This is a question I’ve often been asked by students. It is not as easy to answer as you might think. Some people find some instruments easy to play whilst others discover a world of the challenge with the same instrument. It also depends on what standard you may wish to play any of the many instruments available. Producing a tone on any instrument can usually be achieved relatively quickly, but that is a world away from being able to competently perform a piece of music.
Hardest Instruments To Play
That said, there are specific aspects of playing instruments that can be singled out as initial and, in some cases, long-lasting difficulties. Take for example any of the string family. The violin, viola, cello, and double bass are hard to play as there is no place marked on the fingerboard to tell you where any particular note is; you just have to learn it over time. Coupled with this technical challenge is the production of the sound on these string instruments through the use of a bow pulled across the strings. It is simple enough to drag the bow over the strings but finding the correct string, the right amount of pressure to produce a pleasant tone, and where on the string the note should be played add significant difficulty to playing these instruments. There is a multitude of additional techniques that are required from string players making any of the string family a major undertaking to play well.
The guitar and harp should not be underestimated as difficult instruments to play too. The harpist needs to coordinate up to 47 strings as well as a selection of pedals that control the accidental associated with that string. The guitarist has to produce their sound with either fingers or plectrum over the six strings available on the standard instrument and synchronize this with melody and chords played with the heft-hand: not as easy as it may sound.
Moving towards the woodwind family of instruments, these provide their own set of technical trials. Interestingly, in terms of how a sound is produced on any given woodwind instrument can vary considerably. The flute, for example, has no reed, the performer blows across the hope in the headpiece in the flute to produce a tone.
A clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet, and saxophones are all ‘single-reed’ instruments. They produce a sound using a reed that is fixed with a ligature to the mouthpiece of the instrument. This in itself is quite a hurdle to overcome when first learning any of these instruments.
By contrast, the oboe, cor anglais, and bassoons use a ‘double-reed’ to make a sound. The double-reed is two relatively flat reeds that are held together with a binding that allows a small hope to form between the reeds. This means the player can breathe air into the reed and cause it to vibrate and make a tone. Any of the double-reed instruments are considered to be difficult instruments to learn largely because of the method of note production.
Brass instruments come with their own set of challenges for the aspiring musician. Brass instruments do not use a reed or have strings and a bow by which they create a tone. Each brass instrument from trumpet to the tuba has a ‘cupped’ mouthpiece made in most cases from metal. The indent or cup can vary according to the instrument or sound the player wishes to produce. Essentially, by making their lips vibrate players make the sound in their respective instruments appear. Notes are changed by lip pressure and slides, in the case of a trombone, or valves. The French Horn due partly to its shallow cup is felt to be one of the most difficult instruments to play as producing the tone is tough to control.
So far, I have looked at instruments that are ‘pitched’ instruments in that they produce a note as part of their characteristics. I think when considering which are the most difficult instruments to play one should not overlook the percussion section or, in particular, the drum kit. On the surface of it you could be forgiven for thinking percussionists simply hit things to make a sound with little skill being required at all. The truth paints a very different picture.
Focusing on the drum kit alone, the skills required to play even a standard ‘four on the floor’ rhythm are considerable. Consider, your right foot operates one rhythm on the bass drum with a pedal, your left foot opens and closes the high-hats, your right-hand plays the high-hat cymbals whilst your left-hand plays the snare drum. Both right and left hands also play the crash, ride and splash cymbals together with the array of tom-toms. The rhythms for each hand and foot are frequently different and change throughout a piece. This is no mean feat and does not take into account the subtleties with which a professional kit player handles each strike of the instrument.
Other more obscure instruments may fall into the category of hard to play. The much-maligned bagpipes, Scottish and Irish alike, are remarkably hard to learn to play well. The first challenge is ensuring there is enough air in the ‘bag’ of the pipes to sustain both the ‘drone’ and the melody. This melody is played on a single pipe with holes that in combination produce different notes. Equally, the accordion is not a straight forward instrument to learn to play. Like the pipes, it requires the player to constantly move a ‘concertina-style’ bellows to generate a tone. The more complex accordions have a keyboard, (one the right-hand side), and a selection of buttons (left-hand side). With the keyboard, the player can play both melody and chords, whilst with the buttons both a bass line and chords are possible. Coordinating this selection of musical devices is difficult to master let alone than playing a piece of music.
On balance across the internet and fellow musicians, it seems that the feeling is very much in favor of the violin being the most difficult instrument to successfully learn. Such are the demands of playing the violin, from posture to hand position, and bowing that undertaking this task is herculean. The key perhaps to success is to have the benefit of a teacher you get along with and who understands you, together with enormous focus and dedication to many hours of practice.