What's the hardest instrument to play? Depending on who you ask, you'll get different answers. But there are a handful of instruments that nearly everyone seems to consider to be among the hardest instruments to play. If you're looking for a challenge, here are the top 12 most difficult instruments to learn.
The Top 12 Hardest Instruments to Play
No list of difficult instruments to play is complete without the violin. Much of this instrument's difficulty comes from the use of the bow. If you watch a virtuoso like Itzhak Perlman play, the motion of the bow looks effortless. However, as any learning violinist can tell you, you need to create just the right amount of pressure on the strings to produce a decent sound. Press too hard and you get a horrific, ear-piercing screech. Press too lightly and you just get a surface scratch.
Another factor is a simple fact that violins don't have frets. Some other string instruments like the guitar can guide your finger placement via frets. But one of the first violin playing skills you'll need to master is perfect finger placement on the neck. Some instructors will help newer students by placing lines of tape on the neck to indicate the right hand placement. Learn how to coordinate tricky fingering techniques with the precise arm movements needed to bow properly, and it's easy to see why the violin is one of the most difficult musical instruments to master.
But the effort you need to put in to learn the violin is well worth it -- this is easily one of the most expressive instruments out there. This video shows you Itzhak Perlman's incredible skill as he plays alongside the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Certain instruments become much easier to master when you receive some outside instruction, and the violin is definitely one of those instruments. Once you can successfully play, you'll be able to create amazingly nuanced music. But in the early stages, there are lots of finer details to learn. That's where a beginner's course or another form of online violin instructions can really make a difference.
2. French Horn
The classic-looking French horn is one of the most recognizable brass instruments. And though it can produce a captivating sound, the French horn is a hard instrument to learn. From a physical standpoint, it can be difficult to maneuver, as the keys are in the middle of the instrument (as opposed to on top as they are on a trumpet).
The French horn requires a deceptive amount of air to play well. Though it looks compact on the surface, it would be 12 feet long if it were unraveled. Part of what makes the French horn a harder instrument to learn is the amount of airflow you need to play properly. And in order to properly use that airflow, you'll need to develop the correct embouchure, which is the shape of your mouth against the mouthpiece. It's difficult to demonstrate or teach the right embouchure, although there's plenty of writing by experts on how to do so.
You'll also need to develop excellent breath control. French horns have a wide range, and they're useful for a wide variety of tones. The French horn is something of a musical chameleon. It's capable of producing soft, warmer tones as well as sharper, louder sounds. You can also use different effects to produce different sounds. This video (below left) shows you how to play stopped notes, notes with mutes, and more.
Playing the French horn also poses a unique challenge when performing with other musical instruments. Thanks to its shape and the fact that the bell faces away from the audience (unlike the rest of the brass musical instrument family), each note occurs with a slight delay. (If you've ever played guitar with a delay pedal, you'll have an idea of what this effect is like.) An experienced French horn player will be able to take this into account and adjust their playing accordingly, but for the newer player, it can be frustrating.
If you're familiar with Peter and the Wolf, you might recall that the French horn is used to represent the wolf. This video (above - right) shows you a little bit about how the horn works and why it's associated with the wolf. And as you'll see in the video, having a first horn play with at least one backup lead horn player can result in captivating harmonies.
Since bagpipes don't usually appear in most contemporary music, there aren't a whole lot of people looking to learn how to play them. But the peculiar tone of bagpipes has a rich history -- they were used in Irish funerals, weddings, and other ceremonies. When Irish immigrants came to America, they brought the use of bagpipes with them.
If you want to learn to play bagpipes, it's a good idea to work with a skilled instructor. But interestingly enough, you don't start learning with a full set of bagpipes. Instead, you use a smaller, more affordable practice device called a practice chanter. Even experienced players use these instruments to practice newer material. Chanters have the advantage of letting you practice new pieces without also having to practice the powerful airflow needed to play a full set of pipes.
On a chanter, you can practice fingering and gracenoting. Gracenoting is a note-separating technique that can be tough to learn. This video offers an explanation of gracenotes and how to play them.
The piano is a popular musical instrument for a reason. From the classic resonance of an acoustic piano to the endless applications of midi keyboards and the digital piano, the piano is useful in just about every musical genre.
The piano is also one of the most popular instruments for children to learn. That may partly be because learning to play piano has actually been connected to better cognitive ability in math, the sciences, and spatial reasoning. It's also a great visual way to start understanding music theory and learning to read musical notation from an early age.
However, as you progress on the piano, you'll start to see why it's one of the harder instruments to play. For most learning pianists, being able to play with both hands at the same time is a challenge. Learning to play the piano requires focus and persistence, especially when it comes to learning to play the correct keys with both your left hand and your right hand.
The piano can also become an instrument that you play with both your hands and your feet. Using piano pedals can make a major difference in your playing dynamics, but integrating them is often difficult. The sustain pedal (also called a damper pedal) will sustain the last notes played once you remove your hands from the keyboard.
Some pianos have a sostenuto pedal. This pedal will only sustain notes as they are held. A sostenuto pedal can sustain a chord held with the left hand while the right hand plays over it. Most pianos also have a soft pedal or a practice pedal. This pedal quiets the notes and is great for practicing without disturbing the neighbors. This video shows you the three usual pedals and what they do.
Learning to play piano in the first stages isn't always difficult. But as you progress -- and especially when you need to play the bass clef and treble clef staves at the same time -- it becomes increasingly challenging. But with an online course, you'll get the guidance you need to develop as a well-rounded player. Some courses will even "listen" to you play and offer feedback when you play the right notes.
No list of the hardest instruments to learn would be complete with at least one of the woodwind instruments. Musicians might disagree on which woodwind is the most challenging, but the oboe is certainly not one of the easiest instruments to learn.
One of the most challenging aspects of playing the oboe is its shape. The oboe's cylindrical bore makes it so no scale is perfectly in tune. Skilled players can learn to compensate with different fingerings or embouchure techniques, but as you might guess, there's a significant learning curve.
The oboe just might be the hardest instrument to play because it can take significant time -- even years -- for a player to produce a musical sound. Most people learning an instrument will become frustrated or demotivated if it just doesn't sound good, so many oboe beginners give up. Selecting the correct reed can make a real difference, but even music teachers sometimes inadvertently select a reed that ends up making it harder for the student to play.
However, one of the oboe's major challenges -- its need for great breath control -- can sometimes be an asset. Unlike most wind instruments, the oboe requires a very controlled airflow as opposed to a powerful one. That makes it a good choice for people with smaller lung capacity.
So why do oboe learners put up with so much frustration? When played well, the oboe can produce sounds that are sweet and warm. This video lets you get a closer look at an oboe and listen to it, too.
The unusual and unique-sounding accordion also happens to be one of the hardest instruments to learn. That's largely because you need to be able to do a few different things simultaneously. Every accordion has a bellows -- the folded center responsible for moving air. It might sound easy to simply move the bellows to create sound. But controlling the bellows is a lot like controlling your breath as a singer -- it takes precision and training to get it exactly right.
On most accordions, the right hand and the left hand are performing separate motions in addition to moving the bellows. The right hand is generally playing a keyboard, which is either in the form of a piano-style keyboard or a chromatic (button) keyboard. The left note will usually play chords and/or bass notes.
Learning to use your hands independently is the biggest hurdle, but this amazing instrument will ultimately let you play beautifully intricate pieces of music. And as shown in this video (above left), the accordion is the main instrument used to play music for Oktoberfest. European street musicians are also known for playing accordions -- check out this video (above right) of a Romanian busker.
The harp is a stringed instrument surrounded by an otherworldly mystique. It features prominently in Irish mythology, and it's commonly associated with angels, too.
And though it might look like harpists are just sitting and plucking strings, the harp is actually one of the most difficult instruments to learn. This is partly because harps have a large number of strings -- usually from 22 to 47. So to be an effective harpist, great muscle memory is a must. In time, you'll be able to remember the location of each string.
This beautiful instrument is similar to the guitar in that you can learn to play simple pieces relatively easily. But once you move into more complex pieces, you'll see why it's considered to be one of the hardest instruments to learn. And like a piano, the harp can often be played with pedals to make the notes flatter or sharper. Being able to play the strings and pedals at the same time can prove to be incredibly difficult.
Lastly, learning the harp as a self-taught player presents its own set of challenges. Compared to guitar, piano, and other popular instruments, there aren't many courses for learning the harp out there. Usually, musicians who are serious about the harp end up working one-on-one with a qualified instructor.
But much like other challenging musical instruments, the harp is well worth the effort. Check out this video to hear the sound of a classical harp (and to appreciate the dexterity that goes into a good performance).
The guitar is one of the more popular musical instruments out there. Some people also consider it an easy instrument to learn. And if your goal is to develop a basic understanding of how to strum open chords, this might be true.
But if your goal is to become a proficient guitarist, the guitar quickly becomes a difficult instrument. For example, great classical guitarists effectively play rhythm and lead at the same time on a single instrument -- check out this video (above left) of classical guitarist Xuefei Yang to get an example. But complexity isn't limited to the classical genre. Most metal playing is incredibly technical and involves alternate tunings.
This video (above right) of neoclassical and metal guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen can help give you an idea of what expert playing can sound like, and it also showcases the guitar alongside other string instruments.
One advantage of learning guitar is that you generally don't need to read musical notation. A good bit of musical notation for guitar comes in the form of tablature. That can make it easier to start playing even without prior musical experience.
The guitar is one of the hardest instruments to learn largely because there is so much to learn. From learning the pentatonic scales to working on modes to shaping different tones with effects pedals, you can always find a way to challenge yourself. And then there are different types of guitars -- the pedal steel guitar is designed and played much differently than a regular guitar.
Though you can often get a decent understanding of how to play guitar from teaching yourself, the best way to make sure you develop as a player is to follow an organized guitar course. Doing so doesn't have to be prohibitively expensive, either. Many online music courses are designed for guitar players, and you can learn a very wide range of musical genres and specific playing techniques.
You might think that drums are easier to play than other instruments because they don't play a melody. But don't let that fool you -- being a percussionist requires a sense of rhythm and impressive coordination.
But to be an effective drummer, make sure you start slowly. You may even practice with just a snare drum at first. The sound of the snare pairs well with the full and rounded sound of a large bass drum.
Even before moving on to a modern drum set, many drummers will practice with this smaller combination until they master the coordination of their arms and foot. This is a lot harder than it sounds, and it's an important foundational skill. As you progress as a drummer, you'll be able to play multiple patterns simultaneously. The challenge doesn't end there, though -- a good drummer will be able to add taps and accents to any piece of music, too.
A drum kit can become one of the hardest instruments to play by virtue of sheer size. Neil Pert of Rush played an absolutely massive drum kit for Rush's Time Machine Tour -- you can check it out in this video. And don't forget the physical stamina it takes to play drums -- there's a reason the drummer is often the sweatiest person onstage at a show.
10. Pipe Organ
Electric organs may not necessarily be too tough to learn. But learning the pipe organ is a different story. Before you even get to the learning process, though, you'll see that this is probably the most difficult instrument to access. Most pipe organs can be found in churches and cathedrals -- you can't just buy one at a music store and bring it home.
Part of playing the pipe organ is very similar to playing the piano -- you'll need to be familiar with a keyboard. But you'll also need to coordinate pulling out stops to create different timbres. Plus, much like acoustic pianos, pipe organs also include foot pedals. If you're interested in working with an organ instructor, it's worth knowing that most require you to have a certain amount of familiarity with the piano before taking you on as a student.
The pipe organ may be one of the hardest instruments to play, but it's also one of the most breathtaking. Check out this video of the huge organ at Chester Cathedral -- it will give you an idea of just how much coordination it takes to be a great organist.
Though the oboe is arguably the hardest instrument in the woodwind family to play, learning to play flute can also be fairly difficult. Getting into the correct position to play can place physical strain on beginner players. The arms need to be elevated to play and balancing the flute while playing is a challenge in itself. Keeping the arms up can cause some players to develop wrist pain and even injuries, and the required tilt of the head can cause neck pain. That's why it's ideal to have some guidance when you start out, even if it's just from an online video or two.
As is the case with other woodwinds, playing flute well requires you to develop excellent breath control. Many flute teachers and experienced players recommend breathing exercises to help you improve your breath control. And of course, ensuring a proper embouchure is critical to success. This video (below left) offers some tips for developing better breathing habits to improve your playing.
For many new flutists, learning correct fingering techniques is also tough. Since the flute is held off to the side, a flutist can't look at the keys like a clarinetist or oboist can. It isn't impossible to learn the right fingerings on flute, but it does take some practice. To see an example of a professional-level flutist, check out this great performance (above right).
Though the sitar isn't often used in Western music, it's the most common instrument in Hindustani music. It's a difficult instrument for many people to learn because it requires you to learn the Indian musical scale.
When you have an idea of the scale, you'll be able to start playing. But for newer players, a sitar's 18-21 strings can be intimidating. You don't always need to play all strings, though. On a sitar, the bottom strings are called "sympathetic strings" because they vibrate and produce sound when the top strings are played.
Thanks to its different scale and unique string configuration, the sitar has a formidable learning curve. But when it comes to physically playing it, it's a lot like playing the guitar -- it has similar frets and tuning pegs.
Most of us don't think of the sitar when we think of modern music. But some contemporary artists have managed to work the sitar into rock and pop songs. Musician Ravi Shankar helped to popularize it in the 50s and 60s, and he even taught George Harrison of the Beatles to play sitar. This video (above left) shows Harrison playing sitar on TV. More recently, the chorus of the St. Vincent song "Down" (above right) prominently features the electric sitar.
Whether you want to learn a challenging instrument or would prefer to stick to playing something easier, it helps to be aware of which instruments are the toughest to master. And hopefully, you enjoyed our list -- please don't forget to like and share if you found it useful. If you can think of any other instruments that present a real challenge, let us know in the comments!