This article will give you two simple guidelines and a pros & cons list to guide your decision. After you’ve read this, you’ll be able to make an informed decision on which instrument your child should play.
The two most important factors that influence your child’s instrument choice are their interests and your ability to find an excellent teacher. If you find the perfect instrument for your child but can’t find a qualified teacher, they’ll struggle with the process of learning music and likely quit. After that, you’ll want to consider things like noise level and size (especially for apartments and small homes).
Note that if you’re able to find a qualified teacher of any instrument, your child can learn the rudiments of music from that teacher with ease and joy. Once your child is ready to move onto their preferred, they’ll have a stronger foundation for learning.
- Can play harmony and melody simultaneously (only one other instrument on this list can do this).
- More major composers wrote more music for this than any other instrument.
- Very easy to understand music theory due to the linear layout of notes. They’re all just in a line! (vs. other instruments that aren’t so obvious).
- You may be able to get one for next-to-free! (quality will likely be dubious)
- Ubiquitous instrument to learn; you should be able to find a good, established teacher just about anywhere.
- Strong Jazz, classical, and popular music traditions
- Can buy smaller, electronic keyboards
- Once you play a note, there is nothing you can do to alter it (like the violin or voice can)
- They’re big. Really big. Let’s say you can’t exactly take it to a jam session (or fit it in your child’s dorm room or first apartment, which isn’t so great for the longevity of their playing).
- The electronic keyboards can get pretty fancy (and even the cheapest ones that are appropriate are quite expensive). But you’ll lose part of what makes the piano so unique; its large size is a massive resonating body that disperses sound in all directions. It just won’t sound as good.
- Some, but not many, pianos and keyboards in modern music.
- Heavy! 300-1,200 lbs! Need to hire professional movers
- Needs to be tuned by a professional bi-annually.
The piano is one instrument of the keyboard family. It is straightforward to transition to other keyboard instruments, such as the modern keyboard-based synthesizer, historical harpsichord, organs, clavichords, etc.
One hundred years ago, pianos were a standard part of many middle-class households. The last vestiges of that fashion are still fading, and people are still trying to get rid of pianos that take up floor space. You may be able to adopt a piano for only the cost of moving it (it will need a few professional tunings as well before it “settles in”). You won’t know the quality of it, however.
If you’re looking to buy new: $4,000-$75,000
If you’re looking to buy an adequately weighted, 88 key keyboard: $500-$1,000
- The most prominent instrument in orchestras, chamber music, and ensembles, plus a ton of great solo music.
- Classical and bluegrass music prominently features the violin (or fiddle, as the bluegrass folks call it).
- One of the most popular instruments to play, you should be able to find a good teacher just about anywhere.
- Due to its popularity, it is relatively easy to find fractional (kid-sized) violins of just about any size.
- Small and easy to carry
- The first year or so of your child’s practice session will sound terrible, even if they’re doing well. After trying out a violin lesson, I once had a parent come to me, saying, “I couldn’t deal with the sound. It was like nails on a chalkboard.”
- Can’t play harmony
- Only used rarely in bands, etc.
- The layout of the notes is less intuitive than the piano.
- You’ll also need a bow, which can be a considerable expense.
Transitioning from violin to viola is relatively easy. However, for the upright string instruments (bass, cello), the technique is different enough that transitioning is more complicated.
- Like the piano, you can play harmony and melody (and can do them both simultaneously, if you learn classical guitar).
- Unlike the piano, it is relatively small and is easily portable.
- Strong Classical and Jazz traditions
- Used in all sorts of popular music. Your child can easily find some band-mates and start a band.
- A ton of teachers out there!
- It can be challenging to find an appropriately sized instrument. Some guitars marketed towards kids are far too large for them, and online guides are inaccurate.
- Most of the “traditional” instruments on this list (those in the orchestra, plus the piano) have a long, healthy, and huge body of teaching knowledge. Compared to these instruments, finding a guitar teacher who is well-versed in proper technique can be challenging.
- Your child may end up playing the banjo.
- Related Instruments
- Electric Guitar, Bass Guitar, Ukulele, Banjo, Cuatro, and other fretted stringed instruments. These are pretty easy to switch to.
- A drum set is one of the most full-body musical experiences out there, as it uses all four limbs. Organs also do this, but I’m guessing you’re not considering organ… (if so, look at “Piano” above).
- Strong Jazz tradition, used in almost every genre of music (except classical)
- If going down the “Percussion” route (marimba, xylophone, etc. used in an orchestra), your child will learn to play many different instruments, many of them using the melodic component in addition to the rhythmic.
- The loudness of these instruments can not be overstated. If you’re anywhere near your neighbors, plan on getting an electric drum set (as well as a traditional drum set, for use at gigs, etc.).
- Takes up a lot of space and takes a long time to set up and teardown.
Xylophone, Mariba, Cajon, Congas—anything you hit. There are hundreds of them, from cultures all over the world.
- Like the piano, this instrument opens the doorway to many others that share similar characteristics. Those include saxophone, oboe, bassoon, and bass clarinet.
- Covers a wide range of notes (vs. flute, for example, which only plays very high notes).
- It’s a small, easy-to-transport instrument.
- You’ll need to use reeds, which are both a (small) continued expense and challenging to perfect.
- It’s going to be squeaky sounds all over the place until your child develops their foundational technique.
Alto Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Saxophones, oboe, bassoon
- Few supplies needed
- Relatively inexpensive
- Small, compact size.
- Skills are easily transferable to other brass instruments.
- Strong jazz and classical tradition, as well as used in some popular music styles.
- The most challenging brass instrument to play well.
- Not friendly towards students with braces.
French Horn, Tuba, Trombone, Flugel Horn, Piccolo Trumpet, Baritone Horn, Cornet
- The first instruments humans ever used!
- Used extensively in all genres of music, in all cultures.
- Your child will learn proper breathing techniques, which will help them in any other instruments they take up, as well as life-in-general.
- You can sing in choirs, which is an incredibly satisfying experience.
- Resonance is a significant factor in tone production for all instruments. The resonance of a singer’s voice results from the shape and size of their sinus cavities. Because of this, they’re stuck with the instrument they were born with, while other instrumentalists can upgrade to better instruments as they improve.
- Many singers of popular music use their voices in ways that are damaging to their vocal cords. This can sideline their career for quite a while (see: Adele, Mariah Carey, Whitney Huston, Elton John, John Mayer, Freddie Mercury, Frank Ocean, Pavarotti, Sinatra, Justin Timberlake, James Hetfield… you get the idea) or permanently.
- Singers are, stereotypically, terrible at understanding music theory. They often learn their parts by ear, even when they’ve advanced well-past the stage where that should be necessary.
Free, unless you count pregnancy and delivery costs.
Let me know if there are any other instruments you’d like me to discuss in the comments below!