The Hardest Instruments To Learn & Why They’re Difficult

This list is to give you a rough idea of which musical instrument will be most challenging to learn, the intent is not to put you off learning that particular instrument. The truth is every instrument is a little bit difficult to learn at first, but they get easier to play with time.

Although these are generally considered some of the hardest instruments to learn, there is an element of subjectivity towards this view as what’s hard for one person may be easier for another.

What Makes An Instrument Hard To Learn?

There are several things that make certain instruments easier or harder to play than others. Some instruments may seem difficult at first but they simply require enough time to practice, like when you first try to play the piano or the guitar.

Below we touch on the factors that make certain instruments harder to learn how to play than others.

Physicality Of The Instrument

Although I tell every potential musician not to limit themselves when it comes to learning a new musical instrument, the truth is that we may lack the necessary physical elements needed to learn those instruments.

For instance, I wanted to learn how to play the violin but I found it rather difficult due to a shoulder injury that made it hard to correctly hold the violin. Instead, I opted for another stringed instrument that would have less of a strain on me.

People tend to get embarrassed or feel a sense of shame due to this. However, there is nothing to be ashamed about as this is often out of your hands. Focus on what instrument you can play instead.

Finding Enough Time To Practice

The practice is undeniably the most important aspect of learning any instrument, without practice, you won’t get any better.

Some instruments demand more practice time than others due to the fact that there are very specific techniques used to play. For instance, in order to properly play the french horn, you must be able to press your lips a certain way. This takes time and practice. Instruments such as the recorder do not need much practice time and it is one of the easiest instruments to learn.

Be realistic with yourself in terms of how much time and effort you will be able to afford to practice your instrument.

Learning To Read Musical Notation

Although it is recommended to learn music theory and how to read musical notation, a large number of proficient musicians are unable to do this. However, despite their inability to read musical notation they can still play their instruments.

Some musicians who play the piano or instruments such as the guitar, harmonica, melodica, etc do not necessarily need to learn this skill as they can play by ear or other avenues. However, when playing an instrument that features in orchestra chances are that you will need to learn how to read musical notation. Being able to read musical notation is a prerequisite to joining certain orchestras.

Personal Misconceptions

More often than not we tend to have untrue misconceptions about things that we do not know about and as such we end up being put off those particular things. This is applicable in every part of life.

The same holds true when it comes to music and instruments. For instance, some may think the guitar is a hard instrument to learn because they think their fingers are too short. Or someone may choose not to play the violin because they think their hands are too big.

Something may seem like the hardest instrument to learn but that’s a mental hurdle you need to get over.

Hardest Instruments To Play

1. Bagpipes

On paper, the bagpipes seem like a relatively easy instrument to learn how to play. After all, bagpipes only have nine notes and there are no dynamics or rests. It is however highly unlikely that you will be able to pick up the bagpipes and play on your first day.

The bagpipes are difficult instruments to break into and it takes people years, literally, in order to be able to play them. The physical aspect of playing the bagpipes makes them incredibly difficult to learn as it takes loads of air to keep the pipes going. If you tried to play bagpipes right now you would most likely faint.

Apart from the constant air, you must also keep even pressure on the bag so that there is no fluctuation in the tuning of the drones and play irregular fingerings in order to achieve the proper tone.

2. Piccolo

Some people considered the Piccolo to be the hardest instrument to learn in the woodwind family. It’s a small instrument but it is regarded as one of the loudest instruments in the orchestra.

Despite its minute size, the piccolo requires a lot of air to produce a decent sound. You have to blow air through it relatively quickly in comparison to other instruments such as the flute. People who play both the flute and the piccolo often comment that the latter is much harder to play.

Apart from the amount of air required, your fingering technique must be perfect. The small nature of the piccolo means your fingers end up tightly packed next to one another making it easy to miss notes.

3. French Horn

When considering what is the most difficult brass instrument to learn how to play a common name that comes up is the french horn. The french horn may be the hardest instrument to learn in the brass category. It plays up the highest partial which makes it rather easy to miss notes if you hit the wrong part or if your lips are placed incorrectly.

You need to breathe really hard in order to produce the right notes and tones. If you stretched out every bit of the french horn you would learn that it is the longest instrument, even longer than the tuba.

You also need to be able to sight-read while simultaneously playing the french horn although its peculiar shape can make it cumbersome to hold properly.

4. Violin

One of the most commonly asked questions is ‘is the violin the most difficult instrument to play?’ It is impossible to have a discussion about the most difficult instruments to learn without bringing up the violin. Despite being a small instrument, it is nevertheless challenging to learn. A majority of professional violin players began learning the instrument as children.

What makes the violin so hard to play is that unlike the guitar there are no markers for you to press on. This is usually challenging for new students as they will need to memorize the positions with time. The violin requires precision in order to produce a full and rounded sound with proper tone.

It also has a rather peculiar playing position that will take some getting used to.

5. Oboe

This double reed instrument is considered one of the most difficult musical instruments to play. In order to successfully play the oboe one must press down the right keys as well as be able to control the note with their mouth while applying the right amount of pressure.

Many new oboe players lament that being able to control your breathing will be the biggest challenge at the start. In fact, advanced oboe players learn how to breathe in and out simultaneously, that’s pretty crazy! (The technique involves breathing in with your nose and breathing out with your mouth at the same time)

6. Flute

Is the flute the hardest instrument to play? The flute is different from other woodwind instruments as it does not have reeds, instead, it produces sound from the flow of air through the opening.

One of the most difficult aspects of the flute is the embouchure i.e. how you place your lips to the mouth-piece of a particular instrument. This affects how sound is produced as well as the intonation and clarity of articulation.

There are also aspects of the flute that you will have to get familiar with. For instance, the flute contains a head joint with a cork. This cork must be oiled well and it must be placed in the right position otherwise natural notes may end up sounding flat even if you are playing them properly.

7. Cello

Many of the top cellists began their training as children and remained consistent with their playing over the years. It takes a great deal of time to ‘master’ this challenging instrument from top to bottom.

In order to properly play the cello, one needs to be able to coordinate the bow and their fingers moving in unison. The tricky part is that both the bow and your fingers will also be focusing on independent actions such as the bow angle, the position, etc.

It is difficult to play because its notes are much further away from one another, you will have to do more shifting which in turn may result in you making mistakes while playing. It also has a very wide range of about 5 octaves.

8. Accordion

Let’s be honest, the accordion isn’t exactly the ‘coolest’ instrument in the world to learn. But this list is about the ‘hardest instruments to learn’, not the coolest instruments to learn.

The hardest aspect of playing the accordion is the fact that each of your hands will need to do things independently of each other BUT still work simultaneously i.e. you need to be able to do three things at the same time; one hand plays the keys, the other hand plays the buttons and both hands move in and out to play the bellows.

People without any prior musical experience at all will struggle to learn how to play the accordion as their first instrument and will find it hard.

9. Organ

The organ is a familiar musical instrument to fans of jazz, blues, soul, rock and gospel music. A common misconception is that it is the same thing as a piano. Although they have similarities, the main difference is that most organs have more than one keyboard, these are usually two or three and this makes it hard to play.

In order to properly play the organ, you must be familiar with all the different switches and keyboards as they all affect the tone of the organ. You must also familiarise yourself with the bass pedals, and this truthfully takes a bit of getting used to as it is quite difficult, unlike the piano.

10. Drums

Drums are often brought up when we talk about instruments that are difficult to learn, although there are differing opinions. The truth is that drums might seem straightforward to learn but mastery of the instrument is difficult and takes years.

There are so many different styles and ways to play the drums. From subtle brush strokes in jazz to advanced double bass riffs in heavy metal. Essentially, what makes it such a difficult instrument to learn is that it is a limitless instrument, one can always create new beats and rudiments.

Conclusion

Although these instruments are indeed difficult to learn, they are not impossible. There are enough musicians playing these instruments to highlight that it is indeed doable. The first step towards conquering one of these difficult instruments is to simply do; simply just start learning an instrument of your choice and keep practicing to get better at it.

You can check out our other guide on easy instruments to learn.

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