In this article, we are looking to rank 10 of the most popular instruments people like to learn how to play, and we’re ranking them from the hardest to the easiest instruments to learn.
People who are worried about whether they will be able to pick up an instrument and start playing it quickly can go for the easiest end of the spectrum. Of course, if you want to be a virtuoso musician, there’s nothing wrong with setting a challenge and learning the hardest instrument first. The hardest instruments to master can mean that learning other instruments in the future becomes easier, or at least feels a lot easier.
Below is our ranking of 10 instruments you can learn how to play, starting with the most difficult (violin) and going all the way down to the easiest (harmonica).
Here are the hardest and easiest instruments to learn:
The hardest instrument on the list
To watch someone playing the violin, you might not assume it was difficult to do so, as they play with such a huge amount of elegance. They make it look easy, but this is definitely not the case. If you’ve ever picked up a violin and given it a go, you’ll know that becoming the next Vivaldi is a big challenge!
There are many reasons why violin is the most difficult of the instruments on this list, in our opinion. For a start, the head position, and where the violin has to be rested, can prove a challenge, and a big learning curve for people. It’s so easy to get this wrong.
On top of this, the strings are quite close together, and need to be played with a bow. Learning how to use a bow is not an easy thing to do at all, but when you need to be especially precise it becomes even more of a challenge. On top of this, there are no markers to show where the fingers need to go, so this is an art you will have to learn without frets to guide you. Hitting a bum note has never been easier. The violin is a beautiful instrument, but it can be tough to get right.
If you want to just be able to hit a few notes and get a decent sound then the organ is not the hardest instrument to learn, but to actually master it, you need incredible patience and a lot of brain power! It is one of the instruments that requires you to be thinking about five different things all at the same time.
As well as playing the keys on the organ, you will be using your feet to control pedals. There is no sustain pedal, either, so this means that you need to hold the notes for longer to keep the sound going.
If you are playing a pipe organ, or any organ with ‘stops’, you will also have to shape the sound by altering the positioning of these stops. This is where the saying ‘pull out all the stops’ comes from.
3. French horn
The French horn is not as popular as some of the choices on this list. However, it is still a great instrument and is popular among bands. If you’re looking for the easiest band instruments to play you should probably look beyond this challenging brass instrument.
It uses a lot of partials, and way more than in many other brass section instruments. High notes are closer to one another and this means that it is really tough to differentiate between them and get the right one. To get it right, and make the sounds you want the instrument to make, you have to learn how to move your lips in a specific way. It can start to get very confusing.
A lot of people who learn the instrument take a long time to get used to moving the mouth around. It can also be very tough to get the projection level you need, the French horn is expected to be one of the louder instruments, but it faces the back of the orchestra. You need a good set of lungs on you.
The accordion is definitely a fun instrument, and it makes us all think of European street musicians and beautiful walks along promenades. If you want to learn how to play it, you won’t be too surprised to learn that it can be one of the more challenging instruments out there.
Just watching someone play it can be a bit confusing. It is clear that there is a lot going on when someone is pressing those buttons, and pushing and pulling the separate parts of an accordion.
Some people have said that it is like being able to play the piano and bagpipes all at the same time. It’s also a big, hefty instrument that can be quite tiring to play for a long period of time. This also makes it one of the hardest instruments for kids to learn.
There are a huge number of keys and buttons to master so that you are playing the correct notes and chords, and both hands are doing very independent things. All the time, you have to be moving air in order to project the instrument, too. It’s not the most popular instrument to learn, so finding a tutor can be another challenge here.
The harp is another instrument that is quite a specialist one to play. A harp is complex in a different way to some of the other instruments. You don’t have to use all of your limbs, but you do have to deal with a lot of strings to pluck!
Learning which strings to pluck, memorizing melodies and then playing without mistakes can all be challenges. On top of this, there is quite a lack of information about playing the harp when compared to other instruments like the piano or guitar.
Sure, if you are looking to play an instrument that sounds angelic and heavenly then it is definitely one of the best instruments to learn, but be prepared for a long journey with a lot of frustration along the way.
Drums are somewhere in the middle when it comes to difficulty, but it really depends how in-depth and complicated you want to go with your instrument. If you just want to be able to play a simple beat for rock or punk songs then it might be relatively easy to get to grips with, especially if you are ambidextrous and have good coordination.
Drums certainly aren’t the easiest instrument to learn, though. In fact, if you want to reach the very top of your game, the drums can be one of the hardest instruments to master. If you watch a jazz drummer or someone playing complicated polyrhythms then you will see what we mean.
The more in-depth you go with the drums, the more difficult things become. You can get started with some very simple basics, but it is possible that you could spend 10 years playing the drums and still not be at an elite level of ability.
The main reason for this is the fact that all four limbs sometimes need to be doing different things, and this can feel unnatural. If you’ve tried to rub your stomach and pat your head at the same time, you’ll know that many people find two limbs tough. Now add in your feet, both doing different things, and you’ll get some idea how tough it can be.
Some aspects of playing the guitar are not too much of a challenge. A simple melody can be taught in the first lesson. The classics like ‘Smoke on the Water’ or ‘Seven Nation Army’ are melodies that are very simple and can be played within an hour of practice. However, there are many different hurdles.
People sometimes struggle to switch to playing chords, rather than individual notes. As well as working out where you need to place your fingers to play notes and chords, you may need to build up finger strength and speed in order to play certain riffs and notes, too. It all boils down to patience, as it will take a while to get your hands to follow your brain.
A guitar isn’t up there with the most difficult instruments, but that doesn’t mean that it is easy, either. Just think of all the people you know who started lessons and didn’t finish.
What makes guitars one of the best instruments to learn for children and adults alike? The abundance of information. It is one of the most widely-played instruments out there, this means that it is not hard to find someone to share some info, or great books and videos online.
This is yet another instrument that can be relatively simple to start. However, don’t expect yourself to be a virtuoso quickly.
Being able to play a few chords and melodies is the first step, and it doesn’t take too much effort to get there. One of the best things about the piano is the immediacy of it. Someone can teach you to play a few melodies relatively quickly, and you could even get to a level where you can play chords along to pop and rock songs in a few weeks of lessons.
If you want to get your technique perfected, or become a classical pianist, then it is likely to take longer than a few short weeks to get right. In fact, 10 years of piano lessons may not see you reach the level of the very top pianists in the world.
If you are looking to learn how to read music, get your technique perfected and become a master then make no mistake, the piano is a huge undertaking. However, compared to some instruments, you are using less limbs, and it is easier to trigger the notes (no blowing or complex plucking).
Another thing that makes piano easier, just like guitar, is the fact that there are lots of different learning materials to get you started. Also, finding a digital piano or keyboard to start with is much easier than finding a specialist instrument like a harp or an accordion.
Learning how to play the ukulele is a very good option for musical beginners. If you have never played an instrument before, the ukulele can be a simple introduction. As well as being affordable and lightweight, they are relatively gentle on your fingers, and chords can be easy to learn.
There are only four strings, so many chord positions are easier, and you don’t have to learn complex ‘barre chords’ that you need to learn for guitar.
On top of this, nylon strings are the norm for ukuleles, whereas steel guitar strings can be really bad for your fingers and make them blistered and calloused, something guitarists just have to put up with.
Ukulele is another instrument that has a lot of learning materials and courses out there. You can pick one up for $50 and start to work out if this is the instrument for you.
The easiest instrument to learn
The harmonica is maybe not quite as fashionable as many of the other choices on the market. However, it is a very fun instrument and possibly the easiest of all to learn. It has two main things in its favor: portability, and being almost impossible to sound bad.
A harmonica comes in a certain key. For instance, a harmonica might come in the key of C. This means that if you are playing along to a song in ‘C’ then everything you play will sound good. It may not be perfect, but at least it won’t sound like a horrible bum note.
Harmonica is also extremely portable, much like the ukulele. There aren’t many pocket-sized instruments out there, but a harmonica is exactly that. You can get it out and start to practice whenever or wherever.
When you are choosing an instrument as a beginner, how hard or easy it is should only be one of your considerations. Don’t learn how to play the ukulele if you don’t like the way it sounds. Instead, choose based on what you want to be able to play, otherwise, you simply won’t have the motivation.
It’s also important to know that some people find certain instruments more natural and simple than others. Some people have natural rhythm, for example. Our guide is a consensus, but you might find you have a natural flair for one specific instrument.
Ben is a writer, musician and former studio engineer from the UK with qualifications including music technology. A self-confessed audiophile, Ben can also play multiple instruments.
Ben has worked in recording studios in the East of England, and written about all aspects of music equipment and the music business, as well as production and engineering.