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The 10 Hardest Instruments To Play & Learn

All musical instruments present unique challenges when learning them.

However, some are considerably harder to learn and play than others.

What’s the hardest instrument to play and learn?

We looked around and found the instruments that are hardest to learn and play, along with why they’re such a challenge.

1. Harp

The harp is a large instrument with anywhere from 24 to over 40 strings, and may also have pedals you have to learn to use.

woman playing harp

Strings, Strings, and Strings

Violins, violas, cellos, and string basses have four strings.

Pianos have a ton of strings, but you press keys to play them.

Most guitars have six strings, which you pluck or strum.

But with harps, you have at least three guitars’ worth of strings to pluck and strum, all with proper technique.

There isn’t much information on how to learn to play the harp, compounding the problem with learning.

Besides learning how to pluck the strings and develop fine motor control to do it well, you also have to memorize melodies and work on your hand-eye coordination.

Pedals, too?

Add to that the fact that many harps today have pedals that change the key in which the instrument plays.

Pianists have to learn how to use pedals in coordination with their hands, but they have three, at most.

These harps have as many as seven pedals.

The sheer amount of coordination between your eyes, hands, and feet requires a lot of practice to get a basic grasp of how to play the harp, making it one of the hardest instruments to learn and play.

2. Organ

Whether it’s an electric organ or pipe organ, this keyboard instrument has more than just keys to press.

While you should know how to play the piano before attempting to tackle the organ, piano knowledge alone isn’t enough.

historic church organ

Keyboards and Pedals and Knobs, Oh My!

In general, organs have two or three keyboards to play, although some have more.

When you start learning the organ, you have to learn some new hand and finger positions, too, which may require unlearning some of what you know from the piano.

You also need more coordination and muscle memory to hit the right keys at the correct times.

It’s not just about the keys and keyboards.

If you have a three-keyboard organ, you’ll have three sets of knobs to manipulate while you play, too.

Those knobs (or switches and buttons on an electric organ) change the way each key sounds.

To produce the proper effect at the appropriate time, you need to simultaneously play on multiple keyboards and manipulate those knobs, all in concert with each other.

Some organs also have pedals for the bass notes. Usually, these are two-keyboard electric organs.

Regardless, you have to learn a lot of coordination and develop a ton of new muscle memory to play the organ well.

3. Violin

Violins are some of the most common and popular instruments to learn and play, but they come with unique challenges.

violin with sheet music

Bowing Without Grinding or Scratching

First off, you have to know how to draw the bow across the strings in such a way that it produces a clear tone every time.

You also have to learn different bowing techniques to produce different sounds and effects.

For instance, a staccato sound requires knowing how to “bounce” the bow against the string at the base (frog).

A smooth, quiet entrance requires knowing how to draw the bow from the tip to the frog with precise pressure.

No Frets? Where Do You Put Your Fingers?

And that’s just bowing.

Violins have a fingerboard similar to a guitar, but there are no frets to tell you where to place your fingers.

It’s all ear training and muscle memory (it’s quite common for violin students to put tape across their fingerboards at certain places, though).

You also have to learn 12 positions, the highest of which require an astonishing level of hand-stretching.

A lot of violin-playing is muscle memory, including the bowing technique.

Even professional concert violinists can have trouble with their muscle memory and coordination, putting the violin right up as a hard instrument to play and learn.

4. French Horn

The French horn is just brass, right? What’s so hard?

Yes, it’s a brass instrument, but it’s not like its cousins in the brass family.

french horns on chairs

More than Putting Your Lips Together and Blowing

All wind instruments require a correct embouchure or lip position.

With brass, you need to be able to purse your lips tightly enough to create a buzz and push enough air through the instrument’s tubing to get a good sound.

Tones Are a Little Too “Neighborly”

Close tones add to other challenges not present in the rest of the brass family.

A French horn’s tones are far closer together within the instrument than they are with other brass.

That makes it possible to play two tones simultaneously without realizing it.

You need an excellent ear to hear when you’re playing two tones at the same time, as well as the ability to make very subtle changes to your embouchure to compensate for that.

What’s with the Bell, Anyway?

The bell points away from the audience, creating a slight delay in sound, and French horn players learn how to compensate for that delay in rehearsal.

You should also know when to put your hand in the bell to muffle the sound a bit and when not to.

5. Drums

When you think of drums, you probably think of the drumset you see with your favorite band.

It takes an amazing amount of patience and skill to learn and play those drums.

drum set

It’s More than Coordination

The hardest part of learning the drums is not the hand, eye, and foot coordination, although that certainly adds to the challenges facing any drum student.

You also have to have hand and foot independence.

Stick techniques, particularly those you’ll use on the snare drum, require fine motor control, exact hand position, and the ability to switch between techniques quickly.

You’ll also use those techniques on the toms, plus you need to know how to play in coordination with both your feet.

Your right foot uses the pedal to play the bass drum while your left foot plays the hi-hat cymbals.

Cymbal Technique? What?

Depending on what you’re playing, you may also have cymbal techniques to learn.

Playing a suspended cymbal roll, for instance, demands precise movements not just to produce the proper sound, but also to avoid cracking the cymbal.

It’s no wonder the drums are so hard to learn and play with so much going on.

6. Accordion

The accordion doesn’t get a fair shake in the world of music.

Most of us who have seen someone playing one may have given a passing thought to it but may not have realized it’s harder than it looks.

musician playing acordion

Buttons and Keys or Buttons and Buttons?

It has two sides: The right side might have either chromatic or diatonic buttons or a piano-like keyboard, and the left looks like a bunch of buttons.

The left side is where your bass tones are, while the right side is where your treble tones are.

You also have switches and reed ranks to flip to change tones as necessary.

And finally, you have the bellows motion. Accordions aren’t hard to learn, but they are hard to play.

Help Them “Breathe”

When you play the accordion, you move both sides of the instrument in and out.

That brings in and squeezes out the air that makes the sound in the first place.

It’s not just the coordination and fingerings that make the accordion so hard to learn and play, though.

You have to develop a lot of brute strength to move it in and out, and it’s a weighty instrument as well. Without that strength, you can’t play for any length of time.

7. Guitar

Guitars are the most popular instruments out there today, but they, too, are a complicated instrument to learn and play.

You can learn and play simple chords and tunes with relative ease, but learning the instrument and getting into more complex music is a whole other beast.

guy playing guitar

Awkward!

Guitars require hand coordination, hand-eye coordination, muscle memory, and sheer strength, particularly in your left hand.

When you learn chords, you find that you have to stretch your fingers in what might feel like awkward, or even impossible, positions early on, making this one of the most challenging instruments to play.

You also have technique.

A common problem for guitar students involves a buzzing sound when they play chords.

You have to learn precisely where to place your fingers relative to the frets to eliminate that buzzing.

Plucking, Strumming, and Extras

You have to learn to pluck and strum with your right hand and, depending on your guitar, learn how to use other things amid your playing, like a whammy bar for vibrato.

Fortunately, there are many classes and online information that can help with learning guitar, making that a bit easier.

8. Oboe

Part of the woodwind family, the oboe is almost insanely challenging to learn and play.

One of the biggest challenges with the oboe is its reed.

While clarinets and saxophones have single reeds, oboes and bassoons use small double reeds.

oboe in case

Don’t Bite the Reed!

Like any wind instrument, you need to learn the correct embouchure to play the oboe.

It’s easy to bite the oboe’s reed, even lightly, which will produce a poor quality sound in the lower ranges and a shallow, thready sound in the upper ranges.

Learning the precise position for your lips and the exact pressure needed on the reed is one reason the oboe is so challenging to learn.

Simultaneously Inhaling and Exhaling?

You must develop excellent breathing skills beyond what’s required for many other wind instruments.

When playing the oboe, you usually won’t use all the air you inhale.

If you continue that cycle, you start to feel like you’re suffocating.

Circular breathing, or inhaling through your nose while simultaneously blowing outward through your mouth, has become commonplace with the oboe.

It’s a tricky technique to learn, and you can’t use it through an entire piece because you need to rest your embouchure, too.

9. Bagpipes

You know bagpipes.

They’re the instrument with a weird sack you hold under your arm, a mouthpiece (known as a blow stick), a fingering pipe, and three more pipes coming out of the bag (or bellows).

people playing bagpipes

What Does That “Sack” Even Do?

When you play the bagpipes, you’re blowing into the bellows and filling it with air.

At the same time, you squeeze it between your arm and body, pushing the air out through the pipes.

You must be really strong in your arms, shoulders, and chest to play.

You also have to inhale and exhale consistently to ensure the instrument always has air inside it.

It’s very tempting to breathe in time with the music.

Tricky Fingers

The bagpipes’ fingering is quite tricky.

The fingering pipe has nine holes on it, and you must learn how to cover those holes in the proper sequences to play the right melodies.

With all the bagpipes’ intricacies, it’s genuinely one of the most complex instruments to learn.

10. Piano

Finally, we have the piano.

It’s also one of the most popular instruments out there and very challenging to play, even if you’re experienced.

woman playing digital piano

Yay for Independence!

You need to have complete left-hand, right-hand independence for the piano, which you only learn through practice.

That improves the strength in your hands and forearms, too, which you need to play effectively.

You also need to be able to coordinate your hands with your feet to get the effects you want at the right time.

The piano requires a lot of muscle memory for chords, scales, glissandos, and more.

Different Pianos are…Different?

You probably won’t feel the same things on a piano you’ve never played on as the one you practice and play on every day.

You have to know how to compensate for lighter or heavier keys, as well as the fact that an unfamiliar piano may have slightly different tuning than what your ear is accustomed to.

Final Thoughts

You can learn to play any of these instruments if you’d like.

Even though all of these can be considered the hardest instruments to learn and play, it’s rewarding to master one, even if all you master are the basics.

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