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The 7 hardest instruments to learn, play, and master

There’s a big difference between learning to play an instrument a little and genuinely mastering an instrument, and it’s important to remember you don’t have to be a master to make great music or have fun.

However, if you choose an instrument that’s particularly difficult to play and master, you can’t look for shortcuts. Hard work and dedication pay off; if you stick with it, the reward will be more than worth the time and effort.

About me

James Nugent, author and contributor at Higher Hz

I’m a multi-instrumentalist who has spent over 20 years learning to play the piano, and I know the frustration of being a beginner. As an experienced musician, I now understand the value of patience and realize that you never stop learning.

Initially, it’s often difficult to see any instant benefit from practicing fundamentals like scales and arpeggios. In time, experience teaches us that those fundamentals make playing our favorite songs easier in the long run.

What makes some instruments more difficult than others?

Generally, instruments are difficult to play and master if they overwhelm you physically, mentally, or both.

A good example of an instrument that can be overwhelming is a Hammond organ. The Hammond organ has so many things going on simultaneously: two keyboards, drawbars, pedals, and switches. Understandably, beginners might find that to be overwhelming.

Whether an instrument is physically or mentally challenging (or both), the result is the same: it becomes more difficult to play the correct notes. But, after a while, we come to understand that it’s not just about playing the correct notes; it’s how you play them.

For example, it’s almost certain that a beginner playing the right note on an oboe will still sound terrible because their embouchure, fingering technique, and breath control won’t be perfect.

Learning where the notes are and how to reach them is just a start; learning to control pitch, expression, and dynamics along with the various physical demands is almost like taming an instrument. In that sense, the instruments below are some of the hardest to tame and most rewarding to master.

1. Oboe

Even if you don’t think you know what an oboe sounds like, you’ve heard it more than you realize. The oboe is often the sound that carries beautiful sweeping melodies in an orchestra or many TV/film scores.

learning to play the oboe

Before you start learning, there are a few things that you should know about the oboe, like it requires more maintenance than most instruments. You’ll have to be just as disciplined in maintaining the instrument as in practice. The flip side is that oboists are amongst the highest-paid orchestral musicians, so the extra care and attention pay off.

The first thing that can cause problems is the reed, which is what creates a gorgeous tone. Unlike other reed instruments, there is even less room for fault with the oboe. The reed must be in perfect condition and positioned at all times.

For a long time after you take up the oboe, you will still sound terrible; there’s no escaping that. Unless you are of rare prodigious talent, you’ll need a lot of patience to learn.

The oboe’s design has changed significantly over time; initially, you could only play in certain keys. Now, the oboe can play in any key, but one side-effect of the modern oboe is that it’s far heavier than it looks.

There are still some tuning issues; not every scale will be perfectly in tune. The player has to compensate for this through embouchure and clever fingers.

If you get beyond those issues, you’ll find that it’s one of the most counter-intuitive instruments to play. You will often have to lower your hand position to play a higher pitch or raise your hand to play a lower pitch.

The oboe seems like it was invented as a cruel joke at times; it’s possibly the most complex wind instrument to learn. But learn it well, and you’ll be in high demand.

2. Violin

The violin creates one of the most beautiful sounds you will ever hear when played correctly. However, there are a few reasons it’s referred to as the devil’s instrument, mostly from folklore but also because it’s one of the most challenging instruments to learn.

a girl learning to play the violin

The violin doesn’t offer the easiest time right from the start because it’s a fretless instrument. Without frets as a safety net, you must be incredibly precise to hit the right note.

If you take the lowest pitch a violin can produce, it’s G3 on the open G string. If you play every note/interval on that string, you can travel for just under two and a half octaves on a very short neck. That’s a lot of opportunities to find the wrong pitch in a small space! The typical range a violin can play is from G3 to A7.

Like all stringed instruments, it’s possible to learn patterns that are interchangeable from one key to the next. However, because the violin is tuned in perfect fifths, you only get seven pitches in before they start to repeat on other strings (51 different notes in total).

Repeating pitches make fingering more challenging and creative decisions because the same pitch doesn’t mean the same timbre.

Despite its slight appearance, the violin is a pretty physically demanding instrument. Like the guitar, it takes both hands to create one note, but bowing is a bit more demanding than using a pick. Not to mention, your bowing pressure has to be as precise as your fingering.

Even the body posture it takes to hold and play the violin can be strenuous. Of course, it’s all worth it when it sounds so beautiful.

3. French horn

If you ask people to name the coolest instrument to play, it’s unlikely anyone will say the French horn. But, the French horn is one of the most versatile instruments of the brass section.

playing the French horn in orchestra

Like the trumpet, you need to push air through the French horn while pressing the correct valve key to make a sound. The difference with the French horn is that you have to keep a steady flow of air through anything from 12 ft to 30 ft of tubing, making it one of the hardest instruments to play.

If you are wondering why it is so long, it’s what gives the horn its versatility; the longer the tube, the lower the note. The sheer physicality of this instrument is why it has such a steep learning curve.

Once you can make a sound, you can focus on making the right sound, which is no easy task. The first step towards generating the correct pitch is learning the valve key combinations and perfecting your embouchure (mouth position).

Even at this stage, various pitches can be generated using the same valve key combinations, especially at the high end. So, hitting the right note depends on your embouchure and airflow; otherwise, you’ll be out of tune.

Many players like putting their hand into the bell to mute/muffle the sound. It creates a nice buzz/ring, but it can also alter the pitch if done incorrectly.

Due to the French horn’s shape/design, the sound isn’t projected towards the audience; it’s going backward. It creates an ever-so-slight timing issue, and the player sometimes has to account for a slight delay.

You can understand how difficult it is just to hit the right notes. But, if you learn, it’s worth it; you’ll be an influential member of any horn section.

4. Piano

The piano is an excellent example of an instrument that’s easy to learn the basics but one of the most intricate instruments to master.

mastering piano playing techniques

Many music educators prefer to teach theory using a piano. The reason is that every note is laid out in order of pitch from lowest (left) to highest (right). Unlike stringed instruments, there are no repeated pitches.

The piano keyboard layout makes it easier to understand basic theory, making it easier to start playing simple chords and melodies. It doesn’t take long to start playing songs; if you can sing, it’s even better.

A piano has 88 keys; each key triggers a mechanism that makes a hammer strike the corresponding string. Hammers are larger and heavier at the bottom end but progressively lighter as you move upwards.

Despite being easier to understand basic theory, the pattern of black and white keys means fingering is more complicated. You can’t repeat the same fingering pattern for every scale/key as you can to an extent on a guitar, for example.

The fantastic thing about the piano is that it can do so much. You can play percussively, rhythmically, melodically and create the most complex harmonies. Its versatility is also one of the things that make it so hard to master.

Complete creative freedom means you always have many options, and choosing the most tasteful option every time is an art of its own. Sometimes, you’ll encounter different rhythms in each hand or voicings that are physically difficult to reach because there are no pitch repeats.

Mastering the piano is difficult, but it’s an ideal instrument whether you want to play in a band or go solo.

5. Hammond organ

Various types of organs are challenging to learn, but I’m going to focus on the Hammond organ. The Hammond organ is a staple of some of the best-loved rock, blues, funk, and soul songs ever recorded.

playing the Hammond organ
Photo: Bernd Schwabe

This iconic sound isn’t easy to replicate, even if you are already a keyboard player. You might be able to play chords and melodies, but there’s much more to the Hammond sound than just playing the right notes.

A Hammond organ has two 61-key keyboards, otherwise known as manuals. The keys are known as waterfall-style, and they are very light. That makes them easy to play, but they aren’t velocity-sensitive, so any change in velocity won’t affect the volume.

Unlike a piano, a Hammond organ doesn’t have a sustain pedal either. You must physically hold a note down as long as you want the sound to continue. You change the sound of a tonewheel organ like this through preset keys, drawbars, a rotary speed switch, and an expression pedal.

An octave of preset keys (reverse-colored) is positioned to the left of each manual. Drawbars slide in and out, working like a mixer. Each drawbar controls a component of the overall sound. When a drawbar is fully out, the volume of that component is at max; when fully in, it’s at zero.

You control built-in vibrato and chorus effects via switches with selectable rotary speeds. There are also switches for harmonic percussion; when engaged, it produces a decaying harmonic overtone when you play a note.

If that’s not enough, a Hammond typically has 25 bass pedals ranging from low C to middle C. Basslines by feet, rhythm, harmony, and melody with both hands while continuously adjusting drawbars and switches.

The Hammond organ is physically one of the most demanding instruments to play. Some people compare playing a Hammond organ to driving a car; it’s harder than driving, but it’s worth it.

6. Drums

Drums are in the same ballpark as the piano or guitar because they aren’t the hardest initially. When you progress beyond the basics, you will realize just how difficult it is to master the drums.

a man learning to play the drums

When you start playing drums, the idea that you don’t need to think about pitch, scales, and harmony in the same way other musicians do will seem like a blessing. But drummers have other responsibilities, like keeping time and tempo for the entire band.

Every musician has to think about tempo, but if a drummer doesn’t have perfect timing and consistent tempo, the consequences are far more severe. Musicians in a band rely on a good drummer being their metronome.

Now, let’s think about the rhythmic independence a drummer needs to have. Playing a basic beat and keeping a steady four-count with the hi-hat is simple, but what about polyrhythms?

Even in common time (4/4), a drummer can have a different count in each limb. A typical polyrhythm is 3:4, which means fitting a three-count inside a four-count, with the first beat of each bar always falling simultaneously for both. A complex pattern could see a 3:4 polyrhythm with your feet and a 7:8 rhythm in the hands.

Drummers don’t try to count that as they play, your head would explode. It’s a feeling developed over time and through very hard work.

Dynamics are a big part of being a great drummer, and it’s a common misconception amongst newbies that drummers don’t need to play quietly. Playing quietly can be difficult on many instruments, but imagine having a fast tempo but keeping the kick drum soft; it’s not easy.

You’re doing well if you get past the rhythmic overload of being a competent drummer. However, you still have to deal with how physically taxing it is on your body. Go to a gig and watch a drummer play for two hours with very little break; it’s like a gym session.

When fatigue kicks in, the timing, tempo, and dynamics suffer. Stick it out, build stamina and technique, and you’ll be the backbone of a great rhythm section.

7. Accordion

The accordion might not make everyone’s list as one of the most challenging instruments to learn, but I can think of a few reasons to include it.

a man playing the accordion

First, let’s look at the physical aspect of playing the accordion. It is unique in the way that you have to hold it and move the bellows in and out. The bellows supply air, allowing the accordion to generate sound.

There are also air valves to let air out without making any sound. The airflow/pressure plays a big part in the sound that you shape.

There are two types of accordions: button accordions and keyboard accordions. Button accordions use only buttons to select notes, while keyboard accordions use keys for the right hand and buttons for the left.

Whether it’s keys or buttons, the right hand is for melodies. In some ways, keyboard accordions are easier to play, especially if you have some keyboard experience.

On the left hand, the first two rows of buttons are for bass notes, and all the rest are for creating harmony. The buttons are positioned chromatically, which means some chord shapes from the guitar will translate well.

In some accordions, not all, the buttons can generate different pitches depending on how you squeeze them. There are some register switches that are basically presets that alter the tone of the accordion.

As well as dealing with the concept that each hand is playing something that feels completely different, you need to keep perfect timing. The timing of the keys, buttons, and bellows must be in sync to create the intended sound. The challenge of keeping all aspects in perfect harmony is what makes the accordion so tricky to play.

Final thoughts

Most good things in life don’t come easily, and mastering an instrument is no different. Like anything that takes more time and effort, the sense of accomplishment from making progress is incredible.

Whether you play for an audience or yourself, music is a wonderful thing to have in your life. Don’t be discouraged by the challenge of learning a difficult instrument; be inspired by it.


1 comment
  • flute needs to be on here. do you know how hard it is to perfectly blow on the hole? Also it can take you easily out breath and sometimes you can pass out. Also the tuba is very hard for your lungs.