Similarity Awareness

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Life is essentially a stack of experiences. How you experience and (are able to) do anything is based on previous experiences.
Being extra aware of which part of a new experience or challenge might resemble something you’ve handled well or learned in the past – allows you to draw from those past experiences and build upon them.

Situation: Encountering something new to learn – either as part of an existing skill, or a completely new thing.

Catch: Treating every “new” thing as a completely new thing, overlooking similarities with things you already know, can do or have studied.

Solution: Cultivate Similarity Awareness. When learning something new, thoroughly consider if you can find similarities in (parts of) the skill, with other (parts of the) skill(s) that you have already learned.

Transferring, perhaps less-obvious, parts of other skills over to your current challenge.


“Similarity is stasis; difference is motion. And if the two happen to exist in dynamic equilibrium, everything is right in the world.” – Youngme Moon

“The way to go from discord to harmony is to go from concentrating on differences to concentrating on similarities.” – T. Robbins

“Love is the power to see similarity in the dissimilar.” – Theodor Adorno

Nugget 8 – Cultivating Similarity Awareness


Guitar Adventures

In our second year at the Conservatory, we got the option to choose a minor subject. Since -apart from a piano player- I’m a singer and songwriter as well, and had been fiddling with the guitar to write some of my tunes, I figured it might come in handy (and be just plain cool) to improve on my guitar skills.

In one of my first lessons, my new guitar teacher Marcel Singor and I were trying to determine my current skill level. I played him some tunes that I wrote (couldn’t really play much apart from the things that I had made up myself) while he, seemingly unable to control himself, solo’d and varied a bit on my finger-picking parts.

After analyzing what it actually was that I was doing, harmony-wise, to help me increase both my skillset and insights, he began explaining how I could transfer some of my parts to other parts of the guitar neck.

Going through some various options together, at one point it occurred to me that he was repeating the exact same figure (fingering + fret-distance) that he’d shown me a few minutes before on another tune – just higher up the neck of the guitar now, so it would fit the key of the current tune.

I asked: “So, guitar is actually pretty simple, right? Since all those frets look exactly the same, are exactly the same (distance), you guys can just use the exact same figures anywhere on the neck?” “Exactly!” he said. “I really don’t understand why people think it’s difficult. It’s the easiest thing there is! You just learn something once, and can re-use it endlessly.” – running and swooping mind-blowing solo licks and riffs.

It reminded me of how -years before this, when I was figuring out how music works and how to play piano – I had already encountered a similar moment of musical aha, when it occurred to me that chords of the same gender are built from the same note numbers in their corresponding scale.

On piano, the shape of two major chords might look different, but this is only caused by the somewhat asymmetrical layout of the keyboard (2 blacks, 3 blacks, 2 blacks – as opposed to the same number of blacks repeating – or blacks between every white key) 1the actual distance of the intervals inside the same type of chord, is always the same.

This stems from the fact that scales of the same type are all constructed in the same way.

That very construction is in fact the reason for a scale to be a certain type. Chords, then, are always built from the same notes (numbers) from their corresponding scale.

Although I’ve always been very keen on looking for these types of similarities (things that, although maybe resembling just a fraction of a new thing I’m trying to learn, are similar or even exactly the same, as something I’ve learned before) Marcel’s remark made me think about what I later dubbed “Similarity Awareness” some more – leading me to look for (and find) more and more of these re-usable chunks. Not just in music, but anywhere in life.

Similarity-transference by deconstructing and chunking

Because we are naturally inclined to use experiences from our past when learning new stuff (it’s quite hard to work on your sprints if you hadn’t learned how to walk at some point), it’s easy to take this for granted.

There is, however, much to be gained in effectiveness of learning when consciously looking for things that resemble things we’ve already seen before.

Or, better yet, taking this one step further by being proactive and looking for things we could re-use in future endeavors.

You probably already know that I am a big fan of “chucking.”

Deconstructing skills into manageable, recognizable building blocks.

This not only makes the learning and remembering much easier, but also allows for easier transference – either to other parts of the same skill, or to completely different skills.

A few examples on piano

Despite the fact that the piano isn’t symmetrical like a guitar, there are still similar shapes to be found on the keyboard.

For example, an A chord has the exact same shape as an E and a D 2

The same goes for Fm = Cm = Gm; Ab = Db = Eb.

This means you only have to learn the “grip” of each group once, and you’re good to go on the motor-skill end for all of the “variations” – by just changing the root.

Can you think of more similar-shape chords?

Taking this one level deeper, putting similarity transference into practice by changing context – an A triad, when played with an F# in the bass, becomes an F#m7.

In other words – the upper structure of the F#m7 is an A chord, or -put another way- the F#m7 has an A chord inside of it.

How is this useful?

Well, if for instance you have practiced your plain old major triads fairly well, and are able to sweep some nice arpeggios with an A triad – you are in fact also able to play a fair bit of impressiveness with F#m7 – just using your “A-skills” when the harmony is F#m7.

Obviously this will only work if you recognize that A (and your own skills that go with it) when learning about the F#m7.

This is pretty much like putting Marcel’s guitar sweeping, using the same exact forms and structures, just starting from different frets (yes – guitarists have it easy like that) into practice on the piano.

Learn to play (with) a chord once, re-use it, not just in tons of different songs, but even to learn and play new chords.

This same transference can be used when recognizing foundational, binding structures in licks (often built from breaking up/arpeggiating chords) techniques/patterns (moving your fingers in the same way when your hand is in a different position on the keyboard) and even melodies (when becoming aware of their function and harmonic/interval relation – both within the melody itself, as well as to the key of the tune).

How about relaxed posture and its transference to different physical/motor-skills?

I can blind-type 150+ words per minute on a computer keyboard, because I’m proficient on another keyboard too and cross-transfer some foundational motor skills from one to another.

This is why learning fundamentals of a skill, and being absolutely aware of them is so vital. These are often the building blocks that can be re-used in various parts of the skill.

Exercise / Getting Practical:

Be on the lookout for “just like’s” and “kinda likes.”

Why do metaphors and analogies work so well for us to convey and understand various new concepts? Because they relate a new thing to something we are already aware of.

Whenever you are studying something, see if it resembles (or is exactly like) something you’ve previously encountered to speed up your process. Which skill you already have can you rephrase, recycle, reuse?

Additionally – chunk. Whenever you learn something new, try to immediately be aware of any foundational building blocks and frameworks, as these are often the easiest-, most suitable things to re-use later.

The larger-scale takeaway:

Life is essentially a stack of experiences. How you experience and (are able to) do anything is based on previous experiences.

Being extra aware of this fact – how you’ve previously dealt with something, what part of a new experience or challenge might resemble something you feel you’ve handled well in the past, allows you to draw from those positive past experiences and build upon them.

Other area of life application

In which instance or other area(s) of your life have you been struggling to learn something (seemingly completely) new – it taking longer than you’d expected just because it all feels so unfamiliar?

Could you see this being easier by relating parts of other skills that you already have, to parts of this new skill – re-using (recycling, if you will) what you can already do to make (parts of) this new skill more manageable?


  1. Would the keyboard have been divided another way, it would be a lot harder to navigate – however, one could argue that this would add the benefit of shape-similarity regarding intervals and chords. ↩︎
  2. this goes for any inversion – so (the shape on) an A root position = a D root position, as well as an E 2nd inversion = an A 2nd inversion.In both examples the chords have the exact same shape on the keyboard, they’re just situated on a part of the keyboard – the easiest way to think about this is: they have a different bottom (“start”) note from which the shape is built.