Top 10 Most Challenging Instruments to Master

Byvu lita

Jul 21, 2023

All instruments come with their own set of challenges. But some are definitely tougher than others. Here are ten instruments which, despite their many virtues, will push you further and harder than most.

10 hardest musical instruments to play


For all that it is one of the world’s most popular instruments, the violin is one of the hardest on which to make an acceptable sound, sometimes even after years of learning it. I should know – I play it myself, and I really don’t know how my parents put up with all those years of screeching. The problem is that, unlike a piano, the violin doesn’t give you any help: you have to make all the notes yourself, and woe betide you, and your audience, if you don’t have an inborn sense of relative pitch.

There’s also the coordination issue of doing two completely different things with your right and left hand. It’s an expensive instrument, unless, of course, you want a model that makes you sound screechier. Plus, it’s all a bit high maintenance, having to hold up the instrument with one hand, while scrabbling away for dear life with the other.

But don’t let that put you off. The violin, as we know, is capable of sounding heavenly. It will guarantee you a place in an orchestra, if you’re half decent, and there’s nothing like the feeling of mastering something difficult, or at least, making a respectable fist of it. Why else would I have kept going with it all these years?

2.French Horn

You may be thinking ‘oh it only has three valves, what’s the problem?’ But it is extremely easy to be terrible at the French horn. In fact, many a professional has cracked notes in concert. That’s because the horn’s primary range is in a particularly high part of the overtone series, where the harmonics are very close together. So it’s easy for a player to hit a wrong note. Plus, the French horn has a small mouthpiece, which requires more lip and muscle control than, say, a trumpet.

It’s one of the heavier brass instruments, and also one of the more expensive, with a passable model setting you back at least £1000. Then there’s the yuck factor of emptying out the spit valves. I would say you’re better off avoiding the whole headache altogether, except for one thing: the French horn has an absolutely gorgeous sound. Warm, velvety, noble, at times heartbreaking (think second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5), it is, you could say, a sound worth labouring for. Then again, maybe not.

3. Organ

On the surface, playing the organ looks like a pretty cushy gig. For one thing, you’re always guaranteed a seat. And if you happen to play the piano already, you may be thinking it’s just a question of transferring your skills across. WRONG! Ok, well not completely wrong. It is true that the organ involves a lot of pianistic fingering technique. But, I for one, had a shock when I started learning the organ and realised that not only were my feet under nearly as much pressure as my hands, but I had to learn how to coordinate the two.

Then there were the other complications, not least negotiating all those stops, in addition to expression pedals and swells. As for learning how to accompany a congregation or a choir – which, actually, is the organ’s raison d’être in any church – that’s next-level stressful. For better or worse, I never got that far with my organ journey. Maybe you will, and you’ll be all the tougher for it.


Talking of coordination – it is the thing about playing the accordion, given that you have to operate buttons with one hand and keys with the other, all while working the bellows and doing your best not to sound like a wheeze bag. To be fair, not all accordions were created equally difficult: one type will allow you to play chords with a single button, so you don’t need to learn how to build chords before you can play them, or propitiate the accordion gods every time you give a performance. But when you watch a virtuoso accordionist like Ksenija Sidorova, for instance, you realise that some instruments were designed just for superhumans.


The marmite of instruments – you either love them or hate them – bagpipes are not for the fainthearted. For a start, they require an extraordinary amount of air, which can be quite overwhelming for a beginner. Then there is the fiddly playing technique. Grace notes are just about everywhere in highland pipe music, particularly if you take on the elaborate art music genre known as pìobaireachd. As for that deafening wall of sound….you’ll need a good pair of earplugs if you want to practise indoors.

That said, the bagpipes have so much going for them – versatility, antiquity, wow-factor – quite apart from the fact that they give you an excuse to wear a kilt. Surely it’s worth overcoming a few initial hurdles to play this rugged beast of an instrument. Then again, as a bagpipe (and marmite) lover myself, I would say that.

6.Double bass

Assuming you’re tall enough even to contemplate this instrument, you’ll have your work cut out for you. The double bass demands strength, stamina and some very well-trained ears: because the pitches are so low, it can be difficult to hear the finer nuances of intonation. Plus, you have the frustration of putting in all that hard work, and then rarely getting the chance to shine as a soloist, at least in classical music.

On the other hand, though, as a double bassist in an orchestra, you serve an essential function: providing weight and dynamic power and reinforcing the rhythmic foundation. And we haven’t even begun to discuss the many wild joys of being a jazz bassist.


Affectionately nicknamed the ‘clown of the orchestra’, the bassoon needs a hell of a lot of puff to get going and you may well not find the initial sound agreeable. As for the actual ‘playing’ part, that comes with its own complications: temperamental reeds, multiple fingerings for some notes, the sheer size and weight of the thing. It’s expensive too, with a decent instrument setting you back several thousand pounds. All in all, playing the bassoon is a pretty big undertaking, maybe that’s why you don’t tend to get hordes of people doing it. Yet those who do tend to be pretty passionate about it, and listening to the bassoon at its best – not least in that iconic opening of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring – you start to understand why.


Known for its use in science fiction films and its eerie sound – like that of a descending alien spacecraft – this rare electronic instrument is ferociously difficult. For one thing, you play it without touching it, adjusting volume and pitch by moving your hands over an electromagnetic circuit. For another, it is extraordinarily sensitive: the slightest loss of control will show up in the sound, as will any other interferences in the instrument’s electro-magnetic field, which is why, if you’re sharing the stage with a theremin player, you need to keep a distance of at least a metre and a half.

According to Carolina Eyck (pictured), one of the instrument’s main exponents, the theremin’s sensitivity is also its biggest asset: ‘you can pull out emotions only possible on the theremin,’ she said in an article for the Financial Times. But the fact remains: if you want to be pulling any emotions at all out of this instrument, you will need to sweat for it.


It’s not as simple as tinkling a triangle once in a while. Unlike other types of musicians, percussionists have to play a whole range of instruments. And solo percussion works can be eye-wateringly difficult. If you don’t believe me, just watch this.

Or, for that matter, this.

Then there’s the nuisance of carting a battery of instruments around, not to mention the challenge of appeasing your neighbours enough to let you practise them. On the other hand, as a percussionist, you get to be the one to deliver that almighty crash, bang or wallop at a symphony’s climax, and surely there can be no musical experience more cathartic than that (provided, of course, that you don’t mistime your entry).


I know I might have mentioned elsewhere that the harp was one of the easiest instruments. But, beyond beginner level, it actually gets pretty darned hard. Modern concert and orchestral repertoire makes serious demands on harpists, with blisters being an occupational hazard.

Then there are the practical concerns: the sensitivity of the strings, the faff of tuning them, the headache of transporting the instrument, the prohibitive expense of buying it, with a full-sized pedal harp typically costing tens of thousands of pounds. Plus solo repertoire for the instrument is actually fairly limited.

And yet, the harp is such a beautiful instrument – both in looks and sound – that it’s easy to overlook the obstacles. You can just picture yourself, clad all in white, playing arpeggios on some Grecian portico. That is, until the grim realist in you kicks in.

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