Why learn an Instrument?
Learning a musical instrument doesn’t necessarily mean that you want to become a professional musician and play a week of sold out shows in Carnegie Hall (although that would be great - send us some tickets if you get there!).
Playing an instrument is a great way to start a lifelong love of music in all its forms. For some children it may be the start of a career in music. But for those who don't, it is just as valuable as a way to build confidence, meet new friends, learn to appreciate music and develop crossover skills that will help them in other areas of their lives.
Many parents have asked us, "what's the best instrument for my child to learn?" This is a short guide to help you or your child with some of those tricky decisions around choosing and learning a new instrument.
Pre-instrumental for young children
Before your child is old enough to get an instrument and go to lessons, there are a number of ways you can help them on their way to a lifetime of musical fun.
Simple musical activities and games can seem like just a bit of fun. However, practicing singing and playing at an early age helps children to learn basic musical concepts like rhythm, dynamics and structure.
Exposure to music making at a young age will make it easy to pick up and play instruments when they are ready. These musical concepts are transferable to any instrument.
Before you start spending on expensive instrument tuition, here are a few things that will save you time and money:
a. Get them listening
Keep the radio tuned to music stations. Talk radio is of no real benefit to a three year old! Listen to songs you like and sing along (even if you think you can’t sing). Encouraging singing is a great way to get your children started on their musical journey.
b. Nursery rhymes and action songs
Playgroups, nurseries and online resources are full of great songs for young children to start learning and memorising songs.
c. Simple percussion instruments
Triangles, shakers, tambourines and hand drums are all great instruments for young children to explore different musical sounds. If you don't have any instruments, get the pots and pans out and make your own.
We have a range of free activities at dabbledoomusic.com that will help you explore the basic musical concepts. Play along with a range of colourful characters and get making some music.
You can check-out our parents' course here:
Choosing the Best Instrument for your Child
We’ve put together a simple guide to a range of instruments to give you food for thought. First off, here are some things to think about before you choose an instrument.
1.) What style of music do you want to learn?
Some instruments can be used in a range of different styles. Other instruments are more niche. Instruments like the violin, guitar, piano, saxophone, trumpet and flute are found in a wide range of styles from classical to jazz, and rock to folk.
Instruments like the bassoon, oboe and french horn are more traditionally played in orchestras (and can be very in demand!) while other instruments are more confined to folk styles like the Irish uillean pipes or the Brazilian berimbau.
Here's master uilleann piper Liam O Flynn.
2.) Do you want to learn in a group?
Some instruments are better suited to playing in a group or an ensemble. These are mostly the instruments that generally play with a single voice like trumpets, flutes and violins.
Other instruments like the guitar, piano and harp can play with many voices (polyphonic to be fancy!). These instruments are more suited to solo performance or accompaniment.
Learning an orchestral instrument is a way into ensemble performance with orchestras, brass bands, wind bands and string ensembles. As well as this, learning in a group can be a great way for children to make friends and enjoy music making with others.
In Ireland, we are lucky to have a great tradition of folk music with local groups around the country that cater for all ages, instruments and levels of ability and experience. Folk music in Ireland, and in many other countries, focuses on social events, festivals and competitions, which are another great way to meet people, travel and learn more music.
3.) Do you want to sing too?
An extra benefit for playing piano or guitar is that you can accompany yourself singing. If you are looking for an instrument to entertain friends at a party, go for one of these.
Here’s our short guide to some of the most popular instruments with pros and cons as well as some videos to give you a feel for them.
If you know any musicians, they will be happy to give you a more in depth guide to their own instrument. Music people love talking music - just ask.
Brass instruments are popular in a range of different styles of music from orchestral music and jazz to reggae and soul.
Brass instruments use mouthpieces that require quite physical techniques and stamina, including things like lung capacity that will influence what age children start. Tricky for younger children but worth the effort in the end.
The French horn is notoriously difficult instrument to play and is mainly seen in orchestras or brass ensembles. It has some of the most soaring and majestic parts in the orchestral tradition; so it's worth the effort, if you like it. Take a listen to this amazing version of the Back to the Future theme tune from the Vienna Horns https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jnFl1q0IYTA
An instrument that is found across the world in different styles and genres. For beginners, there are very reasonably priced options including plastic trumpets!
Trumpets are an important part of an orchestra or brass band but can also be found in jazz, blues, soul and a whole range of popular music styles.
The trumpet has a number of close cousins such as the cornet and flugel horn which have different tones and are commonly found in brass bands.
One of the most accessible of the brass instruments, the saxophone uses a wooden reed mouthpiece instead of a brass mouthpiece. This makes it a bit simpler for beginners and easier to cross over to certain woodwind instruments. The basic fingering technique is also similar to the recorder which we will come to later.
Here is a video of two jazz masters; Miles Davis on trumpet and John Coltrane on sax.
“Don’t go there” was the advice of my tuba teacher friend! I think that was due to the hour long piece he had just sat through where he played for about five minutes. This can happen to tuba players in an orchestra but they still have the brass band scene to get more playing in.
The euphonium or tenor horn are great starter instruments from which someone could also progress on to the tuba.
The guitar is my first instrument and I have been teaching it for over ten years to all ages. It’s an instrument that can be used for all types of music and it comes in a range of shapes and sizes, from electric guitars to classical guitars.
The guitar has remained a popular instrument for hundreds of years around the world for a number of reasons:
- It is a great instrument for accompanying songs
- It can also play melodies
- It's very portable
- It’s relatively cheap
There are different types of guitars, each with their own particular style of music associated with them. As a beginner, I often recommend starting with a nylon string guitar because they are easier on the fingers and its easier to get a good cheap one. A cheap steal string guitar can be nasty to play and listen to!
Here's a great example of the guitar as a instrument that can accompany singing and play solos, with the great Peter Green of Fleetwood Mac.
We have a special classroom concert course on guitar which you can access for free here:
The piano is probably the most popular instrument for children to learn. One of the main reasons for this is due to it being easy for beginners to make a nice sound out of the instrument. You simply have to press down one of the keys and it will sound good.
It's also a very versatile instrument given that you can have multiple lines going at once, in other words, ten fingers making sounds. This means that on the piano you can play chords and melodies at the same time, or complex multilayered pieces that would be impossible on other instruments.
It also has a huge dynamic range, meaning it can be very quiet or very loud, perfect for a concert hall or in your living room.
The piano is relativity simple and not physically demanding for beginners. The keyboard is also a very clear visual system for understanding chord structure, pitch intervals and melodies.
The downside is that pianos are expensive and not at all portable. You could however learn an electric keyboard or synthesiser!
The flute and clarinet are probably the most versatile of the orchestral woodwind instruments. They can be found in jazz and folk traditions and are also used in different forms of popular music.
Other instruments like the oboe and bassoon are more niche but are in demand in most orchestras so playing these instruments will make you popular with orchestra managers!
A simple and cheap way to get involved in the world of woodwind is the recorder or tin whistle which is still a popular instrument in classrooms around the world. The reason for this is that the basic fingering you would learn on the recorder/tin whistle will be transferrable to these more elaborate orchestral woodwind instruments .
The double bass is a huge instrument and difficult to transport but is also very versatile. You will find double basses in jazz, rockabilly, folk, classical and popular music.
The viola is like a bigger version of a violin. The viola plays at a lower register (pitch) so often plays less obvious harmony parts in orchestral or string ensembles. The instrument is not as versatile as a violin but has some great solo pieces and good viola players are always in demand!
Probably the most versatile of the orchestral string family. You will find it in all styles of music around the world including many types of folk music. It is the leader of the orchestra because it has a range and quality of sound that makes it perfect for playing the main melody parts of all your favourite orchestral pieces.
The violin is called a fiddle when it’s used to play Irish music. It’s the same instrument, just playing a different style. We have a beginners course for Irish music and the instruments of the tradition at DabbledooMusic.com. Follow the link below!
The cello is great as a solo instrument or as part of a orchestra or ensemble. The cello is often found in popular music too, with a range of bands and artist integrating the mellow tones of the cello into their sound.
One of the most famous uses of the cello in popular music, as well as the other string instruments I've mentioned, is in the Beatles song 'Eleanor Rigby' - give it a listen here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HuS5NuXRb5Y
Whatever instrument you or your child decide on, remember that the aim of learning music and taking up an instrument is to develop a lifelong love of music that will help enrich your life and expand your horizons.
Don’t see it as a race or a competition or get upset with a lack of progress or results. If there is enjoyment in it for you, then something good is happening.
On the flip side, no-one should be forced to play an instrument they really don’t want too. They may end up being turned off music for life, which is the opposite of what we are looking for!
Try out a new instrument whenever you get a chance. Enjoy your music and enjoy the playing and the practice.
If you'd like to find more ideas for making music at home, check our 'Complete Guide to Music Making for Kids' for links to additional resources.