Which musical instrument is the most difficult to master?
November 6, 2009 9:50 AM   Subscribe

Learning music instruments---order of difficulty?

This is just a "fun" question. I expect I'll get a wide range of answers here; people's preferences vary. I'm a musician who plays numerous instruments---piano, brass, woodwinds, flute, a little percussion now and then. I feel most fulfilled playing brass---and find it the most difficult, also, involving the whole body, requiring conditioning (diaphragm and embouchure especially) and constant maintenance---almost like being an athlete:-).
I have no knowledge about playing strings, and I know many people regard the violin as the most difficult and rewarding.
I'd like all you musicians and music scholars of the hive mind to weigh in on your own experiences. Many thanks!
posted by ragtimepiano to Media & Arts (40 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Anecdotally, the harp appears to be one of the most difficult.
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:55 AM on November 6, 2009

The reasons you specify for brass also apply to what I believe to be a most difficult instrument: the oboe. The pressure you exert from just blowing through a double-reed instrument, man wow. It was hard. And maintaining the reed was such a drag. Depending on humidity and temperature, your reed would sound/feel different, and my teacher was constantly adjusting it for me with her little kit of tools.

It's also the instrument that orchestras tune to, no?
posted by hellomina at 10:05 AM on November 6, 2009

Of the instruments I have learned or tried to learn, the order of difficulty to me was (from easiest to hardest): percussion, saxophone, clarinet, recorder, flute, trumpet, oboe, piano, concertina, harp.

Saxophone is a really easy instrument compared to other wind instruments, because you use an octave key to change octaves, and all the keys are covered. (It was designed to be relatively easy to play: thanks, Adolph Sax!)

The thing is that this is going to vary a lot from individual to individual. I have a really strong sense of rhythm, so percussion was easy for me. I know other people who had a hard time with it.

Similarly, I have really good relative pitch, so I had a less hard time with the trumpet than someone for whom that's difficult.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:06 AM on November 6, 2009


I'm an instrumental dilettante, though I've stuck with the banjo now for a few years.

I feel that instruments are like languages -- what "clicks" varies so much per person. I've tried the accordion (can only play a couple songs), the concertina (love it!), trumpet (no), clarinet (dear god no), piano (played for years), guitar (nope), violin (yep), ukulele (yes!), and the saw (surprisingly hard! no really!).

The banjo just has that perfect mix of raucous noise and flexibility, and I can sing while I'm playing it if I want to. It's just light and small enough to travel pretty well, as well as having surprisingly tough construction (thrown from a railcar is a good test of durability). It surprises me how hard it is to articulate just what exactly I find so damn awesome about playing the banjo.

It's also made me money, got me to meet lots of nice people, and kept me from getting arrested at least once, so there's been some very practical benefits too.
posted by circle_b at 10:07 AM on November 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

violin - difficult. piano - easy.
posted by gonna get a dog at 10:07 AM on November 6, 2009

Trumpet is the most difficult instrument. Just ask any trumpet player.
posted by plinth at 10:08 AM on November 6, 2009 [3 favorites]

The keyboard instruments tend to be the most accessible -- pretty much anyone can approach a keyboard and produce musical sounds with it. Pitched percussion is probably pretty close as well. That's why you see little keyboards and glockenspiels as toys for kids. However, the music in the keyboard repertoire can obviously be extremely complex.

The fretted strings are some of the easiest instruments along with the keyboards, particularly those with nylon strings. It takes very little preparation or training to get a musical sound out of a ukulele.

I haven't played the harp, but I don't see what would make it much different from the piano in terms of relative difficulty.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:09 AM on November 6, 2009

I concur with Faint of Butt.

Physical size is a huge factor; you can play a 1/4 size violin, but good luck finding a 1/4 size bassoon and having to quit after a year because you have hands the size of squirrel paws and can't figure out a way to work around it. Out of the woodwinds it was the one I loved best; warm resonant sound in the range of the human voice (for the most part).

Woodwinds: oboe is the easiest (for some reason I found double reeds easier than single reeds; the symmetry of the embouchure made more sense to me), piccolo the hardest. Violin the easiest of the strings; smaller spatial range to keep track of, and your vantage point for visual cues is the best. Your perspective is pretty warped playing the cello or double bass and viola never felt comfortable for me.

Brass: all of them were difficult, just didn't have the strength, but like you mentioned they were really the most fulfilling; strength and sound and full body vibration. Oh, I'd say French horn is the most difficult out of all brass; coordination of embouchure/hand position and other factors made it seem more nitpicky to me than the others.

I'll say overall though piano is the hardest- so many people play and professional piano players seem to be so common that it is frustrating that it takes just as much time to learn how to play as any other instrument. I cried and cried whgen I was first learning because other family members play by ear and I struggled to have to learn the 'normal' way.
posted by variella at 10:09 AM on November 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

Players of Benjamin Franklin's glass armonica claimed that the instrument caused "muscle twitches, numbness, dizziness, temporary paralysis, and hallucinations," as well as permanent damage to the nerves of the fingertips. I don't know if the instrument is actually difficult to play, but all those complaints do represent something of a bar to mastery.
posted by Iridic at 10:10 AM on November 6, 2009

Hmm. I think all instruments probably take equal amounts of skill in the end. What varies is how long you need to practice before you can begin to produce sounds resembling music. I've played violin for almost my entire life, and it's definitely one of the "slow startup" instruments - ask any parents of a violin-playing 6-year-old. Piano, on the other hand, has a fast startup, because intonation and tone are not variable. (OK, OK, pianists - there IS a lot you can do with tone, attack, etc on the piano - I know. But to get a basically acceptable tone, you just push the key.) Guitar and percussion also produce fast results. Then, I would think woodwinds, then brass, and finally strings. Both brass and strings do require, as you point out, a fair degree of physical conditioning, though in different ways. However, I think tone and intonation on brass instruments are slightly easier to come by. With strings, there are just a zillion ways to produce terrible, terrible sounds and there's no help whatsoever when it comes to intonation.

Of course, I could be totally biased, since I'm a string player through and through, and I've only played brass instruments when I've borrowed my friends' horn during a break in rehearsal, etc, that sort of thing - but my parents play winds and I've been around musicians my whole life, and that's my impression.
posted by Cygnet at 10:10 AM on November 6, 2009

It depends on how you're wired. For me, the piano is impossible because it's playing several notes at once. (And, because I only started learning it as an adult.) Recorder, flute probably the easiest because it's one note, one fingering position, minimal embouchure. Violin a bit harder because of the nuances of the hand positions. The organ? Three keyboards at once, foot pedals and changing stops all the time?! Aaagh!
posted by Melismata at 10:13 AM on November 6, 2009

Oh, I'd say French horn is the most difficult out of all brass

Yeah, the French horn definitely has a reputation as being difficult to play, I think in large part because it plays in a higher portion of its overtone series compared to most brass instruments. The higher you go in the overtone series the closer the notes are to each other and the harder they are to control.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:17 AM on November 6, 2009

For me, from easiest to hardest, it was bass, guitar, drums, sax, clarinet, flute, cello, oboe, bassoon. I was comfortable performing publicly on all but the last two. As said above, double reed instruments are really hard.

I dabbled in brass, and found that trumpet was easier to play than trombone, and both were significantly easier to play than french horn; the mouthpiece and embouchure required on french horn were insane.
posted by jalexc at 10:30 AM on November 6, 2009

Yes to ludwig_van's answer -- the horn's range spans 4+ octaves, and there are only 4 valves on a standard double horn. Press the 1+2 valve levers, and you can play numerous notes (er, and yeah, some of which aren't even technically able to be played by using that combination). At the top of the register you can play a semi-standard scale without ever touching a valve -- it's all embouchure alone. "Song and wind," as they say . .
posted by oldtimey at 10:31 AM on November 6, 2009

Response by poster: Yes, the French horn is known to be challenging and requires the best sense of pitch.....
I love the answer "Just ask any trumpet player" as to play the trumpet well seems to require a certain degree of "attitude"--! :-))
Oboists and bassoonists are teased sometimes by fellow musicians for being "quirky"---all that pressure in the head required to play the instruments!....Organists must be mutli-taskers, as you point out....
All your answers are interesting!
posted by ragtimepiano at 10:31 AM on November 6, 2009

Oh, and what variella said about size being a factor might be true: I'm 6'3" and cello and double bass were fairly easy to pick up. On the other hand, I've been playing around with a mandolin lately, and I feel like a clumsy giant.

On the other other hand, when I play sax I prefer to play soprano over tenor or bari.
posted by jalexc at 10:33 AM on November 6, 2009

Agreeing with Melismata that all "one note at once" instruments are much, much easier for me than piano, concertina, harp.

The benefit of having a pre-tuned instrument is lost on me because I have an awesome sense of pitch, but I'm not so good with the independent simultaneous hand motions.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:45 AM on November 6, 2009

Oboe is miserable. I think it's not the playing, it's that to play at a professional level, you have to spend millions of hours making reads, which is a totally thankless and mind-numbing task rewarded with frustration. I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy. And then for all that, it sounds like the oboe. Which can sound beautiful but usually doesn't.

Violin is really tough. It will make you question your self esteem. Believe me.

I found double bass to be much less challenging than violin. Cello also I think is much more approachable.

Nothing is dead easy because players continually invent new things to do, and there are talented, innovative players for all instruments. And music is just...hard.

Harp seems sort of not-so-hard to me. It's in tune, you pluck the strings. Yeah, complicated...but not so insanely difficult.
posted by sully75 at 10:45 AM on November 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

I grew up playing horn in F (as my teachers would require me to say it), and even now, that's easier for me than the violin. And now I play violin at least twenty times more often than I ever touch the horn. I started both of them within a couple of years of each other, and my ear trained pretty well to figure out when I was on pitch on either. But the minute little differences in movement on the violin turned out to be much harder for me than the small embouchure/right hand differences on the horn. It's just a much more physical instrument, less in the woodwind-style lung capacity and more in the general finesse of the thing.

So I'm gonna second here the "most difficult and rewarding" thing you talk about with the violin. Miking it is hard, playing sheet music is hard, playing by ear is crazy hard. Especially when the people you play with start expecting you to pull off easy double-stops in the course of an improv. But when what you play is exactly what you were hoping you could play, there are few things more satisfying. And lots and lots of nifty local bands would love to have a fiddler who can pop in for a couple of tunes. Free beer, mad respect from the crowd.

Also, it's easy to lug around. Bonus from the former tiny fifth-grader with the weird horn case.
posted by lauranesson at 10:46 AM on November 6, 2009

Oh, also, if you want to be able to play a LOT of different (brass) instruments, I'd say start with the French horn. After all of that nonsense, I could calmly pick up just about any brass instrument and feel pretty comfy. You learn the soaring melodies, you learn the lame afterbeats.

Once we were playing an "afterglow" concert with the jazz bands in high school after the main band concert. Some lady my parents knew was shaking her head at me putting away the horn and picking up a trumpet to play in the jazz band. A little while later, she said to my mother, "Does she ever completely surprise you by doing something you had no idea she could do?" JUST as I was taking out a flugelhorn for a solo. My mom said, "I didn't know she could play THAT thing."

French horn ("horn in F," sorry!) trains you to take most brass in stride.
posted by lauranesson at 10:52 AM on November 6, 2009

Harp seems sort of not-so-hard to me. It's in tune, you pluck the strings. Yeah, complicated...but not so insanely difficult.

Do you actually play the harp yourself? Because that's a weird way of describing how you play the harp.

First of all, "it's in tune" is risible. A harp is never in tune for more than ten consecutive minutes (slight hyperbole).

And "you pluck the strings"--well, sometimes you pluck the strings (in one of several different ways). You also mute the strings. You also do arpeggios and glissandi.

And there's the pedals.

Folk harps mostly don't have pedals, which is all to the good, but they mostly have sharping levers, which are incredibly annoying.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:54 AM on November 6, 2009

Generally, most people say the French Horn or the Oboe. I can't imagine why anyone would suggest that the harp is more difficult than those instruments. Of course, to play anything well is difficult. For example, Double Bass seems quite easy but to get a good singing tone which is also in-tune in the very high register seems to be something that only the very best players can do. This is true of many instruments. People think that percussion is easy because you hit things, but the difference between a fantastic percussionist and a good percussionist is like night and day. So, easy to learn is one thing, but to actually become a master on any instrument is very difficult regardless.
posted by ob at 11:16 AM on November 6, 2009

Another hard one is timpani. Playing it would be easy actually, if you had a couple dozen timpanis tuned to every pitch. But you don't, so you need to retune the ones you have. In the middle of the piece. With the orchestra playing around you. And by ear. Tough, tough, tough. And like all percussion, if you screw up, people notice. Contrast to if one violin misses an entrance, it might not even be audible.
posted by smackfu at 11:49 AM on November 6, 2009

I suspect it's only meaningful to compare the difficulty of instruments when you control for proficiency level, e.g., which instrument is the hardest for a beginner? In my mind, the keyboard starts to pull ahead of other instruments at higher proficiency levels, where a given player has mastered most of technical issues of their instrument and instead has to focus on their musical concept; the keyboard simply demands more mental effort from its players at this point, because they have to conceive of multiple melodies and thick harmonies.

To illustrate my point, if you can read notation in your head, compare the difficulty involved in reading a difficult violin score vs. a difficult piano score. It's true that the violinist has to make a lot of decisions that aren't covered by the score, maybe even more than the pianist does, but I don't think they're as difficult to manage as the mental challenge of hearing all the different musical strands that a piano has to play.

On the beginner side, I think brass is the most difficult in terms of how much effort it takes to get to the point where you can make acceptable sounds. String instruments aren't easy but they're controlled with hands, which are generally much more accustomed to fine articulation than lips are.

I happen to think that the oboe is far and away the most beautiful-sounding instrument in the whole orchestra, but I'm weird that way.
posted by invitapriore at 12:28 PM on November 6, 2009

Dead hard: violin. Less hard: piano. Easy: Stereo.
posted by bz at 12:42 PM on November 6, 2009

For me, piano lessons as a child made picking out Beatle songs and other "playing-by-ear" adventures easy later. Guitar? Couldn't get the hang of it - the 4th interval B string threw it for me every time. Mandolin came much more easily. I have also learned harmonica, drums, and various other forms of percussion until my arthritis/tendinitis made it too painful to play impact instruments. I will vote for piano as the easiest instrument to learn.
posted by Lynsey at 12:44 PM on November 6, 2009

My girlfriend nths the French Horn, she was told that at music school it was the most difficult to play. As a result I have to listen to the accordion that she plays.
posted by multivalent at 12:51 PM on November 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

...she claims (upon entering the room) that it's the second most difficult.
posted by multivalent at 12:52 PM on November 6, 2009

Piano, percussion, and guitar were all about the same. I decided it was too easy so I switched to french horn. I no longer play an instrument because of the frustration I had with that fucking thing.
posted by nestor_makhno at 12:53 PM on November 6, 2009

Concertina and button accordion are difficult not because it's hard to make a musical noise out of one (push a button, tug the bellows, ta-da!) but because it's got all the logic of the qwerty keyboard.
posted by aimedwander at 1:15 PM on November 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

As a music teacher with a pretty wide experience at a lot of instruments, here's how I'd rank things from most to least difficult (primarily a horn player, but I teach strings right now and play violin (....at a high schoolish level....) more than anything else):

[Standard Music Teacher Disclaimer: The easiest instrument is the one you practice!]

Horn: even on a double horn, accuracy is problematic because of the ridiculous range, which is why if you listen very closely even to very good symphony orchestra with fantastic horn players, you'll still hear them clam a note every once and a while. If I haven't been practicing on horn, I won't play a gig because I'll inevitably embarrass myself, but that's not a problem for me at all on trumpet.

Oboe/bassoon (played oboe in community band for a year, a year I and all my fellow band members heartily regret) is for sure difficult, impossible to get a good sound out of it at first, gives you headaches, hard to play in tune, oh god the reeds, the reeds.

Strings: not as hard as people are making out, if you've got a good ear, and if you are not starting as an adult, but far from easy. Making a good sound is tricky, especially at first, and you have to really be finicky about position in ways you don't on other instruments. The lack of frets is often frustrating to beginners.

Keyboard instruments: at least you can see what you are doing and it's not hard to get a sound out, but all the note-reading can be hard for people, and some really struggle with left hand/right hand independence.

Any leftover woodwind/brass instruments

Percussion: but learning the right technique for all those bazillions of instruments is tricky

Things With Frets
posted by charmedimsure at 1:18 PM on November 6, 2009

English horn.
posted by rhizome at 1:27 PM on November 6, 2009

As someone who only started learning bass guitar at 29, simple bass guitar is much easier than simple guitar. Simple bass is just one note at a time, at varying speeds. Guitar requires shifting multiple fingers quickly and accurately, and thanks to the stubby fatness of my finger tips, was an exercise in sadness and futility. Bass, on the other hand, I was able to play a couple songs with a friends band, live, within six months of starting.

Good bass, (anything like funk or ska, where the bass is really the backbone of the song) on the other hand, is hard.
posted by Ghidorah at 5:00 PM on November 6, 2009

Y'all haven't worked on learning the pedal steel guitar, double necked, I take it.
posted by fourcheesemac at 6:03 PM on November 6, 2009

I'm surprised nobody's said this, but I think the Human Vocal Chords are the most difficult instrument ever.* I mean, there are only so many good singers out there in mainstream and indie music, only a small subset of them can captivate in a live concert (without the aid of splicing and digital effects), and only an even smaller subset can sing operatically.

In order of difficulty, I'd say 1) voice- and breathing-related instruments, 2) strings, 3) percussion. So voice > brass > woodwinds > violin/piano/guitar/etc. > drums

* (insert personal anecdotes of embarrassing drunken karaoke attempts to imitate Julius Casablancas)
posted by chalbe at 7:28 PM on November 6, 2009

I played clarinet, and found the oboe quite easy to pick up. I wasn't great at it, but I wasn't playing it very seriously. Frankly, getting a clarinet to sound rich in the higher registers was harder. Am I some kind of double-reed savant?

But I can't play a brass instrument to save my life. I love the trombone, but the thought of playing one makes my brain, and lips, hurt.

But let me tell you, the hardest thing to play, bar none, is a baritone horn with a clarinet mouthpiece.

Much more seriously, the ease of picking up an instrument probably depends greatly on the quality of music instruction. If you actually know and understand music, it is way easier to fit that knowledge onto another instrument. And if your music playing is generally in the rhythm arena (rather than solo/melody area), it will be harder to shift gears.
posted by gjc at 7:43 PM on November 6, 2009

I think piano is harder than horn. Okay, sure it took me until almost the concert to get the horn solo at the end of the Firebird Suite on the right partial (don't notice until you get to the part 5 or so notes afterward where you can't play the pitch you want with the fingering you're expecting), but keeping track of all of the various notes at once on the piano was trickier for me. I can play the first horn part for SLEIGH RIDE! without ever depressing a valve on the double horn, however!

Koto is also a little tricky because it requires reasonable pitch to get the notes right sometimes, and the bridges move around and you have to fix things (sometimes you have to change the position mid-song as part of the song, though I haven't gotten to that point yet). Also, in the style I play, I more or less had to learn how to read music all over again. However, it is also easier because it is essentially play-by-number.

Recorder is easy to get a sound out of, but not so easy to get a good consistent sound out of. People tend to blow too hard on them.
posted by that girl at 7:54 PM on November 6, 2009

I only learned two instruments (clarinet and baritone horn) and then only up to middling ability so I can't really comment much on what instruments are hardest to master. But I did want to throw out bagpipes as a possible instrument to rank.
posted by Green With You at 10:07 PM on November 6, 2009

Not too many Theremin virtuosi out there.
posted by Wolof at 11:19 PM on November 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, can we go international here?

The Japanese sho (bamboo mouth organ used in Gagaku) is a beast.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:00 AM on November 7, 2009

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