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From what I can gather, Etudes written specifically for speed and Toccatas have a lot of similarities. They are both fast with lightly fingered passages and they both emphasize dexterity. The main difference I see is time period. Etudes are more common from the Classical era onwards and Toccatas are more common in the Baroque. And instrumentation, while lots of Etudes are written for piano, there's also Etudes for Flute, Violin, etc. Toccatas are mainly for keyboard instruments, although some are for plucked string instruments.

Toccatas often have canon or fugue like passages in them, but that could just be an artifact of them being from the Baroque, it's not like Etudes can't have fugal imitation in them. But canons and especially fugues are more common in the Baroque, so it makes sense that fugal imitation and canonic passages would be very common in Toccatas. Toccatas also from what I gather, tend to use almost the entire range of the instrument in question, from the high register all the way down to the lowest bass notes. But there are plenty of Etudes with a wide range in for example Chopin, so range isn't really a strong enough difference unless you're talking just the Etudes composed by the likes of Czerny in the Classical Era.

And like I said before, speed and emphasis on dexterity are things that both Etudes and Toccatas have. And for those saying that Etudes can be slow, well Toccatas often have slow sections to them, especially organ Toccatas.

So, are there any differences between Etudes and Toccatas besides time period and instrumentation?

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  • The Baroque toccatas I've listened to have often actually been pretty slow, to the point that I avoid listening to them at work. I think the reputation that toccatas are fast only applies to toccatas from the Classical era and later - I've had a much harder time finding slow toccatas from those eras.
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 8 '21 at 4:01
  • Also, do you care solely about differences in speed and/or compositional technique between toccatas and etudes? One difference between them that doesn't really pertain to either is that Baroque toccatas are a lot more likely to be combined with non-toccata and non-etude pieces in the same opus than etudes are (cue every piece named "Toccata and Fugue in <insert key here>" as examples).
    – Dekkadeci
    Dec 8 '21 at 12:47
  • @Dekkadeci Yeah, it's just the speed and/or compositional technique I am asking about, as I know Toccatas generally act either like a Prelude in that they come before some other piece or are an isolated piece. And the Toccatas I've heard, including some Bach Toccatas have generally been fast or at least moderate with slow sections(Toccata and Fugue in D minor, both the Dorian BWV 538 that isn't really Dorian(The Toccata part reminds me of the fugue part of BWV 565) and the more well known BWV 565)
    – Caters
    Dec 8 '21 at 19:28
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An etude is for practising skills (and often virtuosity), a Toccata is for showcasing virtuosity. Even though a number of etudes have made it into performance repertoire nevertheless, the composition tends to be more systematic in covering scales and other constructs requiring particular skills. An etude will also rarely vary in speed or difficulty (or will be systematic in exploring them) and will not have significant cadenzas or other constructs emphasizing musical development.

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The core difference is that Etudes tend to focus on exploring and developing a specific technical problem. Speed may be one aspect of that technical issue, but not the only one. Toccatas don't necessarily share this focus.

Chopin's Etudes provide some prime examples. Many include speed as an issue, but that speed is in the service of a broader technical or musical idea.

In Op. 25, No. 1, finger speed is certainly an issue, but the larger idea is bringing out a melody while simultaneously accompanying that melody with arpeggios.

Chopin Op. 25, No. 1, mm. 1–2
(SOURCE: IMSLP, Mikuli edition)

Liszt's "Concert Etude #3" ("Un Suspiro") has a similar focus, but adds cross-hand technique.

"Un Suspiro" mm. 3–4
(SOURCE: IMSLP, von Sauer edition)

Chopin's Op. 25, No. 6 is strictly focused on double thirds.

Chopin Op. 25, No. 6, mm. 5–6

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  • The first of this set of etudes uses whole notes in Largo to practice controlling slow bows, especially through gradual crescendos and decrescendos. @Caters, etude simply means study. (I wonder when the term came into use? There were certainly pieces in the baroque intended for instruction, even without using the term.) Dec 7 '21 at 21:56
  • And of course, certainly not all of Chopin's etudes focus on speed. The Op.10#3, or Op.25#7, for example, should definitely not be played fast. Dec 8 '21 at 14:41
  • @Aaron Is that Chopin Etude focused on double thirds? I can't remember there being any double thirds in it at all. Am I missing something?
    – JimM
    Dec 8 '21 at 15:29
  • @JimM Please forgive me, but I'm genuinely unsure if you're asking a question or making a joke.
    – Aaron
    Dec 8 '21 at 15:47
  • @DarrelHoffman Thanks for pointing that out. I've improved the language in the post so it no longer suggests all of Chopin's Etudes are speed focused.
    – Aaron
    Dec 8 '21 at 15:49

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