What Are Études, and Why Do Composers Write Them?

closeup of hands on piano

closeup of hands playing piano

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Nearly everyone who has learned to play a musical instrument, especially in the Western classical tradition, has at some point encountered a book containing the word “études” materialize on their music stand.

And like most budding musicians I’m sure you said something to yourself akin to: “Okay, I get that these are short pieces to help me study but what’s their deal? Why does like, every composer write them? And why do people perform them in concerts?”

Lots of questions… And we had those same questions. So in this handy article, we will explore what études actually are and why many Western composers throughout the centuries have decided to approach this type of composition to vastly different ends.

What Is an Étude?

The Study (or étude in French) is a composition typically created to help overcome some sort of technical difficulty. As a consequence of this definition, études are always linked to the act of learning how to play a musical instrument — or more precisely, to improve certain technical aspects in its practice.

By the same reasoning, a simply “exercise” could easily cover such a topic; so what then, is the difference between an exercise and an étude?

The difference is expressed in the employment of certain forms and aesthetics to the composition: an exercise rarely has a very definite form and it is seldom appealing to the ears. Sometimes an exercise is pleasurable to play in terms of the technical challenge involved, but rarely will you see an exercise performed in a concert hall.

Études, on the contrary, have frequently entered the concert hall, because they’re pieces designed to be ready for performance, while also providing the opportunity for skills development. In other words, they are often quite pretty!

For these and other reasons that we will see shortly, the étude continues to remain a popular form even centuries removed from its primordial forms.

When Was the First Étude Composed?

I decided to embark on a music history quest to trace the first pieces that can be considered a rudimentary form of étude. At first I imagined there must’ve been some form of recurring exercise with a more or less definite form that music teachers would use in, say, ancient Greece or ancient Egypt, to train their students. Yet, the absence of a written musical system going back that far makes it virtually impossible to know for sure if these existed.

Thus the invention of music printing by Ottaviano Petrucci in the 16th century surely played a big part to popularize the study, making it possible to distribute these works to a larger audience (and also for us to trace the beginning of this form accurately). This in turn, helped build a repertoire of technically challenging yet musically interesting pieces.

Based on the IMSLP, a large musical score archive, the first rudimentary forms of études (intended as a series of music pieces to tackle techniques) can be traced to the Essercizi per gravicembalo, K. 1-30 (“Exercises for harpsichord”) by Domenico Scarlatti (1738).

Digging deeper though, I found a 1620 book called Selva de varii passaggi (“Collection of different passages”) by Francesco Rognoni Taeggio which contains the “Essempi per sonar alla bastarda” (literally: “examples to play in a “bastard/spurious manner,” pictured below), tailored to the teaching of the Viola bastarda (an instrument of mixed ranges, explaining its imaginative title).

Passages and cover from Rognoni's Selva de varii passaggi (1620)

As you can see, this score is notated with rhomboid noteheads, still in a relatively ancient fashion. And of course, on first glance, you can even notice it lacks a distinct form — this score looks like an exercise from a teaching book. So, I wouldn’t personally consider it the first étude.

On the other hand, Scarlatti’s Essercizi per gravicembalo is in fact, a series of sonatas (meant for exercise), a very definitive form in terms of organization of music material. Scarlatti’s sonata marks the beginning of what will ultimately later be developed into what we consider a sonata today, often appearing as the first movement of a symphony.

The macro-structure of a sonata by Scarlatti is the following:

||: A  :|| ||: B  :|| (each repeated)

This form not only has a very defined structure, it also follows a tonal trajectory. It features two thematic areas in different but related keys, linked by a transitional part. Many historically important pieces of Western music that will appear from this point onwards will either adhere to and develop or reject this type of construction.

The tonal scheme is the following:

A (repeated twice):

Starts in major key (e.g., C) — ends in key of the V (e.g., G)

Starts in minor key (e.g., Cm) — ends in key of V (e.g., Gm) or relative major (e.g., E♭)

B (repeated twice):

Starts in key of the V (e.g., G) — ends in major key (e.g., C)

Starts in key of the V (e.g., Gm) or relative major (e.g., E♭) — ends in minor key (e.g., Cm)

Therefore, each of these comprise of:

  • A: First theme — modulatory transitional part — second theme — codetta
  • B: Development of thematic elements of A — partial reprise of A

So, Why Do We Need Études?

It’s simple! And these pieces programmatically address the very nature of how our brain works to retain information. Here are three examples.

Firstly, we need to program our brain to execute (and master) certain complex and precise body movements. Musically this might mean learning to play consecutive intervals, chords, or scale formations on an instrument, motions in different directions, etc.

Secondly, having a form or structure to group bits of information into larger chunks helps us retain information quicker, and for longer. Études successfully address this.

And lastly, aesthetically speaking, beauty (as found in all disciplines of art making), as well as symmetry, balance, resemblance to nature, and portraiture mirroring humanity, all help us process learned information using different parts of the brain’s activity. It triggers pleasure, memory, recognition cognition, etc. Therefore, it’s easier for us to remember and relate to aesthetically or intellectually pleasing work than abstract, complex, or non-referential work.

Additionally, there are plenty of studies that reinforce the idea that fun is beneficial to learning in both adults and children. Evidently when its counterpart (stress) creeps in, the brain does not seem to retain information as efficiently. Quoting an article on the neuroscience behind this:

“Neuroimaging and measurement of brain chemicals (neurotransmitters) […] demonstrate that under stressful conditions information is blocked from entering the brain’s areas of higher cognitive memory consolidation and storage. In other words, when stress activates the brain’s affective filters, information flow to the higher cognitive networks is limited and the learning process grinds to a halt.”

Which Are the Most Popular Études?

Although Scarlatti composed the first examples of études for harpsichord, the most famous and most played ones are studies for piano.

Among these, probably the most well known are the Études Op.10 (1833), by the Polish composer Frédéric Chopin. This work contains 12 studies which are technically very complicated but also rich in expression and harmonic and melodic invention.

Chopin plays for the Radziwiłłs, 1829 (painting by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1887)
Chopin plays for the Radziwiłłs, 1829 (painting by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1887)

Chopin brought this genre to new heights of expression and harmonic sophistication (two hundred years of developing the musical language had gone by at this point) and also remodelled its form when compared to Scarlatti’s example.

A typical Chopin étude is often divided in three parts, consisting of A – B – A – coda. Despite their predictable forms, these pieces are truly marvellous. For example, “Étude Op.10 No. 3” is one of the tenderest pieces, and embodies utter elegance. Alternatively, numbers 10 and 12 are both extremely demanding in technique, but still retain their expressiveness and harmonic invention.

Other famous piano études are Franz Liszt’s Transcendental Études (1852), and later into the 20th century, Claude Debussy composed his set of 12 piano Études (1915).

Debussy calls his studies with names that indicate what kind of technical aspect is developed in the study. For example, “Étude 4 Pour les Sixtes” focuses on intervals of a sixth, while “Étude 8 Pour les Agréments” deals with ornaments.

Debussy described them as “a warning to pianists not to take up the musical profession unless they have remarkable hands.” Technically very challenging, these studies retain Debussy’s masterful compositional skill and can confidently be considered his grand contribution to the genre.

Claude Debussy in 1908.
Claude Debussy in 1908.

Later in the 20th century, another composer further pushed the boundaries of the étude. Gyorgy Ligeti’s Études (1985-2001) are among the most technically demanding pieces for solo piano in the contemporary repertoire. They are also a reservoir of innovative techniques.

For example, his third study from Book 1, “Touches Bloquées” makes use of blocked keys, among notes that are played conventionally, to obtain asymmetrical rhythms and polyrhythms in the most natural way.

This study in particular is a great example of overcoming a problem: that of notation. To notate polyrhythms truthfully in the Western system is a very complicated matter, as is deciphering them. Ligeti overcomes this problem by blocking some keys with one hand while playing odd numbered figurations comprising these notes with the other hand. The result is a practical way to obtain polyrhythms.

Ligeti’s work is a reservoir of modern musical invention: it features changes in meter, polyrhythms, superposition of different scales at once and experiments in applied psychoacoustics like the scales in “The Devil’s Staircase” which seem to never end, just like in the phenomenon known as the Shepard Scale.

Among other examples of popular piano studies, it is worth remembering those composed by Rachmaninoff, Hanon, and Czerny (Liszt’s teacher) and the more recent set of studies by the American composer Philip Glass.

According to popularity ranking on the music score online shop, Sheet Music Plus, Glass’ Études are among the most popular contemporary piano études. This work reflects the composer’s personal style that involves repetition of patterns, neotonality, and his typical use of cyclical patterns, which is influenced by Indian classical music.

Another work well worth mentioning is Bela Bartók’s Mikrokosmos (1926-1939), a set of 153 progressive piano pieces, divided into six volumes. Although usually not considered études, these pieces are of great pedagogical interest. Instead of traditional tonal progressions, the pieces in these volumes feature the use of modality, symmetrical scales, polytonality, parallel intervals and other techniques that became familiar in the works of the 20th century.

+ Read more on Flypaper: “3 Atonal Techniques for Adventurous Songwriters.”

Are There Études for Other Instruments (Besides Piano)?

Piano is of course not the only instrument for which important études have been written.

Niccolò Paganini’s Capricci (1802-1817) are certainly among the most famous technical pieces for violin. Written in étude form, these 24 pieces are technically demanding and are often featured in grade exams. These pieces have been arranged for numerous other instruments too, which confirms their relevance as studies for the development of technique (probably also reinforced among musicians by Paganini’s status as the first famous virtuoso).

Other examples of violin studies include Jakub Dont and Pierre Gaviniès’ pieces.

Among the contemporary repertoire, John Cage’s Freeman Études (1977) are a set of astonishingly difficult studies for violin which were composed entirely with chance operations. The American composer determined the various parameters in the composition (pitch, dynamics, etc.) using star charts and the hexagrams from the ancient Chinese book the I-Ching — the same process used for his Études Australes (1974-75) and Études Boréales (1978), hence the astronomical titles.

Definitely worth mentioning are the études for guitar. These include works by Fernando Sor, Mauro Giuliani, Andrés Segovia, and Heitor Villa-Lobos. Everyone who has studied classical guitar has at some point developed their technique with the help of studies taken from these authors.

For example, Giuliani’s Studi Op. 111 is a collection of études for guitar composed in various forms (sonata, minuetto, theme and variations) that is frequently used to reinforce both technique and sight reading skills.

Villa-Lobos’s 12 Études is a collection of studies that expand the tonal palette of the instrument, often resorting to passages with highly contrasting dynamic levels and percussive gestures.

The Odd Cases: Electronic Influences

Karlheinz Stockhausen, one of the most eclectic composers of the 20th century, has also composed studies. These are not playable on any instrument, but can still be considered studies, at least in their approach. These are called Konkrete Etüde (1952), Studie I (1953) and Studie II (1954).

These works were conceived by Stockhausen as a way to explore what was then a totally new medium: the manipulation — in a recording studio facility — of electronic sound. These were either sounds performed mechanically and recorded on tapes or sounds which were generated electronically through the use of sound generators.

Konkrete Etüde is an example of musique concrète: mechanically generated  sounds were recorded onto tape, then the tape was cut (manually) and then ordered following principles of serial music. Studies I and II, on the other hand, are études on serial organization of sounds generated electronically by using sine tones, the same waveforms that we can find on many synthesizers today.

This is arguably the beginning of a new era in music production. Stockhausen has widened the concept of the étude to a study piece that can feature sound sources other than acoustic instruments. The German composer has been mentioned as an influence by pop artists like The Beatles, Frank Zappa and Björk, constituting one of the many bridges between classical and pop music.

Our journey through the études spans over three hundred years and yet it contains one constant thread: the need for composers to explore a certain technique or compositional device in order to be more familiar with its potential. Thus, the étude seems to be the link between artistic expression and pedagogy, and ultimately, it is a tangible trace of the evolution of artistic invention.

There seems to be a need to push the boundaries of a certain instrument, in the hope that someone after will be inspired to repeat the endeavour and bring it a little bit further still. This also helps to shape the evolution of an instrument; what was considered unplayable on an ancient version of an instrument often becomes totally normal on a new development of it.

By tracing the history of the étude, we are really tracing the history of how humankind has approached, explored, and overcome musical, physical and/or artistic problems while also passing on this knowledge to a new generation of learning musicians.

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