Getting started learning instruments at an early age can be incredibly important. It’s easier for children to learn to play because it helps their brain development and gives them more practice time to master their instrument of choice. For some instruments, it’s imperative to get started early simply because of the difficulty in mastering the instrument and the time it takes to gain that level of proficiency. This article will cover the 15 hardest instruments to learn to play and discuss what makes them so tricky.
1. French Horn
The French horn might be the first instrument to come to mind when thinking of the most difficult instruments to play (and by play, we should also mention that we mean play well). While it isn’t one of the best-known instruments, the French horn is incredibly important in orchestras, often featuring as a solo instrument.
French horns are easily recognizable thanks to their weird appearance. Its numerous looping coils of tubing may seem compact but measures around twelve feet in length when stretched out. Additionally, it can be challenging to hold, with its keys in the middle rather than on top like the trumpet.
What makes the french horn so tricky is the breathing technique required to play it. Its length requires a deceptively immense amount of air and the exact amount to produce the proper notes. You’ll also need to learn excellent breath control, but that isn’t all. Even the slightest change in mouth placement on the piece can change the sound, as well as the incredibly precise mouth control required for it.
Combining the precise nature of the finger movements, breath control, lip position, and closeness of notes makes the french horn one of, if not the most difficult instruments to learn and one that takes years of practice to master.
The violin is one of the most popular instruments played today and has a rich history, but learning it is undoubtedly very hard. It’s the smallest and highest-pitch member of its wood-string family and may have four or five strings. While the number of strings may not be daunting, several variables make the violin difficult.
Unlike guitars and many other string instruments, the violin has no frets. This means that the player has no guide for finger placement when they want to change a chord. Instead, they have to rely on muscle memory. That’s relatively doable through practice, but that isn’t all.
The sound of a violin is produced by moving the bow across the strings. The speed and pressure applied by the bow impact the sound produced. Too hard or soft, too fast or slow, you’ll miss the mark and make very unpleasant sounds
On top of that, the sounds are also influenced by the note played before the current one and even the bow you use to play. It’s best to start the violin at an early age. The instrument is demanding physically, in precision, and takes years to master.
3. Pipe Organ
Organs and pipe organs produce some of the most pleasing sounds out there, with a rich history of being used in churches to produce holy music and move audiences. It has also remained (mostly) unchanged for a very long time, with the first organs appearing around the third century B.C.
Organs work by pushing pressurized air through pipes. The size of the pipes, the pressure of the air, and a few other things impact the sound produced when a key is pressed. The funny thing about organs though, is that there isn’t a limit to the number of pipes they can have. Some are “small” but there’s no true limit to their complexity, allowing organs to produce a near-infinite number of tones.
The other thing about organs is that each pipe has a key on its keyboard. See, most organs require the musician to use a minimum of two keyboards stacked on top of each other, and they can have quite a few keyboards needed to play them properly. You might have one hand on one keyboard and the other on one very far away.
If that wasn’t enough, organs also require foot pedals because, unlike a piano’s pedals, the foot pedals are another keyboard for the musician to use. Typically, you’re looking at using your hands and feet to play three keyboards simultaneously. It requires intense coordination and a very long learning time, making the organ one of the most complicated instruments to learn.
The harp makes it higher on my list than others simply because it can be ridiculously challenging to learn. While harps produce beautiful melodies, producing them is an incredibly intricate process.
A modern harp has an average of 47 strings, each producing a different precise note and located very, very, very close together. The sheer number of strings and their proximity makes plucking the right one, and only the right one, at the right time, a challenge unto itself. Harps can come in various sizes as well, with some able to sit on your lap and others taking up half the room. Reaching the strings can be hard on larger ones if you aren’t the right size for the harp you’re playing.
Modern harps also have seven foot pedals. These aren’t as much of a challenge as figuring out which of the 47 strings to pluck, but they add another layer of complexity to the instrument. The foot pedals are pressed in combinations to shift the sound produced by the strings. Overall, the harp is simple, since there aren’t a lot of tasks to focus on, but it’s still crazy difficult to master the instrument due to the volume of what’s sitting in front of you.
The cello is just as complex as the violin, another member of the family we’ve already gone over. Learning the cello means overcoming many of the same challenges as the violin, such as memorizing a fretless neck and learning the proper way to pull the bow across the strings. Unfortunately, that’s not all you’ll need to deal with.
Cellos are much larger than violins. Instead of being held, they must stand up. The cello sits on a narrow stance, and you must use your strength to keep the instrument upright. While that doesn’t sound too bad, not maintaining it at the right verticality will alter the sound, meaning you must hold it perfectly in place for the duration of the session. It’s also important to remember that you don’t have a free hand to hold it. Your bow will be in one hand, and the other must move up and down the neck to change the sound.
The larger cello size makes moving your hands to the proper positions more difficult. The neck is much longer than a violin’s, so there’s more room for error, and it requires much larger hands. The cello may be impossible for some to play simply because they can’t hold it up and reach their hands where they need to simultaneously.
Bassoons are some of the least popular woodwind instruments, mainly because of the difficulty of mastering them and how tricky they are. You’ll often see it cited as the most complex orchestral wind instrument to learn. But what actually makes it so hard?
Let’s start with the bassoon’s size. Bassoons can cover a huge range of sounds, but that’s because of how large they are. On average, a bassoon stands 135 cm tall. Just handling it properly is a challenge, and reaching all 28 keys on the instrument may be impossible for someone with smaller hands. Honestly, you’ll have to use all ten fingers, almost at all times while playing. And that isn’t even the hardest part.
Bassoons is a double-reed instrument. What that means in basic terms is that it has two reeds in the mouthpiece instead of one. Unfortunately, that also means that it requires a lot of skill to consistently control the notoriously temperamental reeds. Mastering the tongue and lip movements required can take years of practice.
On the side of more trivial challenges is the volume of the bassoon. They’re quite simply loud, easily overshadowing the other instruments they’re playing next to. Quieting down the volume of the bassoon is something that takes a lot of practice on its own, even if you have a grasp of the other challenging intricacies.
Bagpipes aren’t super popular, they’re often thought of as just noise-makers, and despite their rich history and sobering tones, they’re often overlooked. They’re an instrument you’ll either love or hate, but everyone has some opinion on them. But why are they here?
Bagpipes require ridiculous lung capacity. The player essentially has to provide a constant influx of air to the instrument to keep it going. While doing that, you’ll have to masterfully apply pressure to the bag to release air and keep track of the finger positioning on the valves on the bladder.
Frankly, it will be a few years before you play anything on the bagpipes that sounds like music, and they’re one of the few instruments where beginners don’t learn using the instrument they’re learning to play. You start off with a device called a chanter, which allows you to practice the proper fingering and grace-noting techniques without needing the powerful airflow of a full set of bagpipes.
While most players have some instruction before taking on the instruments on this list, the bagpipes are the only one that requires a practice device to learn, evidence of the skill required, and the learning curve that must be overcome.
Woodwinds feature a bit on this list and if you haven’t noticed, expect a couple more. The clarinet is hard to learn because it requires the player to push air at just the right pressure to hit the right notes. That doesn’t sound too bad. However, the difference between good and horrific sounds is minimal. It’s also loud, so any little mistake you make will be undeniable. The clarinet can take years to master, and it’s tough to learn it well enough to avoid sounding like Squidward when you play it.
You can think of the oboe as a much smaller bassoon. How much smaller, you ask? Where bassoons stand around 135 cm, oboes are only 66 cm. Like the bassoon, the oboe uses a double reed to create sound, so it involves all the same intricacies and difficulties that the oboe does in that regard.
While a bassoon has between 22 and 28 keys, the oboe has 45. So while it might be smaller and lighter, the oboe needs the same level of breath control as a bassoon while also requiring you to learn combinations for 45 different keys. Those things make the oboe one of the most intimidating wind instruments, though many people who drop the bassoon transition to the oboe for an easier time managing the size of their instrument.
The drums are very hard to learn, especially if you’re playing any kind of drum set. To play well means developing a masterful understanding of rhythm and requires ridiculous coordination. Most of the time, you’ll need to start slow, working with a snare drum before moving to a small set and then eventually on to a complete drum set.
Drumming can be very tiring, with the drums requiring an incredible amount of stamina, depending on what you’re playing. Your coordination of hands and feet can eventually lead to being able to play multiple patterns at the same time, which takes a lot of dedication and is by no means easy. Then, the larger your drum set, the harder it is to learn because you involve more and more variables to keep track of.
The accordion might not have a reputation as a respected instrument. When seeing it here, you probably thought of a street performer or someone playing it in a movie. The complexity of the accordion is what gives it the signature sound that you remember.
Accordions work like bellows for a blacksmith fire. Pressing the sides together and pulling them apart creates the music, but that’s far from everything going on. The accordion is difficult due to the sheer volume of things you have to do as a musician. Both hands are working independently, pushing keys or pressing on bass notes. While doing that, you also have to precisely control the bellows.
To explain it simply, your hands must work independently and together at the same time. It takes a lot of training, practice, and precision to make an accordion sing, making it one of the hardest instruments to learn.
Sitars aren’t thought of often in the West, but they’re the most common instrument in Hindustani music. They’re kind of like guitars in the way you play them, but it’s much more complex than that.
A sitar will have between 18 and 21 strings, making it much more challenging to memorize than a six-string guitar or a ukulele. The thing about them is that not all of them are played. The bottom strings vibrate when the top strings are played, producing sound with depth.
Sitars are also very hard for many people because they don’t utilize music scales we’re familiar with. Instead, they require learning the entirety of the Indian music scale, a potentially daunting task whether you have current music training.
While it’s played much like a guitar, the number of strings, string configuration, and a different music scale make the sitar one of the hardest instruments to learn, especially for Westerners.
The flute is another challenging wind instrument to make the list, but for different reasons than the bassoon or oboe. Its size and design require the player to stand in a precise position, elevating their arms and tilting their head. Both of those can put serious physical strain on the person playing the flute. It also requires excellent breath control to play well. Otherwise, you’ll just produce ear-piercing squeals.
Guitars also make our list of easiest instruments to learn, so some explanation is needed here. Learning the basics of the guitar is fairly easy, whether you pick up an acoustic or electric guitar. Within a week or two of picking up the guitar, you might be able to play a few songs and memorize basic chords. Unfortunately, only the beginning is easy.
Moving into technically-proficient guitar playing is incredibly hard. Classical guitarists are often required to play rhythm and lead at the same time. Then you have to remember that there are tons of types of guitars, and each is a bit different.
Playing the guitar at a high level is challenging from a technical perspective, even if it is a bit easier to get started learning the instrument than others on the list here.
15. Double Bass
Remember how we discussed that the cello being bigger than the violin added some challenges? The double bass is even bigger. The instrument is massive and one that’s nearly impossible to begin learning as a child. Like its cousins, it has no frets on its neck, so that challenge is again rearing its head. While notes are far apart on the cello, they’re even farther on the bass, leading to more room for error.
While the same challenges as the cello and violin apply, the size of the double bass makes it another instrument that’s hard to learn. And it doesn’t help that it has very thick strings that are going to hurt your fingers like hell till you get used to playing it.
As a contributing writer for Music Grotto, Dakotah writes and produces professional music/media content. He works closely with editorial staff to meet editorial standards and create
quality content for the Music Grotto website. Dakotah is passionate about music in a wide variety of genres, from hip-hop to country and lo-fi to metal, and he enjoys creating music pieces for Music Grotto.