I'm a beginner piano player and have started learning the 1st movement of Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata. I've read many suggestions, and almost all recommend connecting the top melody (ta ta-ta) notes with the fingers, holding notes down for their whole duration, as if I were playing without pedal. I also checked a video recording of a great pianist and, yes, they used finger legato, too.

Why I should make top melody legato with my fingers if I use pedal anyway?

Finger legato is troublesome for me, because I have very small hands, and of course there are no differences in sound between legato and non-legato when the pedal is depressed. But I think there is an objective reason for the advice I mentioned, and some teachers and pedants will see my performance and say, "This guy is an ignoramus; he doesn't use his fingers to connect the notes".

  • Is it possible these players are actually using a half pedal technique on the piano to partly damp the accompaniment, and want to keep the full un-damped tone for the melody line? (Just a guess.)
    – Andy
    Mar 10, 2016 at 11:30
  • I'm no concert pianist, but I never held down the melody line when playing that movement. I just let the pedal carry it. You're the one playing it and you should play it your way. During that period of time and in that room, you own the piece and it's yours to play how you want to play it. Mar 10, 2016 at 11:50
  • @Todd Wilcox, thanks. Yes, audience will never notice differences between non-legato and legato melody with pedal, because there are no differences in sound. But I'm interested why teachers and good pianist give such advices to play melody legato. For example, Robert Estrin on youtube also say play Moonlight Sonata (1st mov.) legato with fingers when practice, pedal is the last thing to add. And I don't understand which profit I will get? Why I can't just relax and use pedal from beginning of practice?..
    – user15155
    Mar 10, 2016 at 12:28
  • @Corvus- I suspect the "profit you will get" is meant to be not how the Moonlight Sonata will sound as you play it, which, as you say, will be no different, but pedagogical, in being general practice in playing (more) legato with the fingers alone. But I would second Todd and say that you should go ahead and practice it how it works best for you. Mar 10, 2016 at 15:13
  • 2
    It is difficult to produce the same sound as legato+pedal with only the pedal because it makes it harder to have a smooth controlled strike on the following notes. Are you sure you can't hear a difference?
    – user28
    Mar 10, 2016 at 19:45

4 Answers 4


Holding the melody notes down (if your hands are big enough to do that comfortably) has a practical benefit which has nothing to do with sustaining the notes. Holding down a long melody note while playing the triplets creates an "anchor" that keeps your hand steady and lets you relax your arm and shoulder muscles. The consequence should be that it becomes easier to play all the notes softly and evenly.

Since this movement is one of the very rare occasions where Beethoven himself wrote an instruction about using the pedal (and in fact he wrote the same instruction twice, at the start of the movement) "learning to play it without using the sustain pedal" is just perverse. Of course Beethoven's pianos did not sustain notes as long as modern instruments, so you can't take his twice-repeated instruction to "keep the sustain pedal down continuously for the whole movement" literally - but that's the effect you should be aiming to produce.

Incidentally, the way to get closest to "never change the pedal" is to play at a slower tempo - but paradoxically, a slower tempo is more difficult rather than easier, because there is nothing to "hide" any unevenness in your playing - let alone any wrong notes! Personally, I like to play this this at triplet-quavers around 96-100 per minute - that's 32-33 BPM. You can show off how fast you can play in the last movement...

  • Contrary to being "perverse," practicing without pedal actually helps to achieve what you mention in your first paragraph about anchoring the melodic line. Without pedal, you exaggerate the legato motions, and are forced to hold down the keys longer than you would otherwise. Also, because you will not achieve perfect sustains without pedal, your ear and mind connects the lines between those breaks in sound, and you train yourself to listen for that continuity, even if there is a physical break. Otherwise, very, very good answer.
    – Max Finis
    May 26, 2016 at 10:18

Here are the main reasons why legato fingering is advised:

  1. There are many times when a note (or notes) is sustained through a pedal change. Sometimes this happens during a harmonic change in the underlying notes, while the melodic note must sustain through to the new harmony. The sustained note can be anywhere, but usually in the melodic and bass lines.
  2. Similar to #1, during many pedal changes, you will want a hazy mixture of the old harmony mixed in with the new harmony just before you make the clean pedal break. In slow, melodic works like this Beethoven, this is the preferred pedal technique. In slow motion, it looks like this: hold down the new note(s), slowly lift the pedal just enough to clear out the old notes, then bring down the pedal to hold the new notes. In fact, all pedal changes are like this, but at varying speeds depending on the passage. Beginners sometimes mistake this to mean that the pedal comes up before the new harmony, which results in a break in the sound.
  3. At the advanced level, playing the piano is more about transferring weight around, especially in melodic passages, from one finger(s) to another. This is best achieved by shifting/moving that weight from one finger to another, rather than lifting off after every key stroke.
  4. Some works, usually Baroque and early Classical, require that you not use the pedal, or very little. For example, in the Bach fugues, you must hold down long notes with your fingers.
  5. Many will argue that there is a difference in sound between a key held down by the finger vs. the pedal. As the hammer strikes the string, and the damper goes up at the apex of the hammer strike, the reciprocal downward return motion of the damper has an effect on the string, causing the string to vibrate less freely and inhibiting the sound. Some will go further by saying that the damper felt actually touches the string ever so slightly, but enough to shorten the sustain. Anything that shortens the piano's sustain is a bad thing. You can test this theory on a good, grand-sized piano with the lid up (so you can hear clearly). Strike a ff chord with both hands, once with a staccato motion, and once by holding the keys down. Pianists often use the former technique to achieve a pedal-ed sforzando effect where the burst of sound is more quickly muffled than the latter method.

Regarding small hands, if you can reach an octave, you're fine. There are/were many with very small hands (de Larrocha, Hoffmann, every eight-year-old Curtis and Juilliard prodigy in history) that play(ed) very well indeed. The trick is to relax. Those with small hands have to maximize every bit of agility and flexibility from their hands, and the only way to achieve that is through relaxation and solid technique.

Regarding the comment that no one in the audience will hear the difference between x and y, that's mostly true, but what they will notice, and react to, is the overall effect of the hundred things that you're doing. No one cares about, or hears, all of the excruciating details that you and your teacher have prepared, but all of that work does mean something when you transfer that work into performance. Listening to two performances of a very simple work played by a professional and by a very good beginner, a casual listener will not know many of the technical difference between the two, but will feel the musical effect of the pro's performance. All of the agonizing details that you've worked out in practice translates to a kind of artistic expression in performance that has much less to do with crescendi and diminuendi and curved fingers and pedal technique than you realize.

On a final note, beware of those that advise that you do things the way you want to, especially in spite of established techniques. At the beginning of your studies, many things will seem counter-intuitive, and your own common sense solutions will make much more sense. You'll even see contradictory examples of what your teacher is telling you. Everyone struggles with this throughout their careers, but succumbing to this intuition is especially dangerous at the beginner level. There are many things at the advanced level that people can and do disagree on, but at this level, it's best to follow established teachings. If you really think about it, pressing 88 flat levers with your fingers is not a natural thing to do. Hundreds of years of thinking and practice have gone into how to do this unnatural thing as beautifully as we do now. Take advantage of it.


The difference between legato done with the fingers and done with the pedal is that the pedal prevents the dampers of all the notes you play while it's depressed from working, so all the notes you play are held. If you play legato with your fingers, it's only the notes where the finger is held down that are held.

Another difference is that any sympathetic vibration caused in strings you didn't play directly- for instance, the strings an octave lower than the notes you played- will not happen if you don't depress the pedal, but will if you do.

You simply have to see what sounds good to you, and not worry what people say.

  • 1
    You don't understand my question.
    – user15155
    Mar 10, 2016 at 11:26
  • 1
    I agree- if you use the pedal anyway, then legato with the fingers makes no difference. I was merely pointing out that legato with the fingers sounds different than legato with the pedal. Mar 10, 2016 at 11:44

I would recommend trying to make the right hand triplets as legato as possible using good technique and letting the pedal enhance the sound. While you are mostly correct that the pedaling will give the effect of legato, the intent is to make it as fluid as possible.

Making legato with fingers is trouble for me, because I have very small hands...

For a legato technique for small hands I would recommend not holding each note, but instead using your wrist to move slightly to accommodate the space needed to play each note. Think of it like an artist moving a paint brush gently back and forth. The movement will be very small, but controlled.

It may help to examine the hand position and fingering as well. I use a 1-2-4 pattern, but maybe a 1-3-5 may work better for you.

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