Playing and learning an instrument
Artist toolbox

9 Hardest instruments to learn & play

Learning an instrument is about so much more than just making beautiful music.

Here, we’ll look at nine of the hardest instruments to play and what makes them so unique.

9 hardest instruments to learn:

  1. Oboe
  2. Accordion
  3. Violin
  4. Piano
  5. Drums
  6. Cello
  7. Harp
  8. Clarinet
  9. Hammond Organ
Playing and learning an instrument

The hardest instruments to play are the oboe, accordion, violin, piano, drums, cello, harp, clarinet, and Hammond organ. But there are plenty more out there that didn’t make the top 9.

The technical skill and level of cognition required to not only play but master an instrument make this ancient practice one of the most impactful experiences in history.

Spanning many different cultures and periods, humanity has evolved to produce several complex instruments to enjoy both playing and listening to, and some are more complex than others.

Even though it requires immense skill and dedication to play any instrument—even something as simple as the triangle—some instruments simply require more technical skill and concentration to get right.

However, sometimes the most difficult instruments to play are the most satisfying to master.

1# Oboe - (woodwind instrument)

How the Oboe sounds when played well:

Why it’s hard:

  • Precise breath control needed
  • Complex fingerings are tough to master
  • Limited availability of oboe teachers
  • Double reed maintenance

This beautiful flute-like instrument is easily one of the hardest instruments to play. In fact, due to the opening that you blow through on the reed being so small, it’s tough to get a sound out of this instrument at first! Once you’ve mastered the right tongue articulation and have the strength to support a good sound using your breath, you need to learn the key work and fingerings, both of which are complex and require a lot of practice.

With its heavy physical weight, sensitive reed, intense physiological requirements, and notoriously perilous learning curve, it’s no wonder that oboists are the highest-paid orchestra members in the world.

The biggest pros of learning the oboe are that it’s unique, high in demand, and considered a rare and special instrument. The cons are that it can be very difficult to maintain and requires extreme discipline to master.

2# Accordion - (free-reed instrument)

How the Accordion sounds when played well:

Why it’s hard:

  • Coordinating both keyboard and button layouts simultaneously
  • Mastering bellows control for dynamics and expression
  • Complex fingering techniques
  • Limited resources and instructors

The origami-like accordion is another hard instrument to learn. Using air pressure to produce its characterful sounds, this unique instrument demands many intricate, constantly active hand movements to produce a complete tune, making it very difficult to play unless you have years of experience. Those who have tried (and failed) to learn this instrument usually complain that a lot is happening at once and that accordions are heavy, so playing gets tiring quickly.

The accordion’s unique combination of keyboard, buttons, and bellows presents a learning curve. Coordinating between the keyboard and button layouts simultaneously demands multitasking skills. However, the accordion’s versatility allows for various music genres, from folk to classical. Mastering bellows control for dynamics and expression requires practice. Some find the accordion’s portability and self-accompaniment capabilities advantageous. While resources and instructors may be limited compared to more common instruments, online tutorials and communities offer support. With dedication and persistence, mastering the accordion can lead to a fulfilling musical journey.

3# Violin - (string instrument)

How the violin sounds when played well:

Why it’s hard:

  • Precise intonation and bow control
  • Complex fingering and hand coordination
  • Mastery of various bowing techniques
  • Limited surface area for finger placement

When played correctly, the violin can produce some of the most haunting and beautiful melodies you can hear. But playing it correctly is no easy feat; it can take years to master.

As a fretless instrument, violinists must be incredibly precise as even a small deviation on the strings can turn a sweet sound into a strangled squeal. Furthermore, despite appearing to be very small and sleight, violins can be difficult to hold up for long periods. The playing position is undeniably awkward, and coordinating your fingers and the bow is no small feat.

There’s no denying, however, that when a master is playing the violin, the sound is worth every difficulty.

Watch how this professional learnt violin from 1 to 10 years of playing!

Mastering precise intonation and bow control requires dedication and practice. However, some find the violin’s smaller size and lighter weight easier to handle compared to larger instruments. Complex fingering and hand coordination are necessary, but consistent practice can improve technique over time.

While it may take patience to develop various bowing techniques, the violin’s versatility in different music genres makes it a worthwhile pursuit. While it’s true that beginners may struggle initially, with perseverance and guidance from a skilled teacher, progress can be made. So, while the journey may have its ups and downs, the satisfaction of producing beautiful music on the violin makes it all worth it.

4# Piano - (percussion instrument)

How the piano sounds when played well:

Why it’s hard:

  • Coordination and timing between hands
  • Developing simultaneous finger-independent movement
  • Reading and playing from sheet music
  • Mastery of music theory

The piano is a great example of an instrument that can be simple enough to learn the basics of but incredibly challenging to fully master. Don’t underestimate the complexity of this seemingly simple instrument.

With no repeated pitches, a whopping 88 keys, and some of the most versatile melody potential of all instruments, the piano creates intricate music that a handful of people spend a lifetime mastering. But for those who lack hand-eye coordination, the ability to read music and stroke the right keys simultaneously is a step too far.

The piano’s biggest pro is simultaneously its biggest con: the sheer, near-endless creative and technical potential.

Mastering coordination between hands and understanding music theory is necessary. However, the piano’s layout is straightforward and easy to understand. Developing finger independence can be tricky, but consistent practice leads to improvement. Some argue that reading sheet music adds complexity, but it’s a valuable skill. While beginners may find it daunting at first, progress comes with patience and dedication. Plus, the piano’s versatility allows for various music genres, making it an enjoyable instrument to learn. With access to online tutorials and resources, learning the piano is more accessible than ever.

5# Drums - (percussion instrument)

How the drums sounds when played well:

Why it’s hard:

  • Coordination between entire limbs
  • Drumming technique combinations
  • Deep understanding of rhythm and timing
  • Stamina to physically maintain a consistent tempo

The drums are often underestimated for their level of complexity. Not only does this instrument require intense cognitive skills to master, but it also requires intense physical energy, often demanding explosive, long-winded movements from its player.

So, you need to be fit, able to keep time and coordinate your upper and lower limbs to ensure you hit the right notes. These factors are all common complaints from people who thought they could simply pick up the sticks and be a rockstar.

The pro? What an energy release.

6# Cello - (string instrument)

How the cello sounds when played well:

Why it’s hard:

  • Mastering bow control for consistent tone
  • Developing finger strength and flexibility
  • Left-hand finger placements whilst bowing with the right
  • The cello’s large size can be physically demanding

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a cello is easy to play because you can play it sitting down. This immensely challenging instrument requires intricate finger movements, constantly controlled pressure, and strength to support throughout playing.

Like a violin, there are no frets to tell you where your finger placement needs to be, so you need to build up muscle memory to recall where every note is. This lack of certainty is a killer for many aspiring musicians, especially when you consider that cellists need to use more than one pitch for the same note name. Confused? So are a lot of would-be-but-aren’t cellists!

The biggest cons of playing the cello are its size and fretless strings. But its pro has got to be the moody, soulful sound it emits when played correctly.

The cello’s warm, resonant sound makes the effort worthwhile. Developing finger strength and flexibility to navigate the fingerboard can be demanding, yet progress is achievable with dedication.

While coordinating left-hand finger placements with right-hand bowing may seem daunting, it becomes easier with time and repetition. Additionally, the cello’s larger size may initially feel cumbersome, but many find it comfortable once they adjust.

7# Harp - (string & percussion instrument)

How the harp sounds when played well:

Why it’s hard:

  • Tuning the many harp strings
  • Developing hand independence for playing melody and accompaniment
  • Mastering pedal technique for changing the pitch
  • Understanding complex harp notation and music theory

This stringed instrument has been played since the earliest records of human existence. The unique challenge posed by the heavenly harp relates to the sheer number of strings it possesses, requiring players to learn up to 47 at a time.

But what really makes it challenging is that the motion of playing the strings isn’t just unintuitive; it’s completely counter-intuitive. Playing the harp requires that you pull your fingers in to pluck the strings and push away with your thumb rather than the more natural feeling of moving sideways. Add the fact that you need to use both hands, and it’s easy to see why the harp is a hard instrument to learn to play.

Yet, once mastered, there’s no denying that the harp produces celestial and magical music.

8# Clarinet - (woodwind instrument)

How the clarinet sounds when played well:

Why it’s hard:

  • Performing proper breath control
  • Coordinating fingerings whilst maintaining tone
  • Learning clarinet-specific notation and techniques
  • Mastering articulation and phrasing

Similarly to the oboe, the clarinet is a woodwind instrument that may be slightly more versatile but is just as hard, if not one of the hardest instruments to learn in its class. Its reed opening is slightly bigger, but it also requires some good tongue and breath control to get a sound out.

Another major challenge many people cite is the finger holes, as closing these properly in time isn’t simple, and when even the tiniest bit of air is allowed in, the clarinet turns from sublime to squeaky or simply won’t make any sound whatsoever.

One of the toughest parts of playing a clarinet is controlling the sound. There is a very fine line between awkward, haunting squeals and truly beautiful, pipe-like tunes. For this reason, the clarinet can take decades to fully master. However, it’s still considered a fun and enchanting instrument to play.

Clarinet doesn’t seem to be as popular as it should be. It is a major sound element of 2 opposite genres! There are amazing clarinet parts in both classical and blues/jazz music.

Here is a famous piece which captures how expressive the clarinet can be:

Here is a famous piece which captures how expressive the clarinet can be:

8# Hammond Organ - (woodwind instrument)

How the Hammond organ sounds when played well:

Why it’s hard:

  • Understanding the complex array of drawbars and presets requires time and dedication.
  • Coordinating hands and feet to manipulate keyboards and pedals simultaneously demands multitasking skills.
  • Mastering the use of the organ’s expression pedals for dynamics and tone control adds complexity.
  • Learning to balance and blend the sounds of different manuals and stops requires careful listening and adjustment

Some people believe that the Hammond organ is the hardest instrument to learn of all. It’s difficult not to agree with them when you consider that it has not one but two keyboards, 25 brass pedals, and no sustained pedal.

It poses a major challenge to musicians, not just physically but mentally, too. Most people battle with the overwhelming number of moving parts (themselves included) that are required just to get a sound out of the organ, let alone a tune. This instrument requires a player with profound multitasking abilities, patience, coordination, and mental strength.

Perseverance does pay off, though and when mastered, the Hammond organ creates a range of incredible sounds that relate to soul, funk, rock, and blues, to name a few.

Learning an instrument can enhance your cognitive skills!

Playing music can boost brainpower by enhancing cognitive skills like memory and problem-solving. Plus, it improves concentration and focus, which can benefit both children and adults in various aspects of life. Some studies suggest that learning an instrument can even help stave off cognitive decline in old age.

However, it’s important to note that frustration and self-doubt can creep in during the learning process, especially for beginners. Yet, overcoming challenges can build resilience and confidence, leading to a sense of accomplishment. Additionally, playing music can be a form of self-expression, reducing stress and improving overall mental well-being. So, while the journey may have its ups and downs, the mental rewards of learning an instrument are undeniable.

Choose the right instrument

There are more than 1,500 instruments in the world. Of that rough 1,500, each one falls into a different category: keyboard, percussion, woodwind, brass, or the guitar family.

When it comes to choosing an instrument to play, we’re inundated with options, and selecting the right one for your personal preferences is key to experiencing positive results. Every instrument comes with its own unique personality, pros, and cons—all of which should be considered.

What are the hardest instruments to play?

The hardest instruments to play depend on an individual’s natural aptitude and skill level. But that said, some instruments are simply tougher to learn than others, especially when they involve multiple playing techniques or mechanisms.

Take on the challenge!

Learning a hard-to-play instrument may be challenging, but it’s an advantageous process. Setting realistic and achievable musical goals while embracing the hardship and complexity of an instrument shows respect for its unique characteristics. Plus, it allows you to approach skill development with more dedication and foresight.

No pain, no gain—or, in this case, no practice, no progress, and no performance-worthy results!

Written by Sydney Evans.