The 11 Hardest Instruments To Play, Learn (And Master)

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  • Humans have invented a beautifully diverse range of musical instruments 
  • Every instrument poses its own difficulties, but some are notably harder to learn than others 
  • We pick out 11 of the hardest instruments to play

What is the hardest instrument to play? As a music teacher, this is likely the question I hear the most.

The simplest answer is that every instrument poses its own difficulties, though some are easier to start playing than others, and every instrument is impossible to master.

I have students who have reached 100% completion on expansive RPG video games, a near-impossible feat, but there is no 100% completion on a musical instrument.

To illustrate this more specifically, when you hit a drum, it sounds like a drum, whether it is your first time hitting a drum or you have been playing for decades.

The violin is a different story entirely, as new players must put in hours of practice before they can expect to draw anything more than a hideous squeak out of the instrument.

That said, both Shannon Lucas and Itzhak Perlman are still practicing their respective instruments regularly, pursuing but never achieving perfection.

But that’s not why you’re here: you want to know the eleven hardest instruments to play, and we have curated a list to meet your expectations.

What Are 11 Hardest Instruments To Play & Learn?

Some of these might surprise you, but trust that if you take them on, you will really have to prove your mettle in order to advance your playing to the next level. Included in this list are:

  1. Drumset
  2. Steel Pan
  3. Tabla
  4. Theremin
  5. Saw
  6. Oboe
  7. French Horn
  8. Violin
  9. Organ
  10. Chromatic Button Accordion
  11. An Instrument You Haven’t Invented Yet


The drumset as we know it now is a relatively new instrument, especially compared to some of the other instruments on this list.

It evolved from the percussion section of the marching band, a popular form of music ensemble in both the US and Europe in the second half of the 19th century.

At the time, each drum, cymbal, and whatever else might be required was played individually by one instrumentalist.

In an unsurprising development given the context of the Industrial Revolution, a time in which optimization of manpower drove all sorts of innovation in design, musicians began combining elements of the percussion section, like the bass drum and the snare drum, so that one musician could play two instruments.

Later, the cymbal was added to this setup in a process known as double drumming.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Gretsch, Ludwig, and Slingerland were developing and selling pedals for playing the bass drum and a special pedal-based rig for playing the cymbals known as a low boy that was an obvious predecessor to the hihat.

By the 1920s several companies were assembling drumsets that resemble the drumset of the present day, with a kick drum, snare, and suspended cymbal.

All of this is to say that none of the original, individually played instruments of the percussion section would have made a list like this one. 

What makes the drumset one of the hardest instruments to play is the sheer number of tasks that figure in an overwhelming multitasking experience.

This theme will return with several of the other instruments on this list: the hard part about drums is that each hand and each foot need to be able to act independently.

Beyond that, polyrhythmic figures, which are prerequisites for a lot of the musical repertoire that drummers perform, combine disparate metrical divisions simultaneously, making the independence of each limb even more difficult.

The physicality of the instrument is hard to miss as well: a drummer who can wheel it out quickly and precisely on a full rack of toms and play blast beats over a fast double-bass pedal foundation has to train formidable fast-twitch muscles.

All of this is to say nothing of the subtlety and nuance that can be played into the contact a drummer makes with cymbals and drumheads.

The sheer enormity of the intellectual and physical skill of an expert drummer indicates that, though anyone can hit a drum and have it sound like a drum, playing the drums well is one of the hardest challenges in music.

Steel Pan

The steel pan originated in Trinidad and Tobago in the 1930s.

Steel pans are made out of oil drums in which the flat end of the drum is shaped in such a way as to generate rounded surfaces that, when struck with a mallet, yield ringing tones.

Steel pans come in several different configurations with larger notes for lower pitches and smaller notes for higher pitches. The tenor, or lead, has over two octaves of range beginning at middle C and generally going up to around E6.

The six bass is a configuration of six pans, each with three notes, covering only an octave and a half in the lowest reaches of the audible range.

In between are the quad bass (four pans), cello (three pans), guitar (two pans), double seconds (two as well), and double tenors.

While the configurations of these pans are similar across makers, they are not standardized, so pan players who switch from one set of cello pans to another might find that the notes are not where they are used to play them. 

Moreover, in many parts of the world outside of Trinidad and Tobago, it is very difficult to find a pan tuner.

That’s right; just like a piano, these instruments go out of tune and need a great deal of care to keep them in playing shape, but not many people are qualified to tune and care for them.

What really makes the pan difficult, though, is the way pitches are set up in the instrument. On a piano, moving to the right is a higher pitch, and moving to the left is a lower pitch.

On the guitar, moving up the neck is a higher pitch, and moving down the neck is a lower pitch.

In a tenor pan, notes are set up in the circle of fifths around the perimeter of the pan, and move up the octave as you move closer to the middle of the pan.

A chromatic scale, therefore, zigzags across the instrument, back and forth, as you work your way up and down the scale.

Much like the drumkit, another percussive instrument, the pan mallets can carry a great deal of subtlety and nuance with each stroke and roll.

The best pan players can convey an incredible range of emotions through their playing, while neophytes hitting the pan sound like they’re banging aluminum garbage can lids together.


Tabla is a pair of drums, the dayan and the bayan, that forms the rhythmic foundation of Hindustani classical music.

The tabla is part of a rhythmic tradition unlike any other, in that these drums are not the sort where you can strike them and sound like a drummer.

There are thirty different tones, or bols, that tabla players learn to recite as they learn to play them on the drums themselves.

The vocalizations are every bit as important as the performances on the actual drums, which means tabla players are by design multi-instrumentalists: vocalists and drummers. 

Some of the bols are easier to play on the tabla than others. A friend of mine who has been learning to play tabla for years has told me that you can spend hours upon hours practicing a phrase and never quite get the bol, only to have it finally emerge later on.

Once you have gotten a handle on some of the bols there remains the process of learning songs within the various talas, which are meters composed of matras (beats), organized into vibhagas (measures), and avartams (cycles).

Hindustani classical music is very carefully organized, posing a tremendous intellectual challenge in learning the music on top of the physical challenge of playing such a dynamic instrument.


My bilingual students who are fluent in Spanish will often translate directly to English to ask if we will be “touching” instruments in class.

It makes sense because “tocar” or “to touch” in Spanish is also used to refer to playing an instrument, and it’s not a big stretch even if you do not speak Spanish to recognize the relationship between touching an instrument and making sound with it.

Where the connection breaks down, however, is with the theremin, in that the theremin is a musical instrument that you play by specifically not touching it.

The theremin was patented in 1928 by Leon Theremin. It consists of two antennae that control oscillators in response to the distance between the player’s hands and the antennae.

One antenna controls for pitch (typically the right one), while the other controls for amplitude (volume).

The theremin is the quintessential scoring tool for early sci-fi films or films paying homage to those scores of the 1950s and 60s.

Virtuosos of the theremin have to overcome the same challenge as a drummer in dissociating one hand from the other.

It is something like the violin in that one hand manages pitch (like the violinist’s left hand on the fingerboard) and the other manages dynamics (like the violinist’s bow hand).

The main source of cognitive dissonance is essentially that you are playing space in a way that is interpreted by an instrument rather than manipulating the instrument itself.

Equally challenging, perhaps, is the challenge of making a simple oscillator sound expressive.

The interfacing of the human touch (or lack thereof) with a tone varying in only pitch and amplitude takes a lot of refinement in order to yield something musical, making this one incredibly challenging instrument to learn and play.


The musical saw, or “singing saw,” had a popular following around the turn of the twentieth century in both the US and Europe but went out of style with the decline in Vaudeville and the beginning of the second world war, at which point steel was needed for manufacturing munitions for the war effort.

This instrument is the perfect follow-up to the theremin in our list because, while it is played very differently from the theremin, it has a similar sound.

The singing saw is played by placing the handle of a flexible saw in between the performer’s knees and pressing the opposite end of the saw in such a way as to contort the flexible instrument into varying degrees of curvature.

Different degrees of curvature yield different pitches when a bow, typically a cello bow, is dragged across the thin edge of the saw. A jiggling of the knee results in a vibrato.

Much like the theremin, the saw is capable of the full spectrum of pitches in between each of the discrete half-steps to which we are accustomed (at least in Western music).

The violin is the same way, in that it does not have frets like a guitar, or keys like a piano, that are assigned to specific half-steps.

Theremin players learn hand positions to help them stay in tune, as do violinists.

Saw players must also develop strategies to avoid having to glissando all over the place in an attempt to find the pitch.

On top of having to develop a perceptive ear, saw players must have an incredibly strong left hand and arm in order to contort the steel of the saw.


As connected as we all are to our instruments, if you ask a woodwind player which of their section-mates has the toughest job, most will tell you it’s the oboe player.

Playing a double-reed instrument like the oboe or the bassoon requires a particularly well-developed embouchure, which is the way in which the lips, facial muscles, tongue, and teeth come together to meet the mouthpiece of a woodwind or brass instrument.

The oboe gives the tuning pitch to the orchestra, and popular wisdom suggests this is because it is the hardest instrument to tune.

While strings players can tune using their pegs and brass players need only to adjust their mouthpieces, the oboist has to resize their reeds in order to make major adjustments to tuning

Another major roadblock to learning the oboe is that its key system is somewhat counter-intuitive. The oboist must often lower a finger to move up in pitch or raise a finger to descend in pitch.

Other wind instruments, like the clarinet or flute, allow the player to assume that putting fingers down covers more holes and thus creates lower sounds, and lifting them does the reverse.

Oboists have one of the toughest instrument maintenance jobs as well in always having to source and keep track of their reeds.

The double-reeds have to be cut just right and not too open, not too closed, and they’re fragile to boot.

As a violinist, I order my favorite strings and keep an extra set or two in my case, but oboists might as well be doing alchemy every few weeks or days, depending on the level of their playing and the frequency with which they practice and perform.

French Horn

In much the same way wind instrument players would point to the oboe as the toughest woodwind, regardless of their loyalties to their own instrument, brass players would likely own up to the staggering difficulty of the french horn.

Like the other brass instruments of the orchestra, the french horn makes a sound when the player presses the embouchure against the mouthpiece and blows air through buzzing lips into what is essentially a bundle of variable-length tubing.

On valved instruments, like the french horn, trumpet, and tuba, the length of the tubing can be changed using the valves.

In slide instruments like the trombone (which can also be valved, making the slide something of a vestigial component on that particular instrument).

Unlike the keyed woodwinds, like the oboe, the valved brass family instruments are not covered in keys; they have just three.

This does not mean that the instrument is limited to three pitches, however, because brass players determine registration through the use of the embouchure and the amount of air being forced through the mouthpiece.

This is the case with all the brass instruments, but the french horn is different in that the french horn’s registration is set relatively high in the harmonic series considering its range.

Due to this, the player’s control over airflow and the tightness of their embouchure have to be all the more precise.

The likelihood of missing a note due to these factors is higher for the french horn player than any other brass player, making it the most difficult brass instrument to learn and play with good intonation.


The violin is and always will be the string instrument closest to my heart, so I will acknowledge my bias in including it on this list, but it is also the most difficult instrument to play in the string family.

Before my cellist and violist friends write in to express their outrage, let me clarify: the viola and cello are essentially larger versions of the violin, thus the mechanics of playing each instrument vary only slightly.

That said, the violin is the smallest instrument and the instrument with the highest range of the string family means that of the string players, the violinists must navigate the smallest half-steps in the upper reaches of their range.

Just as the french horn player must have incredible air and musculature control in order to hit their notes, the violinist has incredibly small targets to hit as they shift up the fingerboard.

As I mentioned with the theremin and musical saw, the fretless nature of the violin means that players must have a keen sense of relative pitch.

Many violinists who train from an early age also develop absolute pitch which can be a great asset when playing an instrument like the violin, where your fingers must find exactly the right spot on the fingerboard in order to play in tune.

As the highest-pitched instrument of one of the oldest and longest-standing instrument families of the full orchestra, violins are frequently assigned the most technically-demanding parts in large orchestral pieces

This is to say nothing of the vast repertoire of solo concertos for violin in which composers demand solo violinists to really push the envelope of what is possible on the instrument.

Just have a listen to some Paganini to hear a musical instrument put through the paces.

In addition to the difficulty of playing with good intonation on a high-pitched fretless string instrument, the violinist must develop a great deal of muscular control in their right arm, the bow arm, in order to unlock the near-infinite range of variation available in terms of articulations on the violin.

Like the 30 or so bols played on the tabla, there are enough Italian and French terms to fill entire dictionaries describing different bowing techniques.

Thus, with the violin, it is not merely the difficulty of getting started, in that the violin is the hardest musical instrument to learn among the strings family without getting frustrated with the squeaks and growls, but also the limitless potential even after you get a good handle on the instrument.

There are always more techniques to learn and skills to build.


The piano is hard to play but plenty of people pull it off.

The organ is the hardest musical instrument to learn in the keyboard family, partially because there are so many keyboards to keep track of.

Some organs have as many as four rows of keys for the organist to play with their hands and a row of keys for their feet as well.

The way the pipe organ makes music is by controlling how air flows through a network of pipes. A large pipe organ has hundreds of pipes, which the organist controls with their keyboards and an array of stops.

Stops determine which sets of pipes are active and ready to sound off when the appropriate key is pressed, triggering the movement of air through the pipe.

To watch a skilled organist is like watching a great pianist combined with a great telephone switchboard operator combined with a great freestyle footballer.

The need to operate the stops, play bass lines with both feet, and also play complicated melodic and harmonic material with both hands on multiple rows of keys would be enough to stop any musician in their tracks.

Training for this sort of independence in each limb, sort of like a drummer, goes well beyond what a pianist must do.

The physical dimensions of the instrument pose something of a challenge as well: imagine if your practice amp or your rehearsal space were the size of a cathedral!

To be able to walk into practice, rehearsal, or performance and know that your mistakes will be heard through literal tons of mahogany, oak, tin, lead, antimony, and zinc.

Sure, an organist can practice elements of their performance on a regular piano or keyboard, but knowing that the real show will invariably be a big, and often sacred, performance for people sitting practically inside your instrument makes the organ the hardest musical instrument to learn for psychological reasons.

Chromatic Button Accordion

You are probably familiar with the keyboard accordion, which is a free-reed aerophone that makes a sound when a button or several are pressed allowing the air from manual bellows to cause the reeds associated with the pressed buttons to vibrate.

In the case of the keyboard accordion, there is a keyboard on one side and buttons on the other that are arranged in either the Stradella system or the Free-bass system.

These are not easy to play, with distinct tasks for each hand on top of the process of operating the bellows.

This pales in comparison to the chromatic button accordion, though, in that the latter instrument replaces the keyboard with a set of buttons in a different arrangement from the buttons on the opposite side.

You might be wondering, ‘why take a complicated instrument and make it even more difficult to play?’. The advantage of the chromatic button accordion is a significantly greater range.

While piano accordions can typically fit around four octaves in the right hand, the chromatic button accordion can extend beyond five octaves.

If you have any doubt that this is one of the hardest instruments to learn to play well, just have a look at how pitches are laid out on the right- and left-hand sides of the instrument, and imagine playing a melody and accompanying yourself with chords all while working the bellows.

An Instrument You Haven’t Invented Yet

Harry Partch was an American composer who found he could not get the sounds he was searching for out of standard instruments, so he made his own.

He experimented with new (and old) tuning systems and developed instruments that made use of micro tuning (the pitches in between the half-steps we utilize practically to the exclusion of all other pitch content in Western music).

All of this is to say that you need not restrict yourself to the instruments that are already out there: the hardest instrument to learn how to play might be waiting to be invented, so as to get the exact sound you’re searching for.

Wrapping Up

Perhaps even harder than learning some of these instruments was determining what belonged on this list.

Having learned a few of these myself and having played with musicians who have learned the other ones, I figured I could make the case that drumset, steel pan, tabla, theremin, saw, oboe, french horn, violin, organ, chromatic button accordion, and as yet uninvented instruments are some of the hardest instruments one could ever possibly try to learn how to play.

That said, there’s a non-zero probability that I missed one!

Feel free to sound off in the comments if that is the case, and perhaps we can all learn a thing or two about the hardest instruments to learn and play.