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Etudes a la Modes.

Students and teachers of the horn have access to an abundance of pedagogical etude methods designed to help students overcome technical playing challenges. The most common examples are etudes by Kopprasch, Maxime-Alphonse, and Pottag that use conventional tonality within a traditional melodic structure. However, many etudes are either not consistent in progression or have no progression, often starting with challenges at an high level and ignoring beginning students. Where countless methods deal with aspects of Classical or Romantic literature, there is a dearth of pedagogical materials addressing other tonalities of more modern literature such as modal systems and atonality. Current methods addressing modal and post-tonal music are geared at intermediate or advanced students. Aural familiarity with intervallic relationships is crucial to horn playing and therefore should be introduced early in the pedagogical sequence.

The goal during my doctoral research at the University of Iowa and the topic of my thesis was not to define atonality or codify the point at which tonality ceases; rather, it was to provide a logical progression from conventional tonality along a continuum of modes and other scalar systems that sequentially approaches atonality. The scales and modes chosen are not comprehensive; rather, they provide a controlled expansion of increased aural challenges through obtainable steps.

Here I focus just on the harmonic progression, not the method of technical progression.

Why does this matter?

One of the most difficult tonal aspects of contemporary music is the abundance of less common intervallic sequences. Especially in brass playing, being able to hear the interval before it is played is essential for note security and overall comfort. Diatonic etudes, using only major and minor scales, fail to adequately prepare the ear for more advanced and challengingly intervals. It is this component of contemporary music that offers a solution for providing a more systematic and progressive way to approach the tonality continuum. The scales found within diatonic church modes have given rise to most of the tonal systems of Western Music. It is this foundational history and relative aural familiarity that makes the church modes the starting point for the tonal journey.

The system of church modes, sometimes referred to as the ecclesiastical modes, is the common denominator of most scales in Western music. The seven diatonic modes originated in theory and design in Ancient Greece and found favor in the monophonic chant music of the church. The modes are scales divided into whole and half steps. While not used as implicitly in music composition since the Baroque, these modes still occur in modern music, and as such, are important because they begin to stretch the ear to hear less common intervallic sequences. Additionally, the enhanced chromaticism of these modes was viewed by Schoenberg himself a leading factor in modern tonality. The modes are: Ionian (major), Dorian, Phrygian, Lydian, Mixolydian, Aeolian (minor), and Locrian.

Modes of organization

Most theory texts organize the modes in the order in which they occur naturally, or the permutations that only use the white keys on the piano, starting with the mode based on C. However, they can be reordered based on the number of accidentals as well as the corresponding aural familiarity to the major and minor scales. In that case, the Ionian mode, more commonly known as the major scale, remains first as there are no pitch alterations. Despite the three flats of the Aeolian scale, its affiliation with the minor scale allows the familiarity factor to outweigh its accidentals. The Mixolydian scale flattens the seventh scale degree to the Ionian while maintaining the pentachord and is third. Next is the Dorian scale, taking the Aeolian, or natural minor, and raising the sixth scale degree. Fifth is Lydian, identical to Ionian but with a raised fourth scale degree.

Considering that most simple tunes occur within the pentachord, any chromatic alteration within those first five notes inherently has more impact due to potentially greater frequency of use. The Phrygian scale follows the Dorian by lowering the second scale degree. The Locrian mode is the least aurally familiar, and subsequently used least of the standard church modes by composers. Locrian is especially uncommon due to the absence of the cadentially reliant perfect fifth interval between scale degrees one and five.

There are a plethora of additional named scales, but a few worth adding to this list are the Lydian Dominant, Phrygian Dominant, and the Super Locrian. The Lydian Dominant maintains the raised fourth scale degree of Lydian but lowers the seventh. The Phrygian Dominant, often referred to as the Klezmer scale or Spanish Phrygian, raises the third scale degree of the standard Phrygian. The Super Locrian starts with the many lowered pitches of the Locrian scale and further adds the lowered fourth scale degree. To these modes we add pentatonic, whole tone, octatonic, synthetic (unclassified), and chromatic scales. Our new progression looks like this:







Phrygian Dominant


Super Locrian

Major Pentatonic

Minor Pentatonic Whole tone

Octatonic (half/whole)

Octatonic (whole/half)



Etude Construction

Okay, so now what? Let's create some etudes!

For these etudes I applied a progressive technique-based methodology and juxtaposed that with a slightly altered version of the tonality continuum to include repetition. Specifically, the first 24 etudes progress through the church modes and end with the pentatonic scales. Etudes 25-38 revisit the church modes, but with a more ambiguous sense of the tonic. Since tonality is essentially "tonicality," or relation to the tonic, removing a strong pull leads towards "atonicality," or atonality. In these etudes, this goal is accomplished in several ways including starting or ending the etude on a note other than the tonic, moving melodically in a more angular way, lacking traditional cadences, and modal mixture.

Etudes 39-42 in particular feature a defined mixture of two different modes. Etudes 43-60 move along the continuum using synthetic scales all the way through to the chromatic scale, first with emphasis on the tonic in Etudes 51-52, and then free of tonic pull in Etudes 55-56.

Each new concept is illustrated by two examples, which adds depth by providing additional practice in each. It is important to remember that key signature, absent by design in all of these etudes, is not a defining element of difficulty, as the mechanics involved beyond simple finger coordination are the same regardless of key.

Finally, each etude is preceded by a visual representation of the relevant scale plus the labeling of the scale degrees. This scale serves as both a reference for the construction and pitches of the etude as well as an exercise that the student can play and sing prior to attempting the etude itself.

Remember, these etudes are originally conceived for novices, providing material that has, up to this point, been neglected in the main body of horn etude writing. However, these have also been used with great success as sight-reading material for more advanced students!

Here are a few examples:

Etude #1 begins on g' overtones. When possible, flexibility is reinforced through overtone slurs. Other than adjacent overtones, all other notes are approached through stepwise motion. C Ionian is ostensibly the most familiar to both the ear and the eyes, and as such is the starting point in the tonal continuum. While harmony is not defined, traditional tonic and dominant relationships do still exist, implying the underlying phrasing and structure of this etude.

Etude #9 introduces stylistic contrast, beginning more stately or march-like and progressing to more legato passages. The presence of the tritone between the first and fourth scale degrees in Lydian mode is one of the more striking qualities, and as such must be treated carefully. The f[sharp] of C Lydian is first introduced through stepwise motion, followed by a third, and finally by tritone in measure fourteen.

Etude #41 features alternation between D Dorian and C Phrygian. Stepwise and scalar motion progresses to alternating thirds in measures nine to eleven, followed by a return to scalar passages. Starting in measure nineteen, both scales close in on each other in alternation and succession.

Etude #57 does not have bar lines. The intent is to encourage the deliberate preparation of each note, never hurried, in a most musically phrased way. When dealing with unfamiliar scales in contemporary music, especially music that is for an unaccompanied instrument, it is often difficult to shape and phrase in a coherent and meaningful way. The range is expanded up to e[flat]", making the total range of this etude two octaves.


One of the most challenging aspects of contemporary music for the horn is tonal complexity, ranging from the simplest of scales to the relative unpredictability of atonality. One of the primary reasons why different tonalities are challenging is because they not addressed early in musical learning and therefore are aurally unfamiliar. Unfortunately, method books that incorporate these more complex tonal systems are written at a very high and challenging level.

My hope is that this etude book (available from me) begins to address this gap in our pedagogical materials. Written etudes are only the beginning though--with more aurally or rote based modal exercises (Mary Had a Little Lamb in Phrygian mode, for example), the sky is the limit!

Dr. James Naigus is a teacher/composer/performer whose favorite mode is Lydian. You can learn more about him, his compositions, and how to order his etude book at or contact him through email at
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Title Annotation:Technique Tips
Author:Naigus, James
Publication:The Horn Call
Date:Feb 1, 2017
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