Which instrument should I play?

With so many options, how do you know which instrument to pick?

how to read and count rhythms in music
written by andrew swinney

By: Andrew Swinney

Learning to play an instrument can be incredibly rewards, or incredibly frustrating. I’ve seen so many students sour their relationship with learning music simply because they picked (or were assigned) an instrument that just wasn’t a good fit.

There are five categories I would encourage any parents or student to consider before choosing an instrument. They are:

  • How difficult is it to make a sound?
  • How well is the instrument matched for my body?
  • How expensive will it be to learn this instrument?
  • Is it easy or hard to find educational resources?
  • How badly do I want to learn this instrument?

How difficult is it to make a sound?

Imagine you walk up to a piano. I point to a key and say “This is middle C, can you press the key?” You do and, ta-da, you have played a middle C.

Now imagine that I hand you a bassoon. I tell you to cover certain holes and press certain keys. I tell you “This is middle C, can you play middle C for me?” You try to figure out how your mouth is supposed to go around the reed and then you blow… and maybe something comes out?

Different instruments require different techniques to produce sound. Wind instruments require an embouchure and understand of how to use air. String instruments require hand dexterity and an understanding of how to bow.

The more you need to know to produce a sound on an instrument, the more frustrating it will be to learn as a beginner.

Your Body

This can be a sensitive topic for some people, but your body is an important consideration when choosing an instrument.

Pretend you want your six-year-old to learn an instrument. Which would be a better choice: the piano or a tuba?

Both would have their challenges. Your child likely won’t have the hand size to play an octave with one hand on the piano, but he/she will also have problems being tall enough to even reach the tuba’s mouthpiece. They would also have problems holding the tuba and the size of the mouthpiece would be too big for their face.

The reality is, some instruments just require adult stature to perform well. Now, there are child-sized versions of some instruments (primarily stringed instruments), which can make learning as a child easier.

One important consideration in this category -- remember that many instruments require you to use your mouth to create sound. Braces dramatically impact your ability and the way it feels to play a wind instrument. It is not impossible, but it can be unpleasant.

Costs

Learning an instrument has some up-front costs. You’ll need:

  1. The Instrument
  2. Maintenance equipment
  3. Lessons
  4. Sheet music

Each of these items varies in price depending on which instrument you choose. For example, you can buy a beginner’s guitar for $50. To buy a french horn you will need to spend at least $1,000 (please, do not buy one you see listed for $100).

Some instruments are cheaper and easier to maintain. You can tune a guitar yourself, but you will need to hire a professional in order to tune your piano.

Lessons also vary in cost depending on how many teachers there are in an area. How many piano players do you know? It will be much easier and cheaper to find a teacher. How many bass clarinet players do you know? Yea, that will be much harder and more expensive.

When you first start playing an instrument, you aren’t sure if you will like it and keep up with it. You might want to try picking a cheaper instrument that is in the family of your dream instrument (for example, pick trumpet if you want to learn french horn). This will allow you to learn some of the basics and get a feel for how much you enjoy practicing.

Accessibility to knowledge

We’ve already touched on the idea that it will be much harder to find private lesson teachers for certain instruments, and the same is true for all resources. Take a second to search “piano lessons” and “oboe lessons” on YouTube. You will find many more results for piano lessons.

Many more people play piano or guitar, which means there are more free resources available. If you plan on teaching yourself, you should take a second to search for things like:

  • Resources
  • Lessons
  • Guides
  • Free music

If you see a lot of options, then you can probably teach yourself many of the basics.

Passion

I opened this article by saying that learning to play an instrument is rewarding, but it is also frustrating. The very nature of practice is to spend time trying to figure out something you don’t do well. You’re going to have good days and bad days. Some techniques will come to you easier than others. You’re going to enjoy playing some pieces more than others.

To stick with the process, you need to love it. You need something that you can tap into to keep yourself motivated through hard times.

The reason I wanted to learn to play french horn because there was a song played during an audiobook I enjoyed as a kid. It featured the french horn. My very first goal as a student was to learn to play that song.

An important note -- these are my votes for the easiest instruments to start learning music on. These aren’t necessarily the easiest instruments to master or have a professional music career on. With so many piano, violin, and guitar players out there, the competition is fierce. It can be harder to win auditions that expose you to new learning opportunities (like schools or camps) and win scholarship opportunities to afford them.

In contrast to the easier to learn instruments, these harder instruments have less competition, which means it is actually easier to get scholarships or entrance to festivals and other learning opportunities.

Ultimately, mastering any instruments is going to be difficult and you will have to constantly work to stay competitive. The trick to having fun is to learn to enjoy the process of practicing.