Choosing a Musical Instrument to Learn

Choosing a Musical Instrument to Learn

Selecting the right musical instrument for you can be a daunting task with the numerous options available and elements to consider.

Woodwinds, strings, brass, percussion, keyboard, and plucked instruments each have their own pros and cons. There are unique considerations for each instrument family that can range from size, portability, how sound is produced, health benefits, to instrument maintenance. From there you can dive deeper into the instruments in the instrumental family you prefer and check out the instrument options in it. 

Learning which instrument families align with your musical goals and desires will help you select the perfect instrument for you.

Families of Instruments

When comparing families of instruments, you will want to reflect on what is most important to you about an instrument and what appeals to you whether it is the instrument’s sound, ease of learning, or its durable composition.

Woodwinds, Including Flute, Clarinet, Saxophone, and Recorders

Woodwind instruments are defined by Your Dictionary as instruments whose sound “is produced by blowing against an edge or by vibrating a thin piece of wood or metal known as the reed, and in which the pitch is governed by the resonant frequencies of an enclosed air column.” Instruments such as the flute, clarinet, saxophone, and recorders all fall under this category. 

Pros of Woodwinds Instruments:

  • Woodwind instruments like the clarinet can lay the foundation for learning other instruments later on such as the saxophone.
  • Gives children good embouchure as well as finger practice. (Gwinnett School of Music)
  • Offers health benefits including strengthening breathing, core muscles, and hand-eye coordination, improving posture, and relieving stress. (Wind Plays)
  • Convenient portable instruments making transportation easy. 

Cons of Woodwinds Instruments:

  • It can be difficult to cover tone holes on woodwind instruments if one has small fingers.
  • With many small parts, instruments can be more easily damaged if dropped.
  • If the woodwind instrument contains a reed, that adds a continued expense.

Brass, Including Trumpet, Trombone, Tuba, & French Horn

Wind instruments made of brass or other metals that produce sound through the vibration of the lips and adjustment of the length of a sound tube by means of valves or a slide fall into the brass family. (Your Dictionary) All of these instruments are keyed like the tuba, french horn, trumpet, and saxophone. However, the trombone is an exception to the rule since it is a slide instrument. 

Pros of Bass Instruments:

  • Improves dexterity and fine motor skills from having to blow air into your instrument while pressing knobs and utilizing hands and arms.
  • Easier to clean, less fragile, and don’t have components that must be replaced semi-regularly as woodwinds and string instruments would. (Quora)
  • Less frostbite when playing in marching band in a cold climate as you can wear complete gloves vs. ones with fingers cut off which you would need for woodwind instruments like the clarinet. (Quora)
  • More durable with the metal composition.
  • Less assembly required as brass instruments tend to be whole whereas clarinets and flutes are in parts.
  • “Have the widest range of expression and can more closely resemble the human voice than other instruments.” (Quora)

Cons of Bass Instruments:

  • Tend to be more difficult to learn and play. 
  • Students or adults with braces should be wary of choosing a brass instrument.
  • Maintenance can sometimes be an issue for the trombone with its slide.

Bowed Strings, Including Violin, Viola, Cello, and Double Bass

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, a string instrument is “any musical instrument that produces sound by the vibration of stretched strings, which may be made of vegetable fiber, metal, animal gut, silk, or artificial materials such as plastic or nylon. In nearly all stringed instruments the sound of the vibrating string is amplified by the use of a resonating chamber or soundboard. The string may be struck, plucked, rubbed (bowed), or, occasionally, blown (by the wind); in each case, the effect is to displace the string from its normal position of rest and to cause it to vibrate in complex patterns.” 

Common string instruments include the violin, viola, cello, and double bass. A side note for the string family is that there is a great variation of instrument size.

Pros to Bowed String Instruments:

  • Is a quieter instrument and can be appreciated when having to practice in close quarters to others.
  • Don’t have to “blow” or breathe. This is relevant in times of Covid-19 and social distancing as it relates to breathing air that might contain a virus.
  • Are polyphonic whereas most wind instruments are monophonic. This means that you can create and play harmony versus just suggesting it by playing more than one note at a time. In addition, polyphonic instruments are “often perceived to have a ‘fuller’ sound (because both high pitched and low pitched notes can sound at the same time).” (Quora)
  • You can accompany yourself while singing, whistling, or humming since you don’t need to stick anything in your mouth. (Quora)

Cons to Bowed String Instruments:

  • Is harder to learn a string instrument because “playing depends heavily on your ability to a) properly tune the instrument and b) hear the correct note.” (Quora)
  • Have a more difficult beginner hold.
  • Tuning string instruments is very complex in comparison to tuning woodwind and brass instruments that don’t involve tuning each string.
  • If the instrument position and posture are learned incorrectly, the string family can cause muscle cramps, tinnitus, hunching, calluses, and “hickeys”. (Quora)
  • Quite fragile as the wood is subject to easier breakage and humidity.

Plucked Strings, Including Guitar, Harp, Mandolin & Banjo

Plucked instruments, a subcategory of string instruments, are played by pulling and releasing strings in a way that causes the strings to vibrate. Plucking can be done with a musician’s plectrum or their fingers. The guitar, harp, mandolin, and banjo are all considered plucked string instruments. 

Pros to Plucked String Instruments:

  • Plucked instruments can play harmony more easily since it is easier to create more complex chords. For example, the violin can play two or three strings at a time while plucked instruments can play all the strings at once making it easier to play chords. 
  • Plucked instruments like the harp can reverberate which means the sound hangs in the air for a while. In contrast, bowed string or wind instruments stop sounding immediately.  
  • You can accompany yourself singing or humming since you won’t need to use your mouth to blow into an instrument. 
  • The guitar is the most versatile in all genres.  
  • Any plucked instrument can be a solo instrument as well as a harmony instrument with the harmony able to accompany the solo line.
  • Quite fragile as the wood is subject to easier breakage and humidity.

Cons to Plucked String Instruments:

  • Plucked instruments can be hard on the finger nails. Many musicians manicure their fingernails because of this.
  • Harps can be very expensive ranging from $30,000 to $40,000 for a concert harp. Other harps available are folk harps, designed for folk and other music, and pedal harps used for classical music. Folk harps run about $1,000 to $5,000 and pedal harps start at around $10,000. 
  • Plucked string instruments require much more tuning than brass or woodwind instruments. 
  • These instruments have a hard time reaching a high volume due to their soft nature unless they are amplified. 

Percussion, Including Drums, Xylophone, & Marimba

A percussion instrument is defined by Collins Dictionary as “any of various musical instruments that produce a sound when their resonating surfaces are struck directly, as with a stick or mallet, or by leverage action. They may be of definite pitch (as a kettledrum or xylophone), indefinite pitch (as a gong or rattle), or a mixture of both (as various drums).” 

Interestingly, percussion instruments have strong ceremonial, sacred, or symbolic associations almost everywhere. They have been used in the past to signal royalty and protect it through transmitting messages in Africa or sending coded instruments to soldiers in Europe. (Percussion4U)

Pros to Percussion:

  • Increasing levels of complexity in rhythm and sheet music make reading music easier over time. (Quora)
  • Easier as they do not involve “blowing air” through the instrument.
  • “The rhythmic accuracy in brain activity that is observed when a person maintains a steady beat is also important to the problem-solving capacities measured with the intelligence tests.” (Telegraph)

Cons to Percussion:

  • May be less interesting for students as many are untuned with no definite pitch, such as with the bass drum, cymbals or castanets.
  • Takes a lot of physical endurance.
  • Drummers are responsible for setting and holding the tempo of the song. (Quora)
  • Requires constant focus and concentration at very high levels all the time — much more so than any other band instrument. (Milnor Music Department)
  • Requires lots of musical independence since there is typically only one person playing each percussion instrument at a time. (Milnor Music Department)
  • More competition in bands and orchestras making it a typical requirement to play a great many instruments. 

Keyboard, Including Piano, Organ & Accordion

“Any musical instrument on which different notes can be sounded by pressing a series of keys, push buttons, or parallel levers” is known as a keyboard instrument. “In nearly all cases in Western music the keys correspond to consecutive notes in the chromatic scale, and they run from the bass at the left to the treble at the right.” (Britannica Encyclopedia) The piano, organ, accordion, and various electronic keyboards fall into this group.

Pros to Keyboard and Piano:

  • You start to recognize and hear different chords in a song and can break down their structure.
  • Increase finger dexterity and strength.
  • You will sound better sooner if you are a beginner as you don’t have to worry about coordinating finger position and hearing pitch as you do with string instruments. 
  • Keyboards give virtually limitless sound options that can be edited and manipulated straight from the keyboard.
  • Nothing has the power to accurately imitate the sound of a piano. (Musika Lessons)

Cons to Keyboard and Piano:

  • Pianos are not easily transportable and are expensive.
  • Lessons are more niche for piano as they aren’t just taught in the band at school where the instruments may even be provided.

Let the Fun Begin: Choosing Your Own Best Musical Instrument!

Selecting a musical instrument is an important decision and learning more about instruments and their families can help you discern which instrument is right for you. Feel free to take a moment to remind yourself of the key differences between instrumental families. 

Big Takeaways:

InstrumentDescription of Instrument
WoodwindsGreat foundational instruments developing the brain and physical body due to utilizing breathing and both hands, but they have more maintenance/care issues with small parts, multiple pieces and reliance on reeds.
BrassMore difficult to produce a pleasant sound when first learning than keyboards, percussion and guitar and other plucked instruments. Brass instruments are louder instruments. Typically whole instruments made of metal so have few concerns with maintenance.
StringsPolyphonic instruments that allow you to play and create harmony and produce a fuller sound. Can cause physical pain if played too often with improper form. Requires a higher musical skill level to hear the pitch and translate that to one’s fingers versus piano where one can just accurately play pitch without this skill. 
PercussionPlaying instruments in this family increases one’s music reading skills and problem-solving intelligence. However in order to advance in this group, one must often learn how to play numerous instruments as it is a competitive section. 
KeyboardHelps one become skilled at recognizing chords in a song and allows for beginners to sound good more quickly than other instruments such as string. Pianos can be difficult to transport and lessons for these instruments are more niche.


Richard J. Chandler, BA, MA Bachelor of Arts-Music & Master of Arts-Psychology