The 10 Hardest Instruments To Play & Learn
Mastering these instruments takes patience, practice, and incredible skill.
Some of the hardest instruments to play and learn require amazing hand and foot dexterity while reading sheet music.
Other instruments are difficult to learn because they are expensive, cannot be played at home due to their size, and require use at another location.
But with dedication, practice, and an encouraging teacher, all the instruments on our list are learnable.
We hope we’ve piqued your curiosity, and you will follow along as we discover the most challenging instrument to play.
The 10 Hardest Instruments To Play & Learn
We ranked our list of instruments based on the difficulty of learning to perform professionally.
This includes assuming the beginner can’t read musical notation and has little music theory background.
Join us as we dive into our list of the top 10 hardest instruments to learn and play:
The guitar is another popular musical instrument that falls into the camp of being easy and challenging to play.
The frets on a guitar allow musicians to play perfectly in-tune notes compared to those without frets, like the pedal steel guitar and cello.
But as guitarists advance, they discover that finger placement makes the instrument challenging. Even the best guitarists of all time, like Jeff Beck, would admit that they spent many hours practicing to improve.
Genres like jazz, folk, country, pop, rock and classical all require hours of intensive study with music teachers and an understanding of music theory.
Because there are a variety of guitars, it’s next to impossible for anyone to master all of them or the various musical styles they represent.
Additionally, guitarists must master advanced techniques like how to get different tones using a pick or fingerstyle plucking, tapping the strings with both hands, and muting strings for percussive notes.
Combine these challenging traits along with getting fingers calloused enough to press down steel or nylon strings, and it’s easy to understand why the guitar is one of the hardest instruments to play.
The accordion comes in two styles, one with a small piano-like keyboard and the other with buttons in place of keys. Both models use a bellow that performers fill and then press air across strips of steel or brass called reeds.
This handheld instrument comes with a leather harness that students must adjust to ensure proper technique and avoid long-term health problems like back pain.
Students learn to play notes on the keyboard with their right hand while playing bass notes on the button-board. And while reading music isn’t imperative, merely playing “by ear” will limit your advancement on the accordion.
Most accordion players perform solo gigs, while some folk and rock groups include the instrument. A prime example is The Beach Boys, one of the best rock bands of the ’60s, who added an accordion to their 1988 hit song, “Kokomo.”
Aspiring accordion players must deal with coordinating both hands to play notes or press buttons while simultaneously pressing and pulling out the bellows to create airflow necessary for music-making.
For all these reasons, the accordion is one of the hardest instruments to learn to play.
While the piano is considered one of the easiest instruments to learn, we’ll explain why we also list it as one of the most difficult.
Our criteria involve reviewing pianists who perform at the highest level in the most popular music genres like jazz and classical, to list a few.
With one listen to Fats Waller’s lightning-fast jazz fingers on the ragtime song “Handful of Keys,” you’ll realize how brilliant he was and how he makes a problematic passage sound easy.
From the classical genre, pianists shudder when asked to perform Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto due to the finger-twisting musical notation and blistering speed.
In rock, pop, and blues, pianists must master keyboard synthesizers and the Hammond organ, sometimes playing multiple keyboards with different hands.
Another reason the piano is one of the hardest musical instruments is that performers use their feet to affect the sound with three pedals. One pedal softens the notes, another is the sustain pedal, and the last dampens all the piano strings.
While reading the sheet music that instructs the pianist which notes to play and at what intensity, they also watch for pedal cues in the music.
Whether a student aspires to play Chopin or fly up and down the keys at a jazz gig, doing so will require years of practice, dedication, and studying under a seasoned pianist.
There are a variety of harps, but we will choose the pedal harp associated with orchestras and performances where music without lyrics is needed, like weddings and restaurants.
While the harp is listed as an easy instrument to play, such reviews may consider smaller versions like the Celtic or lever harp. Some are small enough to be handheld and use fewer strings than the pedal harp.
Before we discuss the difficulties of playing and learning the pedal harp, we need to mention two deterrents that send many interested students running away.
Aspiring harpists’ most significant hurdle is the cost since a new concert harp starts around $20,000! Finding a used model or renting from a local dealer is possible, but the sticker shock can be a real deal breaker.
Second, transporting a pedal harp isn’t easy because they are large and bulky. You cannot strap one on your back like a guitar and head out the door to your gig!
But if you can navigate those two issues, here are some other challenging aspects of the pedal harp.
Harpists must develop callouses on all fingers to build finesse for playing long passages of music. Students will also have to adjust to finger placement on the strings and the fact that the thumb plucks strings in a backward motion, which is counterintuitive.
Next, come the seven pedals the harpist plays while reading music and plucking forty-seven strings. Harp pedals enable the harp to play chromatic notes, so this entails being able to read music.
Each pedal has three positions that create a flat, natural, or sharp note for a selected string. Unfortunately, comprehending such complexities with the pedals can be daunting for many potential musicians.
While the pedal harp is indeed one of the most complex musical instruments to learn, its tone is heavenly and soothing, making it one of the more appealing and unique instruments to play.
The violin is perhaps the most recognizable instrument in an orchestra, and Ludwig van Beethoven, one of the best musicians of all time, featured this stringed instrument in many of his compositions.
While the violin is often used in bluegrass and folk music and is called a fiddle, we will focus on it in a concert setting.
The violin is one of the string instruments used in orchestral settings, and performers use a bow or pizzicato (fingers) to make music.
Because the fingerboard is without frets like a guitar and is smaller than other string instruments, playing skills on this string instrument can be more challenging.
The shorter and narrower fingerboard is also ideal for individuals with thin fingers. Like the other stringed instruments in the orchestra, the pitch is determined by the correct finger position on the instrument’s neck.
Next, students must be able to hold the violin in an awkward position and use their chin to secure it in place. Such placement means the left hand must arch in the correct position to finger the right notes.
Once students can master positioning fingers on the fingerboard, next comes making music with the bow that requires precise arm movements.
Such skill takes time to master, as the bow magnifies nuances of the fingers to make the performer shine musically or stand out as an amateur.
Despite being one of the hardest instruments to play, the violin is a fantastic instrument that can create soaring melodies or heart-pounding passages of music.
5. French Horn
The French Horn is a brass instrument that has a curved bell that faces away from the audience. The tone of this musical instrument is mellow yet majestic, which is why it’s often featured in harmonious and sometimes pop music.
A great example of the latter is The Beatles, who have one of the best-selling albums of all time, and who showcased French horns on the title track of the record Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
While the French Horn has valves, or keys, that performers press to alter the notes, one unique feature makes it one of the most challenging instruments to learn.
Players insert their right hand into the French horn’s bell to support it and sometimes mute the tone. And because it faces backward, performers must anticipate playing, or else they will sound late or behind the beat to the audience.
Adding to these challenges is the mouthpiece, which is more conical in shape than other brass instruments like the trumpet, tuba, and trombone.
Players blow into the mouthpiece to make sounds on the French Horn, allowing purse lips to buzz. This mouth position is called the embouchure, and hitting the correct pitch is more challenging than other brass instruments.
When factoring in all these variables, it’s easy to understand why the French Horn is such a difficult instrument to play.
The oboe is a woodwind instrument and looks similar to a clarinet, only much thinner. But unlike its brothers and sisters in the reed family, the oboe’s most challenging aspect is the double reed, unique to the instrument’s make and tone.
Prominent in symphonies, the oboe has been featured on one of the best 90s songs, “Kiss From A Rose,” and can be heard in the intro.
The oboe’s tone has been compared to an elegant duck, like in the folktale Peter and the Wolf by Sergei Prokofiev, and is the perfect wind instrument for detail-oriented, patient, and intellectually curious students.
Oboeists must be able to handle the reeds that are key to the oboe’s beautiful tone and playability. Part of their musical journey is learning where to find quality reeds and how to have them ready for performances.
Because the reed is so essential to the oboeist, many professionals build their own or are at least proficient enough to remedy a faulty reed on the spot.
Learning how to blow into the double reed properly requires having a well-educated oboeist providing music lessons.
Additionally, the finger placement on the oboe isn’t intuitive compared to other wind instruments, which will again require grit and determination from would-be performers.
But for students who persist they can play sweet and melancholy melodies on one of the most challenging instruments, the oboe.
3. Pedal Steel Guitar
Many confuse the pedal steel guitar with the lap guitar, and while both use a metal bar to slide over the strings to create a sound, that is where the comparison ends.
Pedal steel guitars are associated with Hawaiian and country music, and some of the best female country singers of all time feature them on their albums.
The instrument consists of a console with ten to twelve strings, and some versions have two sets of strings. All are strung differently than guitars and sometimes use alternative tunings, which isn’t for the faint of heart!
As if this isn’t tough enough, there aren’t any frets on the console, so playing in tune takes a lot of skill.
Additionally, the instrument has various pedals and levers that the musician plays with his feet and knees. The levers can bend notes, and the pedals can raise or lower the pitch of the strings.
To be a proficient performer on a pedal steel guitar, a musician will use both hands, feet, and knees, often simultaneously. Additionally, they will need a sharp ear to play notes and chords in tune.
The pedal steel guitar is one of the hardest instruments to play because they are expensive and require unique skills to master.
2. Pipe Organ
Not to be confused with an electric or Hammond organ, the pipe organ is found only in churches, theaters, and concert halls.
For this reason, many musicians avoid playing the pipe organ simply because of the difficulty in acquiring one to learn and practice.
As the name implies, the pipe organ consists of banks, or ranks, of massive metal and wooden pipes often hidden from view.
Sound is produced on the pipe organ when the keyboardist presses down keys or pedals, pushing pressurized air through the pipes.
During religious ceremonies, the pipe organ can provide an interlude in music to separate moments during the service that are solemn or need a transition.
While having experience playing the piano is helpful, the pipe organ has its own set of challenges that can be intimidating.
Unlike the piano, the pipe organ has several keyboards, each with stops or knobs, that the organists push or pull to alter the sound.
Additionally, bass notes are created by the organist using their feet to play pedals that resemble a keyboard and come with their own set of stops.
This array of challenges requires impressive dexterity with arms and legs, the ability to read sheet music, and a superior knowledge of how the pipe organ functions.
For these reasons, we have selected the pipe organ as one of the hardest instruments to play.
Bagpipes, also called pipes, are known for their reedy sustained notes but can also play an accent in music during ceremonies like Scotland’s Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo that showcases military marching music.
While bagpipes are one of the world’s oddest-looking instruments, its challenges rise dauntingly like the Swiss Alps for would-be students.
The first difficulty pipers must master is regulating the air supply into the bagpipe’s bag. The air must be consistent for the instrument to create the desired sound.
Next, they must equally distribute air into the chanter and drones while maintaining the correct pressure on the bag with their arms.
While brass instruments require performers to blow air at the correct musical beat, pipers must blow at different rhythms than the music they’re performing.
The next challenge to this wind instrument is the mouthpiece, which consists of reeds like an oboe. Pipers must learn to moisten the reeds to produce sound on the bagpipe.
Topping all this off is learning to finger the correct keys on the blowpipe and remembering that once filled with air, the bagpipe plays music until it runs out.
For those aspiring to play the bagpipes, students often start playing a chanter resembling a wooden recorder that doesn’t have a bellow.
The last challenge for would-be beginners outside the United Kingdom is finding a qualified instructor. While there are online classes, this is one instrument where face-to-face meetings would be advantageous since the techniques are complex.
For all these compelling reasons, we ranked the bagpipe as the hardest instrument to play.
That concludes our in-depth look at the hardest instruments to learn and play.
Students need superb talent, patience, dedication, and a quality instructor to be proficient on the most challenging instruments.
Some are bulky, like the harp, or so large they can’t be used at home, like the pipe organ. But once a student masters any of the instruments on our list, they’ll be accomplished musicians and performers.
What’s the hardest instrument to play, in your opinion? Leave a comment below.
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