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What is a good first instrument for someone with no musical background?

Updated on November 14, 2014

I see this question a lot on various online Q&A forums. People with no experience would like to learn to play an instrument (or enroll their child in private music lessons), and they are completely overwhelmed by the choices out there and would like some advice. Other variations of this question include:

  • Which instrument should I play?
  • Should I learn [instrument] or [other instrument]?
  • What are the pros and cons of learning [instrument]?
  • What instrument is easiest to learn?
  • What instrument will give me the best chance of getting into [conservatory or professional orchestra]?

The most common answers to these questions favor piano, guitar, or violin. While there are some good reasons why each of these make good first instruments for a lot of people, no instrument is the best choice for everyone.

My recommendation is to go with something you will enjoy. Don't worry about what is easy or what will make you most versatile as musician or what will require you to learn the most or least amount of music theory. As for your chances of getting into a given orchestra, let's be honest: you don't even know if you are going to be any good at playing a given instrument yet! Slow down, find the instrument you can play well, and set goals you can achieve in the near future before you start considering a career as a musician. If you do not enjoy the sound your chosen instrument makes, you will never be able to make a commitment to it. If you cannot decide which instrument you like best, consider the type(s) of music you like and the instruments that can be used to play that music.

Choose Your Style

There are numerous styles of music in the world, and different instruments are suitable for different styles. The alto saxophone is probably not the best choice for bluegrass or mariachi bands, but would be perfect for classical, jazz, or pop music. Some instruments, particularly members of the string, keyboard, and percussion families, are more versatile than others. Deciding what styles of music you may like to play will help you make a short list of instruments. Here are some ideas to get you started. None of the styles below are necessarily restricted to the instruments listed, but you'll likely find a larger selection of music in your chosen style if you choose an instrument that is commonly associated with it. If you do not see the style you had in mind below, try an internet search or watching groups that play your chosen form of music to see what kinds of instruments they use.

Classical, Baroque, Wedding Music:

acoustic members of the violin family, winds, brass, percussion, piano, harp

Big Band, Ragtime, Jazz, Swing, Blues:

brass, winds, bass (electric or acoustic), violin (electric or acoustic), guitar (electric or acoustic), keyboard, and percussion

Country, Bluegrass, American Folk Music:

strings (electric or acoustic), piano, and percussion

Irish/Scottish Folk Music:

strings, flute/penny whistle, bag pipes, piano, and percussion

Mariachi:

violin, guitar, and trumpet

Rock, Pop:

guitar (electric or acoustic), bass (electric or acoustic), violin (electric or acoustic), keyboard, and percussion

Choose a Family

If you have a style of music in mind and have made a short list of instruments you may like to play, and if nothing on that list has jumped out at you, then you can narrow your choices even further by choosing a single instrument family. There are four major instrument families: strings, (wood)winds, brass, and percussion.

String Family

The string family consist of all instruments with strings that are made to plucked or bowed to produce a vibration. Some string instruments can also be struck with a mallet, hammer or the wooden part of a bow. However, instruments with strings that are only struck and never plucked or bowed, such as the piano or hammer dulcimer, are typically classified as percussion instruments even though they have strings.

Violin Family

Within the string family are a group of instruments that have several common ancestors, including the medieval fiddle, lira da braccio, and rebec. These instruments are the violin, viola, (violin)cello and (double) bass. The instruments of the violin family look very similar to each other, but each is tuned differently and requires different techniques. If you are considering a member of the violin family, you should listen to each of them carefully and watch how they are played before you make your decision.

Wind Family

Once upon a time, or maybe only a few decades ago depending on who you ask, the members of this family were known as "woodwinds." Historically, the name probably comes from the fact that these instruments were made of wood, but it is a mistake to assume that all wind instruments were originally made from wood. The first flutes were made from bone, and some ancient wind instruments were made of other woody-stemmed plants we would not normally think of as "trees," including sugar cane and bamboo. In recent years, the term "woodwinds" has gradually been simplified to "winds" in order to include instruments made of metal or synthetic materials. The true distinction of wind instruments is that they use reeds rather than mouthpiece, and changing the shape of the mouth on wind instrument may change the quality of a note but will not alter its pitch. Some wind instruments have removable reeds which must frequently be replaced, while others have reeds are built into the instrument.

Brass Family

The brass family consists of instruments that are often made of brass. They have a mouthpiece at one end and a bell at the other. Some pitch control is permitted by changing the shape of mouth, or in the case of the French horn, the hand inside the bell, but brass instruments also have valves, slides, or both. Unlike wind instruments, which are usually straight, the pipe on a brass instrument is coiled to allow for longer length in a smaller space. It should be noted that not all instruments that have a bell at one end are brass instruments. The clarinet and saxophone, for example, are both classified as wind instruments because they have reeds.

Percussion Family

Any instrument that is struck or shaken to produce sound is a percussion instrument. Further division of the percussion instruments include drums, cymbals, bells/chimes, pitched and unpitched instruments, and keyboard instruments. Some percussion instruments, like the tympani, stand in classes all their own. Tympani are large bowl-shaped drums, each of which is tuned to a specific pitch. People who play the tympani are few and far between and are therefore in such high demand that professional orchestras often pay experienced tympanists more than anyone else in the ensemble.

Keyboard Family

Some percussion instruments have keyboards that direct a mechanical part of the instrument to move. This mechanical part may then strike a string or pipe, open a valve, or send an electrical signal. The most popular instrument in the keyboard family is by far the piano. Organs, harpsichords calliopes, and synthesizers also keyboards. The challenge of keyboard instruments is that they typically require the musician to use a grand staff - that is, a combination of the treble and bass clefs which must be read simultaneously. This challenge also serves as an advantage. You learn more about music theory by playing a keyboard than from any other instrument.

Good Instruments for Children

I have a handful of former students who have given up music altogether because they hated playing the violin. If I could go back in time and talk to their parents before we ever started lessons, there is one thing I would tell all of them: don't force music on your children! You don't have to. Once they realize that music can be fun, they might just tell you what instrument they want to play. Listen to them!

I play the violin because it was my choice when I was six years old. For a short season of my life when I was a bit older, it was no longer what I wanted, so I took a break. I went back and have been playing ever since. I see too many parents choosing instruments for their children. Some think they have to learn piano before they can play anything else. Others have heard that the violin is a good first instrument, especially for younger children, because it is so tactile. The guitar is supposedly a good first instrument because it is "easy." These are not good reasons to choose an instrument for your child. You can learn theory on any instrument, and all musical instruments are tactile. "Easy" is relative, and if you tell someone an instrument is supposed to be easy and they struggle to play it, they will assume they are incapable of learning any instrument and will quit altogether. There is an instrument out there for everyone, regardless of age, ability, or the perceived advantages of learning a different instrument. Each of us gravitates toward our own instrument, as if we instinctively know what we were born to play. You cannot make that decision for someone else, even your own child.

Courtney is part owner of Treble Strings. She teaches lessons both online and in her studio in Smithville, MO. To contact her, please email: lessons@treblestrings.com

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