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The 7 hardest instruments to learn, play, and master

The hardest instrument to learn, to some extent, isn’t necessarily the hardest instrument to master, and that makes for some difficult choices.

What we mean by that is an instrument can be one of the easiest to learn a few chords or songs, but one of the hardest to truly master at the same time.

In making our list, we considered each instrument’s learning curve, as well as the technical and physical demands of playing it.

hardest musical instrument to learn and play

Here are the instruments that we believe to be the hardest to learn, play, and master. Don’t ask what are the hardest instruments to learn and let it put you off, get inspired for the challenge.

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.

Before you even start playing it, you should know that an oboe requires more maintenance than most instruments. That means more time and money spent without playing. The flip side to that is that oboists are amongst the highest paid orchestral musicians.

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 has to be in perfect condition and perfectly 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 a lot over time; originally, it could only be played in certain keys. Now, it can be played in any key, but one side effect of the modern oboe is that it’s far heavier than it looks.

There are also still some issues with tuning, where 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 counterintuitive 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 hardest 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 coming from folklore, but also because it’s one of the hardest instruments to learn.

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 have to 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, without getting into harmonics or longer fingerboards, is from G3 to A7.

violin is hard to learn

Like all stringed instruments, it’s possible to learn patterns that are interchangeable from one key to the next. Although, 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.

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.

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 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 are able to make a sound, you can focus on making the right sound, which is no easy task, either.

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.

A lot of players like to put their hand into the bell to mute/muffle the sound a little. 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 at times the player has to account for a small delay.

You can begin to 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 hardest instruments to master.

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 too long to start playing songs, and 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 get progressively lighter as you move upwards.

piano is difficult to master

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

The amazing 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. Sometimes you’ll encounter different rhythms in each hand or voicings that are physically difficult to reach because there are no pitch repeats. You have to develop feel and expression not only in your hands but in using the foot pedals, too.

Check out our article on the best ways to learn how to play piano.

5. Hammond organ

Various types of organs are challenging to learn, but we are 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.

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 a lot more to the Hammond sound than just playing the right notes.

organs are challenging to learn

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 that any change in velocity won’t affect the volume.

A Hammond organ doesn’t have a sustain pedal either, unlike a piano. You have to physically hold a note down as long as you want it to sound.

The way you change the sound of a tonewheel organ like this is 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.

Vibrato and Chorus effects are built-in to a Hammond organ, controlled by switches with selectable rotary speeds. There are also switches for harmonic percussion; when selected, it produces a decaying harmonic overtone when a key is pressed.

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, all while continuously adjusting drawbars and switches.

The Hammond is physically one of the most difficult instruments to play. Some people compare playing a Hammond organ to driving a car, driving is easier, but it’s so worth it.

6. Drums

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

drums are also difficult to master

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 one count always falling at the same time for both. A complex pattern could see that 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 feel that is developed over time and 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 and controlling a heavy kick pedal velocity; it’s not easy.

If you get past the rhythmic overload that comes with being a competent drummer, you’re doing well. 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 difficult instruments to learn, but we can think of a few reasons to include it.

First of all, 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.

accordion is one of the hardest instruments to learn

There are two types of accordion, 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 positions 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 accordion is one of the most difficult instruments to learn.

Despite everything you’ve just read, the reward of mastering these instruments is well worth the agony of learning, so don’t be put off.

The reality is that if you want to become a professional musician, it will take lots of hard work no matter what you play. Even with above-average natural talent, you’ll need to commit your time and dedication.

The beauty of studying music is that it’s more than education; it’s a lifestyle. Your instrument becomes an extension of your personality and creativity, so get learning.