How to Choose an Instrument

Three Methods:Choosing a VarietyChoosing the Right InstrumentFinding the Right Fit

Learning to play an instrument is one of the coolest things you'll ever do. Whether you're just starting out in school, decided you wanted to play in a band, or have decided to learn to play music now that the kids have grown, it's a fun and rewarding thing to do. If you don't already know what you want to play, you're in great shape—that means everything is a possibility! See Step 1 for some helpful advice about picking the right instrument for you.

Method 1
Choosing a Variety

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    Start early with piano. Piano is a common starter instrument because it's easy to really see the music. Common in many cultures and styles of music, piano or keyboard is an excellent choice if you want to learn an instrument, regardless of whether you're young or old. Piano variations you'll be able to add to your repertoire later might include:
    • Organ
    • Accordion
    • Synthesizer
    • Harpsichord
    • Harmonium
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    Rock out on a guitar. From classical to death metal, learning the play guitar opens all kinds of doors into new musics and styles. It's had an impact on pop culture more than probably any other instrument, and is a super-popular choice for first-timers everywhere. Pick up an acoustic guitar to stay mobile, or check out its electric cousin to get started bumming out your neighbors and playing heady licks. Once you've got guitar basics mastered, you could also add other instruments to your six-string canon:
    • Bass guitar
    • Mandolin
    • Banjo
    • Harp
    • Dulcimer
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    Consider picking up a classical instrument. One of the most viable careers in music performance revolves around playing classical strings, in orchestral, string-quartet, or other settings. The instruments of the chamber might be right for you if you've got an interest in classical sounds. While they may have a stuffy reputation, these are still commonly used in folk musics and other settings all around the world. The classical strings include:
    • Violin. This is generally seen as the "lead" instrument in the world of strings. It's got an excellent range, is easy to hold, and is sublimely expressive in a way that few other instruments can even try to be.
    • Viola. Somewhat larger than a violin, it's deeper and darker in tone than the violin. If you have longer arms, and larger hands, you might consider the viola rather than the violin.
    • Cello. The cello is much larger than the violin and viola, and must be played sitting down, with the instrument between your knees. It has a rich, deep tone akin to a male human voice, and while it can't reach the heights of a violin, it is immensely lyrical.
    • Double Bass. This is the lowest-sounding member of the violin family. In classical or chamber surroundings, it's most often played with a bow, and occasionally plucked for effect. In jazz or bluegrass (where you will often find a double bass), it's generally plucked and occasionally bowed for effect.
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    Shake hands with a brass instrument. Both simple and complex, the brass family of instruments are basically long metal tubes that feature valves and buttons that alter the pitch. To play them, you buzz your lips inside a metal mouthpiece to create the sound. They're used in all types of concert bands and orchestras, jazz combos, marching bands, and as accompaniment to old-school R & B and soul music. Brass instruments include:
    • Trumpet
    • Trombone
    • Tuba
    • French horn
    • Baritone
    • Sousaphone
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    Don't forget about the woodwinds. Like brass instruments, woodwinds are played by blowing into them. Unlike brass instruments, woodwinds are played through reeds that vibrate as you blow over them. They make a variety of beautiful tones and are extremely versatile instruments to play jazz or classical music with. Woodwind instruments include:
    • Flute, piccolo, or fife
    • Saxophone
    • Clarinet
    • Oboe
    • Bassoon
    • Harmonica
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    Get rhythm by taking up percussion. Keeping the time of most music groups is the job of the percussionists. In some bands, this will be provided on a kit drum, while other combos will feature a wider variety of instruments, banged on with mallets or hands or sticks. Percussion instruments include:
    • The drum set
    • Vibraphone, Marimba, and xylophone
    • Glockenspiel
    • Bells and Cymbals
    • Congas and bongos
    • Timpani
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    Consider new music instruments. People are making music with more things than ever before. You may have seen that guy on the street corner, with 5 gallon (18.9 L) paint buckets and saucepan lids, tearing up the rhythm. Drums? Maybe. Percussion, certainly. Consider playing:
    • iPad. If you have one, you probably know by now there are some truly amazing musical instruments that defy categorization. Tap on the screen and a voice emerges from a puddle of blue on a green background. Flip apps, and now you're playing a vintage '80s synth that cost $50,000 then, and $.99 now—and sounds better.
    • Have you got a couple turntables? To be a great DJ takes a lot of skill and a lot of practice, and anybody who tells you that's not music is wrong.
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    Check out this list. As you can see, there are more instruments than you can shake a rhythm stick at. Some of the difficult-to-categorize are listed below:
    • Erhu (Chinese two-stringed fiddle)
    • Guqin (Chinese stringed instrument)
    • Sitar
    • Dulcimer
    • Koto (Japanese harp)
    • Bag-pipes
    • Ukulele
    • English horn
    • Pan flute/panpipes
    • Bagpipes
    • Ocarina
    • Recorder
    • Tin whistle
    • Fife
    • Quena
    • Mellophone (a marching version of a horn)
    • Alto horn
    • Bugle
    • Piccolo trumpet
    • Flugelhorn

Method 2
Choosing the Right Instrument

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    Experiment with lots of different instruments before committing. Get your hands on a trumpet, guitar, or trombone, and make a few notes. It won't be music yet, but it'll give you some idea of whether or not the instrument is fun to play, and worth spending some time with.
    • Typically, if you want to sign up for band or orchestra at your school, call-outs are regularly held during which the directors allow you to experiment with instruments and select one. Go to one of these call-outs and check out all the different kinds of instruments.
    • Most instrument stores are excited to share their instruments with you and let you give them a shot. They might even be able to show you a few things.
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    Look into your possibilities. If you're starting out in a school band, check and see what instruments the band includes. Most concert bands in schools have clarinets, flutes, saxophones, tubas, baritones, trombones, trumpets, and percussion as starter instruments, and let you advance to other instruments like oboe, bassoon, and horn later on.
    • You can begin making your decision from the instruments that are available. You can also ask the director which instruments they are short of—he or she will be very grateful if you can fill an empty spot.
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    Keep your options open. You may want to play the baritone sax, but the band already has three players. You may have to first start on the clarinet, then move to alto sax, and finally switch to bari when a slot opens up.
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    Consider your size. If you're starting out in middle school, and smaller than the average student, a tuba or trombone may not be the right instrument for you. You could try trumpet or cornet instead.
    • If you're younger or still losing teeth, you may find it hard to play some brass instruments because your teeth aren't very strong yet.
    • If you have small hands or fingers, the bassoon may not be for you, although there are bassoons made for beginners with some keys for small hands.
    • Think of how braces will affect your tone, especially for most brass. Find out whether you'll need them, or when any current braces will come off.

Method 3
Finding the Right Fit

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    Play what you like. When you listen to the radio, Spotify, or your friend's mix tape, what do you hear that instinctively perks you up?
    • Do you find yourself thrumming along to the bassline, or do you go into wild air-guitar frenzies? Perhaps you should look into stringed instruments.
    • Do you thrash the air-drums and beat your fingers on the table constantly? These are all great clues about what your "natural instrument" might be, and it involves hitting things with sticks, hands, or both!
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    Play what will be practical for your situation. You may have a natural affinity for drums, but your parents have said, "No way—it's much too loud!" when you told them. Be creative—either suggest digital drums which you can only hear through headphones, or re-think your needs, and start with something softer and not as jarring, like a set of conga drums. Play drums in the school band, but practice at home with a rubber practice pad.
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    Just pick one. While you can be very analytical about what to play, there's another thing to try that has a lot of benefits. Close your eyes (after reading this), and write down the first 5 instruments that come to your mind. Now, look at what you wrote.
    • One of those picks is your instrument. The first one came straight off the top: it might be what you really want to play, or it might be just what you associate learning music with.
    • With each successive pick, you focused more on what you wanted. By the fifth choice, you may have been digging for an answer. It's a safe bet that all would be instruments you would enjoy, but which is the best choice? It all depends on who you are, and how you're going to learn.


  • Before starting, learn about your chosen instrument as much as possible to make sure that you want to play it.
  • Consider your personality. Compare yourself to an actor. Do you need to be the leading man? Choose an instrument that carries melodies and is selected often for solos like the flute, trumpet, clarinet, violin. More the supporting actress type? If you are in your element when working collectively as a group to create beautiful harmonious undertones, then a bass instrument like the tuba, baritone, bari-sax or string bass might be perfect.
  • If the instrument you want to play is expensive, see if you can rent/borrow one for a while.
  • It's a good idea to pick instruments that will enable you to branch out into all kinds of music. Instruments such as the flute or guitar have many possibilities. Likewise, choosing an instrument such as a saxophone or trumpet will let you easily branch out into other instruments. For example, it is much easier for saxophonists to pick up other reed instruments, such as clarinet, or much easier for a trumpet player to pick up a french horn or other brass instrument.
  • If you're not sure you really want to play the instrument you have chosen, rent one, and if you like it, you can buy one. If you don't, you can still pick another instrument.
  • Consider your local resources; get into contact with local teachers and try to find a way to buy an instrument.
  • Choose a rare instrument. A lot of people know how to play the piano, guitar and drums, so to shine playing those instruments, you need to be really good, but if you choose a strange, uncommon instrument, even if you're the worst player you'll find a job teaching or playing.
  • Note that many schools consider "percussion" to be one instrument, meaning, don't get your heart set on just the snare drum or trap set, because you'll probably have to learn and play everything in the percussion section. This is a good thing. The more you know, the better you'll be.
  • If you decide to play a brass instrument or percussion, visit a local brass band; most are extremely welcoming and will develop your playing.
  • Consider your body. For example, if you have any breathing problems you may want to take on a stringed or percussion instrument. If your fingers are large, you may want to consider the viola rather than a violin.


  • Don't let people tell you what instruments are "cool" or "hot" to play. Playing an instrument shouldn't be something you learn just to be able to say that you can do it.
  • Don't pick an instrument just because it's flashy. Being a tuba player in an orchestra or a bass player in a rock band can be just as rewarding as being a soloist. Either way, solo material exists for almost all instruments so odds of being stuck with a boring bassline forever on your instrument are small.
  • Don't give into gender stereotypes. Some amazing tuba players and drummers are girls, and the most brilliant flute and clarinet players may be guys.
  • Don't see certain instruments as "limited" in terms of what you can play on it. Any instrument has, literally, infinite possibilities. You can never stop getting better and doing cooler stuff with it.
  • Don't learn two or more instruments at once as it is harder than it seems.

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Categories: Musical Instruments