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Friday, August 17, 2007

Top Ten Hardest Musical Instruments to Learn to Play

Instrument: Didgeridoo
Difficulty factors: Hard to build, impossible breathing technique, sound varies from instrument to instrument, Noise to music gap is wide, practice tolerance by others - low
- Aboriginal craftsmen spend considerable time searching for a suitable tree to make into a didgeridoo. The difficult part is in finding a tree that has been suitably hollowed out by termites. If the hollow is too big or too small, it will make a poor quality instrument. Then, you have to learn circular breathing where you have to breath in through the nose while breathing out through the mouth. You can make a noise, but is it music?

Instrument: Bagpipes & Uillean pipes
Difficulty factors - Noise to music gap very wide, practice tolerance by others extremely low
- Bagpipes can be painful to listen to when well played. Poorly played they can be excruciating. That's why pipers march when they play - Makes it harder for snipers to hit them. Uillean pipers have to sit, so they don't last long. I don't think there's a soft setting for practice. At least with my banjo I can stuff a towel in the back and take the edge off it a little. With pipes you can't plug them into headphones or anything, so in order to learn to play the pipes you have to be able to afford an isolated practice site where the neighbors or your wife won't kill you.

Instrument: The violin and its cousins
Difficulty factors: Fretlessness, bow technique difficult to master, awkward position, noise to music gap wide
- Bowed instruments like the violin have a long learning curve, practice time can be painful for loved ones and neighbors. Not as loud as the bagpipes, but the slightly off-key scales and practice tunes can grate on the nerves of everyone, including the player. You have to have a good ear for pitch to master it. If you don't, you'll never be any good.

Instrument: Pedal Steel Guitar
Difficulty factor - too many things to do at once
- This one is simply physically challenging, practice isn't too painful for the listener, but the distance between making the notes pretty well and good music can take a while.

Instrument: Banjo
Difficulty factor - Doing 3 things at once, getting up to speed
- Banjo is easy to make sound on, chording isn't too tough, but getting your fingers up to speed and coordinated takes a lot of hours. Doing repetitive runs and rolls, practicing hammer ons, pull offs and slides and bumbling around high up on the neck and can make you distinctly unpopular round the house. If you're naturally uncoordinated, you may never be able to master it. Fretless banjo adds the difficulty of finding the pitch if you don't have naturally good pitch. You don't get any help from the frets.

Instrument: Oboe and anything with a reed in it
Difficulty factor: Getting rid of the squeal
- My wife was good at the oboe. Nobody else in her band would even get near the thing. She has perfect pitch and is a genius on the musical aptitude scale - it makes me crazy. She can just listen to something and know if it sounds right. Me, I can only judge whether I'm in tune by the rate of incoming wilted vegetables and spoiled fruit.

Instrument: French Horn
Difficulty factor: Getting sound from the thing
- All the difficulty of getting the lip thing going plus you have to hold it funny and it's hard to get sound from.

Instrument: The Human Voice
Difficulty factor: You need perfect pitch to be any good, you either inherit a good voice or you don't
- Though Bob Dylan seems to be the exception to the rule, the rule is pretty tough to overcome. You can whisper sing like Richard Harris and get away with it, but he did some training you can bet. If you're Earl, you let Lester do the singin'.

Instrument: Accordion
Difficulty factor: The constant ridicule and lack of respect
- You've got to admire Flaco Jimenez and the guy from Lawrence Welk and all the Irish squeezebox guys and the polka guys and the guys from Brave Combo. The accordion player gets so much abuse, never gets girls and has to deal with the back strain of carrying around what is essentially a small pump organ. It's a wonder anyone ever learns to play Twinkle, Twinkle little star, much less masters the thing.

Instrument: Electric sewer pipes
Difficulty factor: Telling your Dad he's paying for you to go to Julliard so you can study the electric sewer pipes
- I don't know of anyone but Blue Man group that plays the sewer pipes. I had hoped that, upon hearing them play the sewer pipes that PVC pipes would become the next musical fad, but was disappointed. I guess the instrument is so original that everyone else would have been derivative who tried to pick it up (kind of like Riverdance without Michael Flately or like the fat sweaty step dancers in that commercial).

Instrument: Tabla
Difficulty factor: No one will tell you how to play unless you marry one of their women
- The playing technique for these drums from India involves extensive use of the fingers and palms in various configurations to create a wide variety of different types of sounds; these are reflected in the mnemonic syllables. The heel of the hand is also used to apply pressure, or in a sliding motion, so that the pitch is changed during the sound's decay. This "modulating" effect on the bass drum and the wide range of sounds possible on the instrument as a whole are the main characteristics that make tabla unique among percussion instruments. The preservation of these techniques is important amd for centuries the secrets of playing were closely guarded and only passed along family lines. Being born into or marrying into a lineage holding family was often the only way to gain access to this knowledge. Now that makes an instrument really tough to play. Kind of like if you had to marry Earl's daughter (assuming he had one to spare) in order to learn Foggy Mountain Breakdown. I'd hope she was really cute, you know.



Just one man's opinion....

Tom King


silfert said...

Difficult instrument to learn to play in conjunction with a microphone: the harmonica!
Ohhhhhh, Tom! You must go to Winfield at least once. It's basically a 25,000-member annual "family reunion" for acoustic musicians. The best part is the week BEFORE the actual festival starts. That's when all of the diehards are camped out, jamming all day and night. For about $100, you get an entire week of music, shows, and just plain fun. is the official site. :)

Tom King said...

Sounds like fun. One summer, I'll try and plan a trip to my brother's in Nebraska and swing through Winfield along the way.

Thanks for the tip.


Anonymous said...

I'd say Theremin is by far the hardest instrument to lean, let alone master.

yo have to it totally by ear, and you dont even touch the insrument. It takes years of practice to get pitch perfect

Tom King said...

It looks like the theramin is actually easy to play, but very difficult to make sound good.

I don't see any blood being shed to learn to play this one, except if I played that thing in this house, my wife would likely shed my blood!!!

Nice addition to the list. I'll make that the 12 hardest instruments to play from here on.


marcus said...

Well written article. I laughed. I learned. I loved it.

Anonymous said...

The tabla is very hard. But finding a tabla teacher is not as hard as you make it seem. You don't have to marry into a musical family.

Tom King said...

I got my information from the traditionalist tabla folks themselves. I'm sure there's probably an offshoot bunch of tabla players and teachers that have broken from the strict traditionalists, but I'm willing to bet the families do NOT approve of this unheard of innovation. Me, I live in East Texas and I'd be willing to bet hard cash I couldn't find a tabla teacher within 200 miles.

Thanks for your comment. Good to hear that some have broken from the tabla establishment.


Sophia said...

I am not really sure if best practices have emerged around things like that, but I am sure that your great job is clearly identified.


Anonymous said...

i can't stand when people say you need perfect pitch to sing. There are a lot of people who don't have perfect pitch (the MAJORITY of singers) and sing exceptionally well. There are also people who have perfect pitch and can't sing worth s#!t, trust me i have heard it. If you already have a good voice then perfect pitch is going to be a great tool at your disposal, but for the rest of the world relative pitch works just fine.

Seriously, people shouldn't write stuff based on quasi-knowledge.

Tom King said...

Okay, granted I over-stated it a bit. There are electronic systems that can actually adjust an off-pitch voice and make it tolerable. There are unusual voices that are pleasing - not everyone must be an opera singer. There are also a lot of folks who think they can sing who are painful to listen to. I'm not sure how much the difference between perfect and relative pitch is, but I'm pretty sure relative pitch means you still have to be able to hit the note. You can't just get somewhere in the vicinity of the note. It doesn't work. Training helps, but not always.

Your comment, seems to reflect some unhappy experience in your singing career. Sorry if I pressed a button, there. No need to get nasty though. I've been playing music for nearly 40 years. I don't have a good natural head for pitch and learned to be a tolerable instrumentalist by working very hard at it. I've even sung in public, but I have no illusions about the quality of my singing and choose easy numbers. There are songs which, to my sorrow, I will never be able to perform because God did not see fit to give me the vocal instrument to do so.

This article was about the 10 hardest instruments to play (my opinion). I still believe, given the level of training needed to develop a professional quality voice (if you don't already have a natural one with excellent pitch), that that makes the voice one of the hardest instruments to learn. That's also partly because it is so difficult for folks who don't have good natural pitch to recognize that they don't. We don't hear ourselves as others do. It's not like an instrument where you hear what others hear. With the voice you only hear what's in your own head.

I stand by my original assertion. You can sing well with training and practice, but the level of practice (and being honest with yourself) that's required makes developing a good voice difficult.

I hope this clarifies my intent a bit. I wasn't saying only operatic sopranos with perfect pitch should be allowed to sing. Anyone can sing who wants to. Anyone can bang on an instrument who wants to. Sounding good is quite a different thing from producing sound.


The Saraswati Veena player said...

I would not entirely agree with what you tell for the Tabla (I agree on the tech.. aspects though). Its not learnt through lineage as you have mentioned (u have a very wrong info here !!!), rather the formal code of taking a student is : either a stuent approaches a guru (teacher) or in some exceptional cases, the guru approaches the student!!!.

I play the south Indian stringed instruments "saraswati veena" and "saraswati guitar veena" and I am from South India. I think you should get more exposure to Indian instruments such as "saraswati veena" and "Chitra veena". The latter one is especially harder to play since the music system i.e, the "carnatic classical music" is the most sophisticated music system of the world. Also, think of the North indian instrument "Sarod" (not sitar, it is fairly simple to play...). I would even suggest th carnatic flute. Please try to listen to carnatic classical music. Its the music made for the inner happiness. Even learning a Mrudanga is extremely challenging.. Take any Indian instrument, it takes decades to master since the music itself is that complicated..

Tom King said...

Again I got my info from traditional Tabla players. The text was a few decades old and perhaps the younger generation has overcome the old ways some. Still, having to approach a guru or be approached by one still seems a significant barrier. Most other instruments, I can learn to play by plunking down some cash at a local music store or signing up for band while I'm in high school.

I've actually tried to listen to Indian music and it is quite complex as you say. While many find it peaceful, I don't. To an East Texas boy it's a bit too complex for me to fully enjoy and the tone reminds me of bagpipes which are also an acquired taste.

This is my top ten. I'm sure there are many who would disagree with me over their own favorite or not-so-favorite instruments. That's what makes writing this stuff so much fun.


Anonymous said...

Harpists think the harp is the hardest.

A lot of people master both piano and harp and they all say the harp is much harder, but more rewarding to play. You have to be able to read rhythm and multiple notes at the same time. It requires daily tuning of many string and is hard to move. You have to balance a large instrument and look to the side of the instrument in a less than aliened way. One of the best harpists who ever lived who masted both instruments said sight-reading is much easier on the the piano. You have to constantly keep looking back from the paper to the strings. Harpists often play music written for piano. Composers of the harp don't consider what was possible much less easier for the harp. Harpists report getting yelled by the conductor because the conductor isn't familiar with the instrument. They don't give the harpist the music far enough in advance to be able to learn it, or relearn it. There is general agreement that muscle memory is very hard to get at the harp (very easy on the piano) If you take a week away from the instrument, or piece the deterioration in skill is more than with piano.
The foot petals are required for any accidental. "Petal mistakes", can ruin a performance. An intermediate player may not be able to hear, is the a wrong note, or is one of the petals in the wrong position. The finger movement to create a quality sound is very complex.

There is an intimacy of direct contact with the music making part of the instrument, the string. Adults often come to the harp from other instruments. It doesn't happen the other way around.

Tom King said...

The harp is difficult I'm told, but I've never heard of anyone who had to practice the harp outdoors or somewhere out of earshot of any breathing human being. On the other hand I've been told just where my Sweet Baboo intended to place the long end of my banjo if I didn't give it a rest. I suggested learning bagpipes once and she began sharpening kitchen knives in a meaningful fashion. A harp sounds beautiful, even if you are struggling with it. However difficult it might be to achieve technical perfection with it, people tolerate amateur harpists relatively well. Technical difficult was only one of the criteria. The other was how much people hate bad players of bagpipes, banjos, didgereedos and the like are on there. That's why accordions made the list. Besides having to do three things at once, accordions really make people mad for some reason.

Ah, well. We'll never get instrumentalists to agree on any of this. I just enjoyed doing it as a writing exercise.


surrealyogin said...

If you think Tabla is tough, think again. Tabla is simply the easiest Indian percussive instrument to play. Try some of South Indian percussive instruments, you will know what I am saying.

voice over artist said...

Thanks for share this valuable information about Top Ten Hardest Musical Instruments to Learn to Play such as Bagpipes & Uillean pipes, The violin and its cousins, Pedal Steel Guitar, Banjo and many more.

squodge said...

Strange that no one mentions the drums. Almost none of my musical friends can co-ordinate their hands and feet to play even a simple rock beat!