8 Hardest Instruments to Play & Learn (Across All Types!)

Author: Alexis Ronstadt | Updated: | This post may contain affiliate links.

A wise musician once said, “the hardest instrument to learn is the first one”.

While it’s difficult to argue with that assertion, you’re probably not doing yourself any favors by trying to learn one of these instruments first. (Or maybe you are: learning any instrument after these just might be a breeze!)

Hard to Learn vs. Hard to Play

Or both?

What makes an instrument difficult to learn are often challenges relating to technique, posture, coordination, or any combination of these. Instruments that are hard to play are often physically demanding in some way or require tremendous musical skill.

So, while playing a note on a piano is arguably one of the easiest feats in the musical world (just press a key), the challenges lie in simultaneously coordinating both the hands and feet, reading two staves at once, and strengthening your fingers for ease of movement. For this reason, many people argue that the piano is easy to learn, but hard to master.

Similarly, each of the instruments in this list has its own quirks and challenges which rank them amongst the most complicated to learn, play … and master.

Hardest Brass Instrument to Play – French Horn

What has only three buttons, at least 12 feet of tubing, and a bell that faces backwards?

It would be easy to assume that the French Horn would be easier to play because it only has three valve keys. But in fact, this horn has an astonishingly vast pitch and tone range, and with only three buttons, players are left to manipulate the instrument primarily by how they use their lips, a technique known as embouchure.

In fact, the highest pitches are notoriously difficult to hit because the difference in how they are played is so nuanced.

In addition, the French Horn comprises anywhere from 12 to 30 feet of tubing, presenting a hefty challenge for even the strongest of lungs. Control of air flow affects everything from pitch to tone to volume.

And as if getting a good sound out of the horn isn’t challenging enough, a good French Horn player has to tangle with precision timing. Because the horn’s bell faces backward from the audience, the sound it produces hits the audience’s ear slightly later than the other instruments in the ensemble when played at the exact same time. Advanced horn players know just how to time their notes in order to deliver a seamless performance for the listener.

Though the French Horn is a notoriously complex instrument, it produces a similarly complex and expressive voice. It can be velvety and warm like some of its woodwind cousins or powerful and bright like other brass. Melody, harmony, rhythm – the French Horn does it all and is an extremely rewarding instrument to learn and play.

Hardest Woodwind Instrument to Play – Oboe

The same instrument that brings the Duck to life in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, lifts our spirits in the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, and beckons us home in Dvorak’s New World Symphony is also one of the most difficult woodwinds to learn and play.

Your first challenge, should you choose to accept it: make any noise at all on an oboe.

Unlike its single reed brethren in the woodwind section, the oboe uses a double reed with no mouthpiece to send air into the instrument’s cavity, or bore. The opening in the reed is so tiny that most beginners struggle to make any noise at all, or they overcompensate by blowing too hard and simply honking.

Getting the right sound out of an oboe requires finesse in both breathing and embouchure. To be sure, these are the two primary components of playing any woodwind or brass instrument. But oboe presents a few unique challenges which can only be addressed with subtlety and skill.

First, the relative smallness of the reed opening and the bore of the instrument means that control of air flow is more important than the power of the breath. Furthermore, in order to articulate notes, oboe players must learn to maneuver their tongue around the small and delicate reed.

The reed itself presents its own challenges, to the extent that many oboists make their own. Oboe reeds are especially fragile, must be hydrated to play, and they must be deftly built in a way that is responsive and balanced for the player.

In a final act of defiance, the oboe presents players with a somewhat counterintuitive layout. Unlike playing the flute or clarinet, oboe players often must lower a finger in order to produce a higher pitch and vice versa which can be a struggle for beginners to wrap their minds around.

Despite its challenges, indeed perhaps because of them, the oboe’s voice is sweet, transcendent, and smooth … truly a sound to soothe the savage beast.

Hardest String Instrument to Play – Violin

The competition here is steep, and the case could certainly be made for guitar, piano, even the harp.

But most musicians can agree that the violin is not only the hardest string instrument to learn and play, but might even be the most challenging instrument of them all.

Let’s begin with the fretless fingerboard. Without frets to guide the players fingers to the correct notes, many beginner violinists use special tape as a substitute to learn where notes fall.

As you move up the neck, the notes become closer together, just like the guitar and other instruments with fingerboards. But the violin is such a small instrument that the space between notes in the highest positions can feel downright microscopic.

Posture is of the utmost importance. Learning to rest a violin on your shoulder and how to properly use the chinrest gives you the ability to move the left hand effortlessly across positions up and down the neck. But it can feel extremely awkward to new players and may take months if not years to perfect. Indeed, many never quite get it right.

All of this is nothing to speak of the right arm, which controls the bow. How you use the bow directly impacts the sound you’ll produce. Apply too much pressure, and you get a sound similar to that of a dying cat. Not enough pressure just sounds like faint scratching.

In addition to finessing the correct bow pressure to produce a pleasant sound at all, violinists employ numerous different bowing techniques to create a myriad of different sounds, from languid and smooth, to bouncy and tight, to chunky and powerful, to frantic and fast. Discarding the bow entirely and plucking the strings (pizzicato) presents a whole new range of sounds to learn and master.

Another bowing challenge that new violinists face has, once again, to do with the size of the instrument. The violin is so small that the strings are mounted very close together. The slightest twitch in the elbow has you squeaking unwanted notes from the string next door. (In contrast, it could be argued that this is a benefit when it comes to playing chords!)

Jascha Heifetz, Iona Brown, Itzhak Perlman, Joshua Bell, Stéphane Grappelli … they all make it look supremely easy. Rest assured it is not. But your reward for learning to play the violin is immeasurable.

It is a truly versatile instrument, found in nearly every popular genre from classical to bluegrass to jazz to rock. It can express delight, sorrow, love, grief, joy, fury, anticipation, fear, awe … if you can feel it, you can play it on the violin. With lots and lots of practice, anyway.

Hardest Percussion Instrument to Play – Drum Kit

The sheer physicality of playing a drum kit is reason alone to rank it amongst the hardest instruments to play. But that would ignore the mental olympics involved in keeping complex time. (Also, have you ever tried to set up a drum kit?)

As with the piano, it is simple enough to make noise with a drum. Just hit it, either with sticks or a pedal. The challenges to learning and playing an entire drum kit include stamina, limb coordination, technique, tempo and varying rhythms. The cardio benefits associated with drumming are very much real!

To begin with, each drum in a kit produces a different sound: snare, bass, toms, high hat and cymbals to name a few. To get a definitive sound out of each, you have to know how to strike it properly. A snare, for example, can be rolled, brushed or tapped.

Now factor in that each limb is doing something completely different. You might be playing a common 4:4 beat with your right foot but playing triplets with your left hand, syncopating with your right hand and filling with your left foot. On one drum each. Good drummers move around the kit to produce not only a steady tempo that leads the rest of the ensemble, but the feel and overall percussive voice that suits the song.

Now, do this for at least a 40-minute set and try not to sweat profusely …

Honorable Mentions


Step aside, violin. Bagpipes might actually be the most complicated instrument of them all.

Beginning pipers don’t even start playing the bagpipes until after they’ve learned how to play on a secondary, more elementary instrument called a practice chanter.

Indeed, master pipers continue to use their practice chanters to practice fingering and gracenoting because proper bagpipes are loud and require great stamina.

Upon moving on to an actual set of bagpipes, learners will experience headaches and dehydration until they’ve built up the stamina to play the 5 lb. instrument for 30 to 60 minutes at a time. Start lifting weights now, and don’t forget ear protection for an instrument that projects about 130 decibels.

From there, tuning your bagpipes is a struggle all its own and can take up to half an hour.

Like drummers, limb coordination is a major factor in playing bagpipes well. Not only will you be using your fingers to play notes, you must plan ahead and blow regularly to supply the bag with air, and coordinate your arm to squeeze air into the pipes. On top of all of this, the air supply must be powerful and consistent.

Your reward for the dedication required to learn and play bagpipes is a grand one. This is a unique instrument, meant to be played solo (or in a bagpipe ensemble), that produces a constant, voluminous sound (with no rests) and evokes an ancient hypnosis. It’s no wonder that master pipers are regarded with such deep respect.


Did you know that the organ predates the piano? In fact, aside from being keyboard instruments, the two actually couldn’t be more different.

While a piano uses strings to create sound, organs have used everything from water to air to electronics to produce that iconic, large, resonant sound.

Pianists enjoy a high degree of articulation from how they press the key. They can use a sustain pedal to draw a note out, moving their finger on to another note while the previous rings out. Neither pipe nor modern electronic organ players have this flexibility. To sustain a note, you must hold down the key. This is just the beginning of the intricacies of organ playing.

Organists are often faced with at least two or three keyboards, or manuals. The pedalboard is so essential to an organ’s sound that you may need to purchase proper organ shoes just to sit at one. This important array of pedals introduces a third drone voice to the two played by your hands. Another foot pedal controls the expression of dynamics.

Once you understand this, you can pull out all the stops. Literally. (Well, figuratively for many modern organs.) Stops, drawbars and tabs on modern organs produce sounds that mimic other popular instruments, such as flutes and trumpets. Mechanical stops control whether or not certain pipes are open or closed.

For all of this tremendous effort, you and your four limbs effectively command an entire symphony of sounds, dynamics and harmonies.


Learning to play the sitar is akin to the piano metaphor we used earlier. You can make noise on it, no problem. But mastering this classic Indian instrument also means learning an entirely different mode of music.

Indian classical music is based on melodic frameworks known as “ragas”. A very simple comparison in Western music would be that ragas are like scales. But this concept does the raga a grave injustice. For starters, there can be hundreds of them.

Furthermore, artists are encouraged, indeed judged, on their ability to improvise within a given raga. Unlike a concerto by Mozart which is played basically the same by every soloist ever, a raga allows for a much deeper degree of artistry and improvisation that is often difficult for Western musicians to adopt.

In addition, Indian classical music includes microtones. Again, without a real Western comparison, microtones might be described as the notes between notes.

Which brings us to the instrument itself and how it is played. Sitarists rely heavily on bending notes, which can produce notes up to five pitches away from the root note. It is almost as if the tradition of bending presents an entirely new axis on which to play.

The sitar itself can have up to 21 strings, of which only a handful are playable. The rest are sympathetic strings which are not played except occasionally to be strummed. These sympathetic strings are mounted underneath the primary playable strings and resonate in tonal harmony with the played notes. Every one of these strings must be tuned to your raga. And, to make matters more challenging, the sitar’s frets are moveable.

Finally, to play the sitar, you must be seated cross-legged. For many, sitting this way for more than a few minutes becomes increasingly uncomfortable, so it is essential for sitarists to get very good at this posture.

To learn the sitar is to immerse oneself in a rich and textured tradition of intricacy, artistry and skill. A deeply expressive instrument, it is beautiful to behold both visually and sonically.


Meet the only instrument you don’t even touch.

Humanity’s first electronic instrument is simply a box with two antennae. The vertical antenna controls pitch, the horizontal antenna controls volume. There are no strings to pluck, no keys to press, no drumheads to strike, no tube to blow into.

Theremin players use their hands to manipulate the signal coming from the instrument, and, while playing, they look more like orchestra conductors. It is this lack of any physical sensation at all that makes the theremin so difficult to learn and play.

Due to the fact that the instrument is played exclusively using movement, a thereminist’s posture must be strictly maintained. Rocking or swaying, like many musicians do unconsciously while they play, can affect the pitch or volume of the notes being played.

Additionally, it is near impossible to play the theremin well without an exceptional ear. You are creating every pitch literally out of thin air. Your sense of sound is the only reference point you have.

Theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore likened playing theremin to being a trapeze artist without a net. “You don’t know if you’ll land correctly or not, but you take a risk and you jump.” This is indeed sagely advice for the beginning thereminist.

One of the greatest gifts of being human is the richness and depth of our artistry. And whether you choose to celebrate by learning a simple instrument like the ukulele, a complicated one like these, or simply by listening, there are few more worthwhile endeavors in life!

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About Alexis Ronstadt

Originally from Phoenix (AZ), Alexis has been performing since childhood. She picked up the violin at age 8 and has been attempting to make interesting sounds with it, sometimes even successfully, since then. Projects include instrumental rock band Larkspurs and an improvisational collaboration called The Bone Stitchers. Aside from adding effects to her pedalboard and discovering exciting new artists, few things delight her more than writing about all things music in support of the music community at large.

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