinking also. Rather than leaning a series of notes parrot-fashion, which I think is where OP is at, seeing it as a bigger plan - with some understanding of what's happening structurally and harmonically, gives a lot clearer picture, and something making more sense to aim at. You can always tell whether someone has learnt parrot-fashion or whether they understand what's going on, can't you? Also, it makes a far better player.
    – Tim
    Nov 22, 2023 at 14:37
  • @Tim, unfortunately, I've never formally learnt music theory, but I'm trying! Thanks for your comment, however, how can one tell the 'parrot' from the properly educated pianist? Could you give an example?
    – alex.kalug
    Nov 22, 2023 at 18:00
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    @alex.kalug I should say, you can do some of this "analysis" even without knowing how to do harmonic analysis. E.g., in this example, I would say "the second time it uses the same chord but stretches it out twice as long, and then instead of just p it has a bunch of sfs." I shouldn't speak for Tim, but I think he's saying something much like my first paragraph analogy: I could memorize a haiku in Japanese and recite it without any understanding of what I'm saying, just memorizing a series of phonetic sounds. But it would be much harder for me than if I knew the meaning, and... Nov 22, 2023 at 18:50
  • ... and my recitation would probably be less pleasing, or wouldn't "make sense." Similarly, when we figure out the "story" that a piece is telling, our performance is more coherent than when we just play one note after another. Nov 22, 2023 at 18:52
  • @AndyBonner - thanks for the respect. I sometimes play with guys who have leaned a song verbatim. Not knowing the 'geography' of it. Play one note wrong or out of place, and it all collapses. Bit like 'should have turned right there, you went straight on, I don't know how to get back on track'.
    – Tim
    Nov 23, 2023 at 10:11

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