Musical Instruments

The first step in getting started making music is usually deciding which instrument to play and then acquiring it.

If you’re not sure which instrument is best for you, the information below will help you think through both what you love and practical matters.

Then, information on popular first instrument choices will help you choose an instrument.

Before you set out to acquire your instrument,  see “Where To Buy Musical Instruments” for general buying advice on:

  • Buying in a Specialty Store vs. “Big Box” Stores
  • Buying Online vs. In-Person
  • Renting vs. Buying
  • Buying Used Instruments

Which Instrument Shall I Play?

How do you decide where to start? There are many considerations when choosing your first instrument.

Think of it as a start. If you love music, your first instrument need not be your only instrument.

Let’s look at your choice from two distinct standpoints: First, Motivational, then Practical.

Motivation

Musically speaking, what do you love?  What sounds (literally) good to you? What type of music interests you?  

  • When you consider this, if you can, separate yourself from your neighbors and peers. Don’t just consider what your friends like, what is “popular”, or what you’re most familiar with. Listen to and consider different types of music and sounds. What are you drawn to? If anything were possible, what type of music would you like to play?

Why is music important to you? What role do you want it to play in your life?

  • Do you like the idea of eventually playing for others? Don’t worry, you don’t have to play in a professional orchestra or be a popular recording artist to share your music with others. Do you like the idea of playing with others? Or do you like the idea of being able to play by yourself?
  • Some instruments are more naturally “social” than others. For instance, there is an abundance of solo piano material. If you learn to play the piano, you could play solo all of the time, although you might also enjoy providing accompaniment for another solo instrument, small ensemble or vocal group. On the other hand, if you play an oboe or a trombone, most of the music you play will involve others, say, in an orchestra or band.

It’s good to start with these types of questions, because, as with anything else, getting good at music requires energy and practice. Loving the sound and the music gives you a good reason to persist.

Practical Considerations

Cost and Availability: Cost is usually the one of the first considerations people think of. It costs more to get started with some instruments than others. You already have an instrument that doesn’t cost you anything, though – your voice. You might already have an instrument at home or access to one with little or no cost through a friend or school. You might be able to rent an instrument so you can experience it before you buy it. If cost is a factor, you might also consider buying a used instrument. As you become a more and more proficient player, you are likely to want and appreciate having a “better”, more expensive instrument, but you may be able to step into that gradually. It’s important, though, to start with an instrument that is in good playing condition. If you are trying to start on an instrument that is just too cheap or in poor condition, you are likely to get frustrated or just not enjoy playing. Availability of instruments is less of an issue than it used to be, with instruments of all kinds being available through internet sites.

Physical Fit:

  • Size: Some instruments are available in different sizes. For instance, violins are available in sizes that fit tiny hands, so that can be an appropriate choice for a very young child, while, of course, a tuba would be out of the question.
  • Capability: Certain instruments carry other physical demands. For example, woodwind instruments, such as flute, clarinet, or oboe, require wind, as do brass instruments, such as trumpet or trombone. Additionally, wind and brass instruments have mouthpieces that may be difficult for some.

Where Will I Learn, Practice and Play?

  • You’ll need a teacher. You CAN teach yourself, of course, but for your first musical experience, it helps to have an experienced guide. Most people start either with a private teacher, or in a group learning situation such as a class or in a beginning band or orchestra. Additionally, there are now many good materials available online.
  • You’ll need a practice space. Personally, I like my own noise, but don’t always like other people’s noise. Your neighbors may feel the same. So this could be a consideration. A keyboard with headphones for practicing could be a good choice if you’re in an apartment with thin walls. If you want to learn to play the organ, you’ll probably need access to a church.
  • If you are playing a band or orchestra instrument, you’ll definitely want a group to play with nearby. You won’t absolutely need a group in order to learn to play some other instruments, such as guitar or banjo or other folk instruments, however, in addition to playing and practicing on your own, it can be very motivating and belong to a music group.

Care and Feeding: Any instrument you choose will require some care and maintenance. Some, such as a piano, need to be tuned by a professional from time to time – usually at least once a year. Most stringed instruments need new strings every few months. Most woodwind instrument require a regular supply of reeds.

Transporting Your Instrument: Obviously, a flute is easier to carry around than a harp. A guitar is a better choice than a piano if you see yourself playing at the beach. If you plan to transport your instrument, consider purchasing a good quality case along with the instrument.

Your Future: Once you know how to play any instrument, learning another comes easier. Learning to play the piano gives you an especially good foundation for learning other instruments, as it requires you not only to learn to coordinate between two hands (and a pedal), but it also requires you to learn to read both the treble clef and the bass clef. Some instruments lead naturally to others. For instance, a violin student who is motivated to do so, can often switch over to viola fairly easily. While it requires learning to read a different clef, the C clef, the technique is basically the same. Taking on the tenor sax is not so difficult if you already play the alto sax.

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