V.com weekend vote: What is the most difficult instrument to play?

December 4, 2022, 1:04 PM · When I tell people that I am a professional violinist, very often they will say, "Oh the violin - that is the MOST difficult instrument to play of any instrument!"

Is it? Or are there other instruments that are more difficult than the violin?

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Certainly, it's a subjective question. For me, the violin always felt very intuitive - it made the most sense to me. That's not the same as saying that I found it "easy" - I didn't. But I found other instruments to be much more difficult for me personally. This is probably why I am a violinist!

With the piano, I found it difficult to play different notes with both hands. Maybe even more difficult (don't laugh!) but I tried to play the flute, and I just could not do it! It took me a good long time just to learn to blow into it and make a sound - which I did accomplish. But then, what buttons do you push down to make what notes? To me this was a total deal-breaker. My brain just would not do it!

My travails aside, the violin pretty much always makes the list, when it comes to "most difficult instruments to play." What is your perspective on this question? What you think is the most difficult instrument to play, and why?

For the vote, I'm limited to 10 choices, so I picked 10 instruments that are notorious for their difficulty. However, I'm aware that I've probably missed quite a few (including my nemesis, the flute!), so if you have another instrument in mind, please choose "something else" and then tell us about it in the comments.

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Replies

December 4, 2022 at 08:32 PM · Violin and piano are the only instruments in the list that I’ve played. I have in mind the double bass as being the most difficult; but that’s a guess, since I’ve never played that instrument. So I voted “Something else.”

I started violin in elementary school and progressed from 1/2-size and 3/4-size instruments to 4/4-size - finally - by my first year of high school. I have average-size hands and can play 10ths in 1st position, but I can’t quite fathom stretching my left hand any more than that. This is why I imagine viola - not to mention double bass - being more difficult than violin.

Piano was my first instrument - I started at 7 y/o but got only the basics and not long afterward switched to violin. Piano wasn’t hard, and I picked up the basics fast. But to try it again now would feel strange, having to read two staves at once and use two hands to make the notes. My switch to violin is a little like what happens when you acquire a second language at an early age - and then the second language takes over and becomes your main vehicle, while the first language falls into disuse.

Some parts of technique are more difficult on one instrument than on another. For instance, in piano, you make trills by rapidly alternating two fingers. This can be quite a workout. In violin, it’s simpler. You hold down the lower finger and tap fast with the upper one. In piano, you run up and down a scale fast by depressing and then releasing one key at a time. In violin, you set all fingers down, one by one, on the way up; then lift them, one by one, on the way down. Can’t do it that way in piano. If you did, you’d have a lot of unwanted noise.

On the other hand, intonation is a big consideration with stringed instruments. With piano, as long as the instrument is well tuned, you either hit the right notes or you don’t. In violin, intonation is one area where you have to be constantly on guard. If you don’t have good pitch sense, people won’t want to listen to you.

December 4, 2022 at 09:00 PM · For me, the piano has always been very difficult. I've taken oh-so-many piano lessons and just couldn't make my hands do it. I've played many stringed instruments. Not much of a problem.

December 4, 2022 at 09:37 PM · I had the unusual opportunity to learn to play every instrument in the orchestra and the band, with lots of private lessons on everything along the way. I’d say the violin is the most difficult, because the music written for it is FAR more demanding than for any other instrument.

December 4, 2022 at 09:50 PM · I think to play any instrument at a really high standard is equally demanding. The violin maybe takes longer to be able to make some kind of music but every classical instrument requires a lot of effort and some natural talent.

December 4, 2022 at 10:48 PM · I play violin, viola and piano, but voted "something else" because I think every instrument is hard in its own ways, and the challenges faced by string players, for instance, are very different from wind players, not to mention to personal ability is a huge factor.

I would categorize strings and piano as being more fine motor/mechanical/coordination oriented while winds and brass are more internal/conceptually oriented. Violin family instruments require the left and right hand to do completely different and complex tasks that requires a lot of coordination, and it involves a lot of intricate arm/hand movements. Learning winds and brass, on the other hand, revolves around breathing and embouchure development, which is a much more internal/conceptual process because there's a lot going on in your mouth/face/throat etc that can't be seen. Of course there's a number of things in violin technique that need to be learned in a conceptual/by feel manner, but unlike wind instruments, teachers can observe a lot more technique-related things visually.

With regards to intonation, here's where it gets interesting. Violinists do not have any frets or the like to guide them in finger placement, and that's what a lot of people perceive to be the most difficult part of playing violin. But here's the catch. While you can get approximately the right pitch by pressing the right keys on a woodwind instrument, fixing intonation problems is more complicated in a way because the way you blow and other things can really affect intonation, whereas with strings, it's mainly about placing the finger in the right spot. Also, some wind instruments are just more difficult to play in tune than others. I think intonation is one of those things that requires a complex combo of aural skill development and muscle memory, so it's interesting.

I have a feeling the main reason young children tend to start on piano, violin or cello is that because the skills needed to play those instruments are easier to acquire at younger ages compared to wind instruments, not to mention that adolescent dental issues also factor in.

I'd argue that breath control and embouchure development are as difficult as bow control and bow technique. Of course, violinists do tend to play much more virtuosic rep than many other instruments, so that factors in. Piano is an interesting situation because it's truly a case of "it's as hard as the composers make it" kinda thing I think.

Sorry this is so rambly but after really thinking about this topic and reading up on it a lot, this is what I've learned.

December 4, 2022 at 10:59 PM · As for my personal experience, I never perceived piano, violin or viola as difficult for me. Mind you, I started really young so I don't remember the beginner stages anymore, but there are a number of factors that made those instruments easier for me: I had an electric keyboard that I used as a toy when I was a toddler, so piano lessons seemed like a natural choice in that regard. I also had atypically good aural skills and an unusually good sense of harmonic understanding. In addition, my violin teacher noted that my coordination is better than average, so all those things factored in. However, when I learned the flute for compulsory seventh grade band, I got super frustrated because I struggled for weeks on end trying to get a sound, and when I finally got a sound, I continued to be super frustrated by my horribly airy and weak tone, not to mention I was tiring out unsustainably fast. I just knew my technique was completely wrong, and the lack of individual guidance in a school band setting didn't help. I deliberately avoided clarinet because I didn't want to deal with reeds, and I avoided brass as well because I felt like I'd be even more frustrated trying to figure out how to hit different notes by blowing differently and get tired of it. I do agree though that double reeds and French horn have unique difficulties that make them feel like they're more difficult than violin, at least for me lol.

December 5, 2022 at 12:24 AM · I have heard this question all my life - and many times. I don't think it is a fair or "complete" question.

Try these instead:

1. What is the hardest instrument to learn to play to the highest level?

2. What is the hardest instrument to learn to play to a sufficient level for earning good living in xxxxx country?

3. What is the hardest instrument to learn to play to a sufficient level to earn enough for food, shelter and clothing? (I will assume this level is also sufficient that people actually enjoy listening to you.)

So much depends on when in your life you started to learn. Once you know how to play an instrument is usually not hard to do, at least for many years. Learning to play other types of instruments, however, may pose difficulties you would not have with an earlier start.

I remember the bass drummer in my high school marching band - I figured that would have been "hard" no matter when he started and would get harder the older he got - or toward the end of the parades - tubas posed similar difficulties (but Sousaphones had shoulder rests!).

But that was a different "hardness." (I played baritone horn in that band - marching and concert).

I started violin at age 4 and cello at age 14. By age 16 I was playing both at about the same level. It only took me a month or so to achieve a sufficient level for chamber music and orchestra on viola at age 80. My attempts to read piano music in my 60s made it clear I was not going to be successful reading two clefs simultaneously - not at that age - even though I knew where the notes were on a keyboard.

December 5, 2022 at 01:06 AM · It's not only that *doing* intonation on the violin is hard, but the *expectation* of accuracy in intonation is very humbling.

I remember a conversation with a bassist who was telling me all the violin rep he was playing on the bass. My first thought was, "Sure -- now try it on an instrument where intonation matters." Listen to jazz bassists improvising -- their intonation is often terrible, even highly regarded players. A bassist who has studied with Ron Carter told me that Carter was obsessed with his intonation because he didn't want to be one of them. Meanwhile if a jazz violinist's intonation was that bad they'd be unlistenable. That's one of the reasons why there are tons of jazz bassists and very few violinists. Because it's really that much harder to play the violin in a way that's acceptable even to the untrained listener.

I don't know how many times I've been to symphony concerts and heard horn parts (for some reason especially French horns) that are a little off intonation-wise and I find myself asking how professional players can get away with that.

Bagpipes are entirely impossible to play in tune. With a recorder or flute, the player has a lot of "lip" flexibility to tune individual notes. My understanding (which is quite weak) is that this is more difficult on reed instruments and not possible at all on the bagpipes.

I agree with Andy Victor that one should consider the level one is trying to reach. It's much easier to reach mediocrity (an "intermediate" level) on the piano than it is on the violin because there's no intonation issue on the piano and there's a lot of music written for pianists with relatively little skill. But reaching the highest levels on the piano is probably just as hard as it is on the violin simply because the boundaries in both cases are determined by individuals who are extraordinarily talented -- outliers or savants. So with both the piano and the violin the hardest repertoire is unattainable by ordinarily mortals.

December 5, 2022 at 03:24 AM · I’m reminded of a joke a notoriously dour conductor once told in rehearsal, involving a doctor, a lawyer, and a horn player all dying at the same time and being greeted by Saint Peter at the heavenly gates. After the doctor and the lawyer with difficulty gained admittance to heaven, the horn player was ushered in immediately because “Every time you put your horn to your lips, 2000 people started to pray.”

December 5, 2022 at 03:55 AM · I like Victor's comments. My understanding is that the French horn is the hardest to play in terms of playing in tune.

December 5, 2022 at 05:27 AM · I voted French horn. Just getting the basics right is more of a tightrope walk on horn than on any other instrument, even for seasoned professionals. I get the distinct sense that the difference between the handful of world-class horn virtuosi and the next tier of players is bigger than for any other instrument. There's a famous story about Karajan conducting a rehearsal where Dennis Brain cracked a note. Karajan put down his baton and said, "Thank God!" -- Brain was human after all.

The violin and viola probably have the steepest learning curve at the very beginning. The violin also has the most technically demanding repertoire. The viola may be the most physically strenuous instrument to play because of its size, and the repertoire routinely pushes violists' physical limits.

(I'm primarily a violist, also play violin and piano, and played euphonium and trombone in school bands before I started on string instruments.)

December 5, 2022 at 05:30 AM · Who can not vote for the French Horn after reading Mary Ellen's story?

December 5, 2022 at 06:05 AM · I liked Mary Ellen's story hugely. I voted French horn last night, reasoning that it is the instrument that most raises a knowing audience's anxiety level when an exposed horn solo approaches. It's a thrilling instrument, which I'd like to play (well) in another life.

December 5, 2022 at 01:19 PM · I have been told Uilleann pipes is the hardest instrument to learn

December 5, 2022 at 02:27 PM · I chose the Oboe only because in my Jr. High years, music class had us attempt every instrument in an orchestra. It was in that class that I learned to love the violin and hate double-reeds. Single and double reeds and the buzz on the lips - YUCK! I also learned that, for me, the embouchure for the French Horn and Trumpet was too small, the Tuba too big, but the Trombone was comfortable. The flute was ok but confusing, percussion was fun but,... the cello and viola caught my interest but the violin got my heart.

The hardest instrument to learn is the one that you do not want to play.

That doesn't mean that learning the instrument you want to play is easy. But you are willing to put the time and effort into the instrument that you want to play.

December 5, 2022 at 04:28 PM · What I have noticed about amateur horn players is that their entrances are always late. Like, hugely late. When they start to blow into their instrument, there is apparently some kind of lag before the vibration of their lips (or whatever) catches the resonance of the instrument, and this lag is never compensated for. Also I think the lag is exacerbated by the issue that the lip positions on the French horn are very finicky. So if you are entering you first need to be concerned that you are playing the right note, and this makes amateur horn players even more tentative, which translates into late entrances.

Maybe some engineers can redesign the French horn so that it sounds about the same but plays more reliably.

December 5, 2022 at 06:54 PM · Apropos of the turn this discussion has taken: In 1947 my father spent autumn and part of winter in Japan on official business. A life-long amateur violinist and chamber musician (like me only a much shorter life) he managed to attend a winter concert of the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra in their unheated hall. The story I recall was about the French horn player who, even though he kept the horn to his mouth continually, he could never be sure what its temperature would be and on every entrance always hit the note a little off - but corrected instantly. My father was very impressed by that - and I learned something from it also and ever since I pay special attention to the horn players in every appropriate ensemble I have played in or heard in concert.

I guess it wasn't "that" cold! I played baritone horn in my high school band for 4 years, and we did play some football games that were cold enough that my lips froze to the mouthpiece.

(How to keep from ripping the skin off???)

On second thought, maybe it was that cold and that's why he kept it to his mouth constantly:-)

December 5, 2022 at 06:58 PM ·

December 6, 2022 at 09:26 AM · I chose oboe, because of all the instruments I have tried, it is hardest to play notes piano on. And it is also quite hard to get some notes in tune, particularly if it is old and you suspect the keys aren't sealing properly on the lower end of the range.

The french horn is also very difficult, particularly on the f horn in the upper register. That's why most professionals play the dual horn, F and Bflat, which gives more control in the upper register.

I could've added Pedal Steel guitar. There are several issues there - coordination of hands and feet and knees - if you thought an organist had a hard job, just remember he doesn't have knee levers. And being in tune ... I used to worry about being in tune on the violin, until I realized I'd learnt the pedal steel earlier, and somehow managed to stay in tune the whole time I was learning.

Ironically I've had very few problems with the flute. I've blown milk bottles and soft drink bottles and somehow that trained my embouchure to get a workable and listenable note first go. It's one of my all-time favourite instruments.

Embouchure on single reed instruments like the clarinet and the saxophone, has to be trained. Forget about the keywork, the embouchure on the single reed (and for that matter double reed) instruments has to be trained so that you don't lose pressure around the corners when you've been playing for a while. Long notes, long notes, long notes ...you can never do enough of them.

December 6, 2022 at 12:38 PM · The hardest of all the instruments I have tried so far was the Theremin.

December 6, 2022 at 12:38 PM · [double post]

December 7, 2022 at 11:34 PM · The only instruments I've played are violin, viola, french horn, and piano (but badly). It took me about 3 years of playing horn in band to get to the same level it took me probably 4-5 years of private violin lessons to get to (granted, I was older and already had musical experience from violin) but overall, I feel horn was easier to become proficient at (not to master by any means!) than violin. The coordination needed for piano gives me grief, but not as much as the technique and intonation work needed for string instruments. That said, viola has been much more difficult for me than violin because of the larger intervals, and I assume cello would be the most difficult of all for this reason.

December 8, 2022 at 01:11 AM · Jim, it's not going to be the double bass - My father never had a lesson on it, but could play the double bass part of the Trout - well not quite as well as his friend Jimmy Merrett (J Edward Merrett to the public), but quite creditably.

December 8, 2022 at 05:18 PM · I have tried a lot of instruments and the only ones that I found to be easy were parade-style bass drum, kazoo, and shoehorn. All of the instruments have their difficulties at different stages of learning, optimum starting age, and a mysterious matching of personality to instrument. I am terrible at the piano. I think that violin is difficult at the beginning first year and the advanced level. The intermediate years, learning the positions, etc., went by quickly for me. There is a relative shortage of certain instruments; French Horn, Oboe, Bassoon, partly because the adequate student grade instrument is very expensive. Parents do not want to invest those thousands of dollars at the beginning first year.

Harp- I have tried harp; the Latin America diatonic folk harp styles. It is really difficult. You need to develop very strong hands and endure blisters at on the thumb. Most violinists know about prepared fingerings. On the harp every note is prepared, the string sounds when it is released. Imagine a reverse action harpsichord that sounds when you release the key, not when you press it. Then, for the standard harp, add the pedals to change keys in advance, more complicated than a stick-shift car transmission.

December 9, 2022 at 01:06 PM · The most difficult instrument I've attempted to play is definitely violin. It has a very steep learning curve at the beginning.

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