Which musical instrument is the most difficult to play?

Georges de La Tour (FrenchThe Musicians Brawl Google Art Project

Opinions are like farts. It’s hard to hold ‘em in and when one slips, everyone’s gonna know it and at least one person is gonna leave the room.

These words of wisdom, of course, were meant to conceive a wise message – people are different. We’re subjective creatures and as such we are entitled to the freedom to think and say whatever our hearts desire. As you may imagine, the topic of musical instruments is no exception. Every competitive musician’s favorite statement – “MY instrument is more difficult to play than yours” – is something we’ve all heard countless times and it’s taken numerous poetical forms, all coming down to a simple rant about doing all the work and getting none of the credit. This argument is as ancient as civilization itself and taking a side would be understandable but not very smart. What we can do, however, is try and put an end to it. Impossible task, really, but hopefully gratifying.

A lot of musicians seem to think their own instrument is the most difficult to master since that’s what they’ve spent a huge chunk of their life doing. Sometimes a musician would think an instrument he held for two minutes and tried to make sound good, is harder to play than the one he’s used to because he hasn’t had any time to learn or practice the new one. People somehow, against all logic, tend to ignore this and base their opinions, and worse – their arguments, on personal experience. This, as we can all hopefully agree, will never be enough unless a person has played all the musical instruments in the world. Well, people still do it. I guess we’re just weird like that.

A good approach, or at least the one we chose, would be to look at the different factors which make a musical instrument “difficult” to play. This list will consist of various characteristics that help make one instrument harder to master than another in terms of learning, convenience, physical and intellectual requirements, talent and so on. Let’s try to start with the more intuitive choices and then move on to things we do not often consider in conversation.

Frets

The presence of frets on a string instrument by definition makes it easier to play and their absence usually makes the job harder. The distance between frets is also of importance – the closer they are to one another, the easier it is to hit a wrong note, especially if you don’t have the right fingers for it. Some instruments such as Bass Guitars, for example, can have frets or go fretless. Some are just destined to make musicians’ lives miserable by never having them. The Violin is a great example: it has no frets, it’s extremely delicate and easy to get out of tune, and to top it all – it’s tiny as hell.

Double Bass

Here Comes the DOUBLE BASS!

Coordination

There are some instruments that require your brain to perform extraordinary feats using four limbs and the same time. The Drums are the first to come to mind but some may argue that notes are not a big thing with drummers. Then we have the Piano where every hand and every finger is a separate instrument. The Guitar is another peculiar case in which your left and your right hand have to do two very different things with different parts of the instrument. Probably our favorite contestant here would be the Pedal Steel Guitar. It usually has two necks, often 10 strings each, four foot pedals and a bunch of knee levers, engaged by moving the knees left, right or vertically, used to tighten or relax one or more strings in combination with specifically tuned notes, changing the instrument’s tuning during performance. This is the stuff of nightmares.

Additional accessories

Sometimes you need to master two separate sets of gear in order to play an instrument. Drum sticks or guitar picks are a very basic example but we’re actually referring to larger and more sensitive objects. A lot of classical string instruments require the use of a bow. A violinist will not only have to deal with a tiny fretless instrument but also develop a good enough bow technique AND live with the blame of ruining many horse hairstyles in his lifetime. And then there’s the Clarinet which you have to meticulously assemble and disassemble every time you want to play the damn thing as if you’re putting together a highly sophisticated sniper rifle.

Intellectual requirements

Some instruments can easily be played by ear and often times it’s how they’re meant to be played. This is usually true for traditional folk instruments, like simple Pipes, Percussions, Bells and the like. Others, like a Church Organ, are practically impossible to play without possessing the proper knowledge of musical theory. Of course, you could try to make stuff up as you go but chances are, the mass wouldn’t be a big success.

I have no Idea what I'm doing

Requirementstoo many requirements

Physical requirements

In some particular cases, you inevitably get the feeling that a musical instrument was specifically designed to make you sweat and feel uncomfortable. The Drums, for example, require the use of your whole body and although it’s great to have a workout every once in a while, it’s supposed to be a matter of personal choice, not a requirement for a musician in order to sound even remotely good. The French horn would also feel at home in this list: it’s so poetic, so classy and SO VERY uncomfortable. It not only looks like the work of a blind boy scout who never used a rope before but in order to make its sound flat or sharp you have to stick your right hand in it. Classy.

Breathing

Have you ever seen someone play the Bagpipes? It looks excruciating and it is. Every pipe, every brass instrument you can think of demands that you have the lungs of a mountaineer. Breathing is crucial and perfecting the right technique takes months and months of practice. The gruesome part of the story is that musicians who play these instruments can easily develop serious health problems due to the stress they repeatedly cause to their lungs and throats. Definitely not for everyone.

Funny Bagpipe Face

Bagpipe Face: ON

Noise

You pick a string, you press a key et voilà – music comes out. Of course, it may sound awful if you don’t know what you’re doing but in most cases it’s the result of the wrong tones being played at the same time. With some instruments it’s a whole different story and playing notes that don’t go together well is the least of your problems. If you’ve ever tried to play the Trumpet or had a neighbor who was learning how to play one, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. Most brass instruments and basically every instrument that includes a mouth piece are absolutely great at creating noise. Remember, we’re not talking music here, we’re talking NOISE. Sometimes it’s so horrible and so depressing to listen to, the best course of action seems to be jumping off a high building. It’s literally SO easy for brass instruments to produce genuine fart sounds and for violins to sound like the agonizing shrieking of Lucifer himself, that it’s often best to give up, move to another instrument and keep your friends, family and loved ones in your life.

Beginners

A factor we don’t often consider is how easy it is for beginners to learn the basics of a musical instrument. The first that come to mind are the most popular ones like Piano, Guitar or a very simple Drum set. Truth is, they’re not as easy as they may seem to someone who’s never played them before – we’re just kind of used to pianos and guitars being around. It’s a cultural thing. Thinking that they’re *easy* would be a very unfair assumption but an equally unfair one would be saying that playing a Pedal Steel Guitar is just as easy. It quite simply is not.

Pros

As opposed to our previous paragraph, here we should put the accent on the amount of hard work, effort and time it takes to become a true master of an instrument. “Master” is a strong word and it shouldn’t be used lightly. The problem with subjectivity and personal experience gets even worse here because so many factors come into play when you add the perspective of time, it’s really pointless to dwell upon the matter or have an endless talk about it.

Availability

An argument which almost never comes up in a conversation is availability. It’s fairly simple: if you want to play the Guitar and you don’t live on the North Pole or in the middle of a desert, finding one would probably be a task as easy as breathing (no offense, brass players). But if you instead go for the Samisen, a traditional Japanese three-stringed lute, you would probably need to pay tons of money and travel thousands of miles to find not only an instrument but also someone who’ll be willing and able to teach you.

Transportation

Even if you somehow manage to achieve inner peace and be cool about having to deal with everything we just listed, some instruments will never give up on being a pain in the butt. The Double Bass is a huge thing to carry around in a case and when you have to drag it on pathetic little wheels, it just doesn’t feel right. The Harp is just as humongous as it is majestic and even the thought of moving it is demotivating. Drums are a whole other level of inconvenient, requiring a vehicle to transport and a bunch of friends or bandmates to help carry and install the set.

Piano Creative Transportation

Sometimes you need to get creative :)

Uniformity

It’s time to mention the Didgeridoo. This Australian instrument is a very large thing that compels you to breathe out through your mouth and breathe in through your nose at the same time. It’s hard to carry and even harder to use but the thing that really makes it stand out is that no two are alike. While that may sound charming and probably gives the thing a sentimental value, it has one huge, awful, terrible drawback – tuning. No two Didgeridoos sound the same which is a big problem when there’s only one note the instrument can produce. The traditional way to make a Didgeridoo is to find a tree trunk hollowed by termites and turn it into a musical instrument which, after completion, is impossible to tune. This means that if you get three random Didgeridoo players and ask them to play together, there’s an incredibly high possibility that they will sound like crap even if each one of them is a virtuoso with their own instrument. Just something to think about.

Didgeridoo

The crazy Didgeridoo!

Genetics

Let’s talk about talent. It’s supposed to be 10% of the result if you ask hard working people, but these 10% are essential for proving our major point. It’s the 10% that prove the subjectivity of predisposition and that have a dramatic effect on the quality and quantity of the other 90% which are supposed to be hard work. The very existence of talent and our inability to experience the world from someone else’s perspective demonstrate the fruitlessness and ineffectuality of arguing about which task is more difficult in the field of music and in almost any other field.

In other news, unsurprisingly, this text is not really about musical instruments. If you’ve read any of our articles before or if you’ve contemplated on the fart joke (which would make you a weird person), you probably already had your suspicions – it’s about human nature and more specifically, subjectivity. Subjectivity is in your essence and, all things considered, it’s actually a good thing. It’s based on your genes, your upbringing, your environment and personal experiences but, in the end, it’s what makes you, well, you.

So next time you have an enlightening thought about how horribly subjective you are and feel guilty about it, don’t. That’s the point. Subjective thinking is not just a part of human nature, it is human nature. It’s not a coincidence Einstein’s theory of general relativity is such a big deal – the universe is relative. There might be a musical instrument which is more difficult to master than all other musical instruments but, you know, opinions, farts – same thing.

2 Comments

  1. Marcus

    The most difficult instrument to play is the one you don’t know how to play, but want to play badly!!!

    :–)

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