Which Musical Instrument Should I learn?

» Posted by on Oct 4, 2011 in Blog | 8 comments

Something a little different for today’s post. Picking the right musical instrument to learn. I honestly believe that anyone can learn to play an instrument. Some might have an extra helping of musical talent, but hard work and effort can bridge the gap.

If you’ve never tried learning a musical instrument, choosing which one you would like to learn isn’t as straightforward as you might think. Not only are there a huge variety of instruments to consider, but there are often many styles and methods of playing each one of them. Added to that, some instruments are relatively easy to grasp the basics of, while others require a little more dedication and time and have a steeper learning curve to them. To make your choice you’re going to need some help, so read on.

Perhaps the first question you should ask yourself is: what type of music do you enjoy most?

This is the starting point. Your answer is going to narrow the list down substantially. Do you like folk music? Then maybe think about the dulcimer, flute, acoustic or Spanish/classical guitar. Maybe jazz is your thing? Then perhaps something like the piano, the double bass or the saxophone would be ideal. Classical, orchestral music has the largest range to choose from but, with the exception of the piano, many classical pieces of music require you to play with others. Then again, playing with others once you’re capable is one of the most enjoyable aspects of learning an instrument. So, think about what you like and have that in mind throughout the rest of the article.

To guide you in the process here is a list of the most common musical instruments with their pros and cons and which music they are most often associated with. Obviously this list is not exhaustive, but it will help you towards an informed decision:

Piano

The piano is a wonderful starting point for any aspiring musician, and once learned to an intermediate degree, forms a solid foundation for many other instruments, including the human voice. It’s also very often the primary instrument in the composing process. Many classical composers would have used the piano to initially write their pieces for other instruments. On the piano musical notes are clearly visible, including sharps/flats, and chord structures follow patterns. In short, the piano is the quintessential instrument, and worth learning to some level even if it will not be your main instrument of choice as it forms a good basis for grasping general musical theory. Although a fine instrument when accompanying others, it is also great when played solo; and of course it still allows the player to sing while playing.

There are a few downsides. For one, decent pianos are expensive, though electric keyboards can be cheaper options. As with most instruments, you get what you pay for, but there are always bargains to be had if you’re willing to buy second-hand. They can also take up a large amount of space and non-electric pianos, whether upright or grand, aren’t very transportable.

Guitar

The guitar is probably the most wide-spread and popular of contemporary instruments. There are essentially three main types of modern guitar: the steel-string acoustic; the smaller, nylon-stringed classical – or Spanish – guitar; and the electric guitar. Each of those have sub-genres, most especially the electric guitar, which can come as a solid body of various types, a hollow-body, or a semi, each with its own characteristics. There are also less common types such as the diminutive ukulele, the banjo, and the lap-guitar that’s so popular in country music.

Grasping the basics of the guitar is relatively easy to accomplish. In a short time an individual can learn enough chords to play some simple songs – it’s amazing how much popular music uses just a few chords. Like most things however, to become an expert, even in one style, can take many years of work and dedication.

The guitar is light and easy to transport. Again and as always, you get what you pay for, but the sheer amount of guitars on the market ensures there are always bargains. 

Flute

Now for a few of the most popular woodwind instruments. The flute is a reedless wind instrument and, when played well, is lovely to listen to either played solo or as part of an orchestra. It’s also a popular marching band and school orchestra choice. Though very different to stringed and brass instruments, it is not difficult to pick up the basics. They’re easy to carry around and can be purchased quite cheaply, especially those intended for beginners. Flutes are used in folk and orchestral music. 

Clarinet

The clarinet is a single-reed instrument of the woodwind genre. In typical classical orchestras a Clarinettist usually has two at hand and ready to play; one in B♭ and one in A. They are quite complex instruments to learn, but once you are adapt, the jump to other woodwind instruments is much easier as most others tend to be more forgiving. Famous in big band jazz music, the clarinet has a very distinctive sound. Reed instruments do tend to be pricey however, so budget is a consideration. They are dissectible for ease of transportation. 

Oboe

A quick look at an oboe can immediately tell you it’s a more complex cousin to the clarinet. A double-reed instrument, it has a clear sound and resonance; so much so that orchestras usually tune to the oboe’s concert A. The oboe has about 45 different keys on it, though some octave keys are semi-automatic or completely automatic, but this makes for a difficult time for beginners. It is considerably more expensive than the clarinet, though cheaper plastic resin models are available. Common in classical, jazz and folk music. 

Saxophone

The sax is perhaps the most mainstream of the woodwind instruments, often played in pop, rock and blues as much as in classical and jazz and everything in between. It has similar keywork to other reed-based woodwind instruments but, with the exception of the soprano sax, a very distinctive shape all of its own. There are four main varieties, changing in size, pitch and tone. The largest can be cumbersome, especially if you have a small stature or are young. Again, these instruments are expensive. For example a low-end alto sax can cost as much as high-end guitar. 

Violin/Viola/Cello

Now for the stringed instruments. The most famous and popular of which are the violin and its larger relatives, the viola and cello. The violin is famous as both a soloist and orchestral instrument and has been used in music as diverse as folk, rock, classical and even pop and dance. The violin is certainly one of the most beautiful sounding instruments when played well, but one of the worst when played by a beginner! This is because of its high pitch – at least for the violin; the viola is lower and the cello lower still – and fretless nature of the neck, meaning it is easy for a beginner to play notes too sharp (high) or flat (low). But if you put in the practice, learn the fingering and attune your ear, these instruments will sing like few others can. All three instruments can be played in different ways, most commonly with the aid of a bow.

While even a full size violin is small and easy to carry, the same cannot be said for the cello, which is played resting on the ground while the player sits. Cheap, beginner instruments are not overly expensive, but as you progress you will want to upgrade, and as with most musical instruments the price increases markedly as you move into professional grade quality. Hunt around for bargains.

Double Bass

This is essentially a larger version of the cello. It too can be played with a bow, though for non-classical styles is commonly plucked or “slapped” like a bass guitar. Famous in jazz music, it provides a rich, deep sound, complementing any percussion instruments.

A full size double bass is a huge instrument requiring a case large enough to fit a person in!

Trumpet//Horn/ Trombone/Tuba

Moving on to the brass instruments, we will look at the trumpet, one of the oldest instruments in the world. Used mainly in classical and jazz music and especially famous in the big band era, the trumpet has a distinctive sound and a high register – it’s the highest of the brass instruments. It can be muted to give a softer tone with less volume. Easy to carry around and with initial learner or second-hand models at reasonable prices, it’s a good instrument to start with, though be careful at what time of day you practice!

The horn (French horn) is the second highest of the brass instruments and is characterised by its distinctive circular silhouette and complex inner tubing. Mainly used in orchestral music, it is mid-size and not overly cumbersome to transport, and is known for its mellow tones.

The trombone is larger, often without buttons (or valves) for changing pitch. Instead it uses a telescopic motion, making for a very distinctive appearance and playing style. Although generally larger than a trumpet, it’s still easy enough to transport.

The tuba is the largest and lowest sounding brass instrument. Never mistake a lower register for lower volume however; it can penetrate the walls of a house just as easily! Usually restricted to orchestral roles, of which there are commonly just one and at most two per orchestra.

All brass instruments are difficult to play softly, so bear that in mind! They can all be muted somewhat with a cone cap, but this does change the sound and feeling significantly.

Conclusion

Obviously this article has just scratched the surface. There are plenty of other common instruments out there, and many more unusual and exotic ones specific to a particular region, country or culture. Percussion instruments like drum-sets, steel drums, bongos, maracas and so forth, are worthy of their own space and are beyond the scope of this article, but certainly are not to be forgotten. In fact, many musicians have said that learning to play some kind of percussion instrument as well is a good way of developing better timing when you play your musical instrument of choice, so bear that in mind.

Hopefully this has given you something to think about. Perhaps the best advice is to go down to your local music shop and have a look around, try some instruments out and see what catches your interest. To get a chance to check out all of the instruments discussed above you might need to visit more than one type of shop. Learning an instrument is as much about the journey as the end result, and you have to be interested enough to want to learn, and enjoy the process of learning, without worrying about how long it might take you. But put in enough dedication and effort and you’ll be making beautiful melodies in no time.

Finally, a brief note on lessons and their importance. Although music lessons are beneficial and should certainly be considered, do not overestimate them. There is a fine balance. Sometimes too much or too rigorous adherence to technical ability can stifle creative ability. If all of your time is spent learning the “correct” way to play an instrument and how to play other peoples’ music perfectly, you might lose the ability to “think outside the box”. Have lesions by all means, learn the techniques, but remember to be creative, break the rules, and learn to make and write your own unique music as much as play everyone else’s!

8 Comments

  1. The UAL orchestra is looking for more violinists, cellists and trombonists! Do you or anyone you know play any of these instruments?

  2. Thanks Simon for sharing this information. This article really very helpful to those who want to learn musical instruments and suggests which one is best for you.

  3. Thanks Simon for this really interesting post, seriously thinking of getting my son into music, but I really don’t know where to start. I don’t want to impose an instrument on him, just get him introduced to music gently and just let him do his own thing. I think instead of going down the music lesson route I might just try and find if they have some kind of “play” groups where they incorporate music, he’s a really creative boy, wouldn’t want to spoil it :)
    What instruments do you play then?

  4. I play the piano, the guitar, the sax. I also dabble with the bass and drums. I would say just make sure music is a big part of his life, listening to it, singing along, but don’t force anything on him too early. It depends how old he is too. I began with the guitar at about eight but didn’t really take anything seriously until I was about fifteen and it was what I wanted to do rather than what my parents wished me to do.

  5. Thanks Simon :) Shall take your advice on board x

  6. Hi, this is a great post! Thanks..

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