Etude: Definition & Instruments

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

Etudes are musical studies that help students learn the techniques of their instruments. In this lesson we will learn about some of the etude composers, and about piano etudes in particular.

Practice Makes Perfect!

It's 7:00 on a Tuesday night and all around the world boys and girls are sitting down to practice the piano. Some enjoy it and plunge right in. Others complain and need bribes of candy and stickers. Soon the universal cry rings out, 'Do I have to play my etude?~

Perhaps he does not want to play his etude.
Photo of Boy playing the Piano

What is the Etude?

A Baroque oboe for The Sprightly Companion
Baroque oboe

Etude is the French word for 'study,' and early etudes were precisely that -- studies to help students master a difficult technique on an instrument. Each etude tended to focus on one problem. For example, a piano etude might consist entirely of scales. A violin etude could feature double stops, or playing more than one string at a time. In each case, the purpose of the exercise is to develop a certain skill.

This means that etudes are often not particularly beautiful, expressive, or very interesting. In fact, many students hate practicing them due to their seemingly endless repetition. The composers of the etudes were not concerned with writing a lovely melody, only with drilling students on the required technique.

Passed Down Through History

A few books of etudes from the Baroque period (1600-1750) still exist. An example is The Sprightly Companion, a collection of studies for the oboe. These studies are culled from different sources, most likely theater tunes. In addition to music, it contains several essays on how to play the oboe. By today's standards they are simple etudes, but it shows nonetheless that books of etudes have been plaguing students for centuries.

The Piano Etude

The most common and popular etudes are for piano. In the Classical period (1750-1820), composers began to write collections of piano etudes, frequently for their own students. The Austrian composer Johann Nepomuk Hummel wrote 24 etudes for piano to train his students in the delicate touch and agile fingering required of that time.

Charles-Louis Hanon, a 19th century French composer, wrote a book of etudes called The Virtuoso Pianist in 60 Exercises. While these are not an example of tuneful, artistic etudes, they are the most widely used piano method today. They consist of repeated patterns that emphasize different fingers to build strength and dexterity.

Beginning of a Hanon Study. Note the repeated pattern.
Beginning measures of a Hanon Study

As more composers became interested in the etude, the etude took on a life of its own. Although it was still a technical study, skilled composers were able to add more expression and melodic beauty. The early 19th century composer Carl Czerny wrote thousands of etudes for piano that are much more melodic and tuneful than endless repeated patterns. The School of Velocity is just one of his collections that remains a popular method today.

Carl Czerny
Portrait of Carl Czerny

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