Learning to play an instrument has a substantial amount of benefits that come along with it. Better mental health, emotional expression, motor skills, and boosts in self-esteem, the list goes on and on. That being said, not all instruments are created equally. Some are incredibly challenging to learn or aren’t accessible without dropping a chunk of change. In this article, we’ll go over the 15 most popular instruments to learn and discuss what makes them popular in the first place.
The piano—and keyboard—is probably the most popular instrument for anyone to learn because it’s an amazing place for people to be introduced to music. They can cover everything any instrument in an orchestra can do, and the musical understanding that comes with learning it is transferable across nearly any other instrument. It’s versatile and can be played alone or in ensembles, and while the recommended age to start learning is around six, it’s something even adults can pick up fairly easily.
To learn the piano, all you need is a basic understanding of sheet music, determination, and patience. It isn’t one of the easiest instruments to master, not by a lot. But, it is one of the most rewarding. It is even seen as a great stress reliever for many players, allowing for plenty of emotional expressions since it can cover such a massive range of sounds and music.
2. Acoustic Guitar
For this article, I’m separating out the electric and acoustic guitars, which is why these first four spots might seem a bit out of order. Don’t worry, I’ll explain. The guitar is incredibly popular as an instrument, starting as a respected concert instrument in classical music and earning its iconic status in rock, jazz, and pop music in the early 1900s.
The acoustic guitar takes a higher spot than the electric one for a few reasons. Perhaps chiefly among them is how accessible they are. While a high-quality guitar will cost a pretty penny, you can pick a cheap one up for under fifty bucks at most stores. It is also one of the easiest instruments to learn, at least in the beginning. Within a couple of weeks, you could have some passable guitar skills, playing chords and maybe even strumming some pop songs.
At the highest proficiency, it is incredibly demanding, but that’s mostly reserved for complex classical pieces. The acoustic guitar’s status in pop culture, its versatility as a solo or ensemble instrument, accessibility, and room for improvement in skill make it one of the most popular instruments to pick up today.
The violin has been around for centuries and pretty much every great composer has written pieces for the instrument. It can produce some of the most beautiful sounds of any instrument and it hasn’t changed much since it was invented. That being said, it is also one of the most difficult instruments in the world to truly master.
But if it’s so difficult to learn, why is it so popular? Glad you asked. The violin is one of the most important parts of any classical ensemble, and it gets used in plenty of other genres. For kids, it’s one of the best instruments to begin early, combining that with its place in the orchestral pecking order, it’s no wonder it is so popular.
Oh, and by the way, a fiddle is just a violin. It’s played slightly differently, and it gets used to produce different sounds, but fiddle and violin are two names for the same thing. Maybe if the Devil played a Bach solo he wouldn’t have lost a fiddle contest to some dude from Georgia.
4. Electric Guitar
Okay, now for the electric guitar. Rock music definitely brought this one to the forefront of culture, and it’s used in all kinds of genres today. Most people can even get a taste for this instrument thanks to video games like Guitar Hero.
The thing about it is that it’s even easier than the acoustic, mostly because it’s more comfortable to play and easier on the hands. It helps keep people from becoming frustrated, so there’s less barrier to entry from that standpoint. They also have a lot of room for experimenting with sound thanks to modules and amplifiers, and the electric guitar allows you to play more genres than the acoustic version.
The reason it falls down here is that they aren’t as accessible—financially at least—as acoustic guitars. You can get a cheap acoustic guitar, and it’ll sound passable. That isn’t really the case for an electric one, and you’ll need additional equipment like amplifiers to really get going with one. That’s really the only reason it falls down a spot or two, but it is still among the most popular instruments in the world.
Drums have been around for thousands of years as percussion instruments, and they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. A drum set is one of the most important parts of almost every musical genre, with styles reflective of the type of music you’re playing. Banging on this instrument is a great way to relieve stress, get lost in the moment, and get out all of the negative feelings you’ve been dealing with.
These can also be challenging to learn, with the greatest drummers playing multiple parts at once, not just keeping rhythm. Like the acoustic guitar, you can probably get a drum set for relatively cheap compared to other instruments. Just make sure the neighbors know you’re getting it and be prepared for the kids to be banging away at all hours of the night.
Plus, drummers are cool. So, that’s why they’re so popular.
The popularity of the saxophone can be summed up just by its cool factor. The instrument has always had a cool image thanks to legendary jazz soloists and its wide range of dynamic sounds. It is one of those instruments that just moves people, both the player expressing emotion and the people listening. It’s no surprise it’s so prevalent in classical and jazz music.
It also comes in nine different variations. There’s a size and style to fit pretty much anybody, making it ideal for beginners who haven’t found their musical identity yet.
Clarinet literally means little trumpet, and it remains incredibly popular today because of how forgiving the instrument can be. Professionals may know how hard it is to master it perfectly, but sticking inside a small range makes it one of the easier woodwinds to get started learning with. It is also popular because it isn’t as demanding when it comes to breathing techniques as some other wind instruments.
8. DJ Equipment
Look, the rise of electronic music and better music mixing software has made DJ equipment not just popular, but a viable career path. While you might not consider the equipment an instrument, it allows for an incredible amount of musical freedom and experimentation, and it’s only going to get more popular as time goes on.
Trumpets aren’t too complicated as far as brass instruments go, making them fairly easy to pick up for beginners. They’re also incredibly dynamic, even if less so than a saxophone. You’ll find them everywhere, from jazz to symphony orchestras and rock and roll to R&B. They typically aren’t too expensive and aren’t massive instruments that are hard to carry around. Overall, both of those things help make it one of the most popular instruments to learn worldwide.
10. Bass Guitar
Hey, look, another guitar on the list. That’s how popular guitars are as instruments though, so it shouldn’t be a surprise. Bass guitars are up there in popularity because while they’re just as challenging as other guitars, they’re more manageable. Most players can play entire songs with only one note, helping beginners avoid having to memorize and repeat long chord progressions.
The role of the bass player is to provide rhythmic impulses and typically work alongside drummers to form beats and keep time. The skills on this instrument also give players an advantage in the job market since skilled players can adapt their style to any genre and any need.
Alongside the violin, the cello is one of the key string instruments of any orchestral group and one that numerous famous composers have written standalone pieces for. These are also great accompanying instruments for almost any situation, making them a desirable addition when it comes to symphony orchestras and chamber music. The sounds it makes allow it to stand in place of any stringed instrument in an orchestra, with many of these not being audibly recognizable for large sections of songs.
The instrument’s sheer range and ability, combined with how easy it is to slot into groups have helped keep it one of the most popular instruments around. While they are fairly large, children’s cellos are small enough to be manageable. A challenge to learn, many students pick it up as their first instrument instead of the violin.
The flute, while hard to master, is one of the woodwind instruments that students can make progress on quickly and feel more rewarded for learning than other instruments. It’s hard to learn, but mastery is the hardest part and progress comes fast. There are all kinds of flutes out there for any budget, and even less expensive options can produce a wide range of sound. You’ll find these in jazz and classical bands, as well as plenty of ensembles in a range of genres.
Harps are by no means easy to learn. A modern harp has 47 strings and seven-foot pedals to learn to use, and all of the strings are so close together it can be ridiculously hard to pluck the right one without hitting another. That being said, these are still incredibly popular thanks to their beautiful melodic sound and the huge range of sizes available.
A full-size harp might stand on the floor but a small one can be played from your lap. There’s also plenty of sheet music out there in different styles that make it easier to learn and fit each person’s musical tastes.
So, I very briefly mentioned the keyboard in the piano section, and these have a lot of the same benefits as pianos. Learning this instrument will teach basic music skills that transfer to almost every other one, making it an ideal place to start for musical noobs. That being said, electronic keyboards still merit a slot on the list for a couple of reasons.
The first is that it remains popular because it can be a standalone instrument. So can a piano, but it can’t play an electronic drum beat or record and playback rhythm sections for you. It’s also much easier to get your hands on a keyboard than it is on a full piano. Small, inexpensive keyboards aren’t a bad place to start, and you can get one for well under a hundred bucks that will be serviceable when you begin. Accessibility and flexibility have kept these near the top when it comes to the most popular instruments to learn.
15. Your Voice
You can consider this cheating if you want, but singing does qualify a person as an instrument. Whether you want to be a famous singer or just want to be part of a choir, the voice is still among the most popular musical instruments in the world. Some genres like a cappella and barbershop quartets don’t use any instruments other than their voices, and in general, it’s popular because anyone can do it without needing to purchase or carry around an instrument.
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.