Every so often, one of my students will ask this question. To them, it sounds like a stuffy word that represents something glorious or fantastic…like it’s so elaborate that it is far beyond anyone’s grasp in understanding it.
That really makes me laugh at little, because it is actually quite the opposite…
So, What Does Etude Mean Then?
The word “etude” is French (étude) for a study. This word can also be found in other languages such as German (Etüde or Studie), Italian (studio), and Spanish (estudio).
An etude is basically a piece of music that emphasizes a certain technique.
Let’s say you play the clarinet and you are having trouble playing passages with 3rd intervals or skips. It would be smart for the teacher to find a brief musical exercise that would focus primarily on that very same thing.
By working on a few specific areas of technique, you will have mastered a lot of different areas opening yourself up to the possibilities of full creativity. Who can have the full freedom of creativity and expression if they are held back by a few technical problems in playing?
Definition of Etude
Here’s a definition taken from The New Harvard Dictionary of Music:
“A composition designed to improve the technique of an instrumental performer by isolating specific difficulties.”
Basically, a single etude will focus on only one technical problem. Etudes are usually published in groups (in a book) that can be ordered systematically.
They often progress in the order of easier to more difficult covering a wide range of problems in a variety of keys that an instrumentalist may face.
In today’s usage, an etude probably falls somewhere between and exercise (a short excerpt that is unable to stand alone as a formal composition) and a concert etude (a piece of music that can stand alone as a self-sufficient composition).
Not as Glorious as You Might have Thought….
At some point, every instrumentalist must learn a series of pieces (usually 1-2 pages long each) that covers almost any and every problem you will face in playing. The purpose of this is to work towards mastery (not make yourself go crazy).
If you have the drive and determination, you too can persevere through many etudes and become the well-wounded musician you’ve always wanted to be.
As you can see, the word “etude” sounds fancier than it really is. I like to think of it as a nice way of saying “It’s time to work on your playing technique.”
This usually doesn’t happen until you are advanced enough to handle it, so consider it a compliment! You are no longer a beginner or mediocre player. You are finally going to advance to a whole new level.