What Band Instrument is Easiest to Learn?

    This question gets asked frequently at every music store around the country, and it’s difficult to find a single, common answer. That’s because there really is no true answer! There may not be an answer to the question: “What is the easiest instrument” (no, the kazoo doesn’t count), but there are easier ways to select an instrument to begin playing in the school band. 

    Most elementary school band programs start with what’s called the “Big 5” instruments. These instruments include flute, clarinet, alto saxophone, trumpet, and trombone. These instruments are the most common instruments to begin playing because they are fairly easy to learn, but they still take decades to master. The nice part about learning a Big 5 instrument is that it creates a pathway to learning other instruments later on. Many musicians start with one instrument in beginning band and decide to switch to another. For example, many saxophone players will make the sax their main instrument, but they will learn “doubler” instruments, like flute and clarinet, in order to have the ability to play multiple instruments in a group. 

    All instruments become much easier to learn when supplemented with private lessons. A band director can’t spend a long time with each individual student to make sure they are learning every aspect of their instrument properly, but signing up for even just a few private lessons with a professional will help to advance the student further than if they never had a lesson.

    There may not be an “easiest” instrument to learn, but all instruments have their pros and cons. Read below for the pros and cons of most beginning band instruments.


When describing these instruments, we’re going to keep referring to the concept of the “Pyramid of Sound” from composer and educator, Francis McBeth. This is a concept meant to demonstrate the proper balance for a concert band, with the highest-pitched instruments at the top, and the lowest-pitched instruments at the bottom. The lower instruments provide a solid foundation and support for the ensemble, thus should be louder, and the higher instruments need to play softer in order to blend with the rest of the ensemble. 


Here is a graphic showing where instruments belong in the pyramid of sound*:

 

Image result for pyramid of sound


*These are not set in stone. This pyramid is just a guideline*


One thing to keep in mind with this chart is that certain instruments can end up in different places in the pyramid of sound depending on what part they play on a given piece.




WOODWINDS


Flute

This is the smallest and highest-sounding instrument in the band. Flute players will typically stay in the very top of the pyramid of sound, and they usually have the melody in a piece.

 

PROS – Small, easy to carry when in case.  Relatively inexpensive to rent. 


CONS – This is one of the more difficult instruments to start on in beginning band.  Some students cannot play this instrument well due to facial characteristics (lip size, etc.). Ask a band teacher or music store associate if your student could try the instrument first before committing. 

 

JAZZ INSTRUMENT – No, unless it’s their secondary instrument, with their primary being saxophone.

 

 

Oboe

This is a double reed instrument, about the same size as a flute or clarinet when assembled. Oboe players will typically stay in the very top of the pyramid of sound, and they usually have the melody in a piece.

 

PROS – Small, easy to carry when in case.  Not as many students play this instrument, so more opportunities to play in groups.  

 

CONS – Somewhat difficult to play at times.  Instruments & supplies can be expensive.

 

JAZZ INSTRUMENT – No

 

 

Clarinet

This is a single reed instrument, similar in size to flute & oboe when assembled. Clarinet players are typically in the top two tiers of the pyramid of sound, and their spot on the pyramid may change depending on what part they play in a given piece.

 

PROS – Small, easy to carry when in case.  Relatively inexpensive to rent.  Easily transferable to other instruments (bass clarinet, oboe, bassoon, saxophone). 

 

CONS – Somewhat difficult to play at times.  Students must have large enough hands to cover tone holes with all fingers. 

 

JAZZ INSTRUMENT – No, unless it’s their secondary instrument, with their primary being saxophone.

 

 

Alto Saxophone

This is a single reed instrument (similar to clarinet), made of brass.  It is larger than most other elementary band instruments, and plays in a lower pitch compared to flute and clarinet. Alto saxophone players are typically in the middle two tiers of the pyramid of sound, and their spot on the pyramid may change depending on what part they play in a given piece.

 

PROS – Relatively easy to learn (although easy to learn “badly”).  Easily transferable to other instruments (other saxophones, oboe, bassoon, bass clarinet). 

 

CONS – Large, heavy instrument.  Can be difficult to manage for small students.  Limited performance opportunities in advanced groups (not used in orchestras).  Expensive instrument to rent (more than double the cost of some other instruments).  


JAZZ INSTRUMENT – Yes



Tenor Saxophone

This is a single reed instrument (similar to clarinet), made of brass.  It is larger than most other elementary band instruments. Tenor saxophone is larger and lower sounding than alto saxophone, and is typically in the second to bottom tier of the pyramid of sound.

 

PROS – Relatively easy to learn (although easy to learn “badly”).  Easily transferable to other instruments (other saxophones, oboe, bassoon, bass clarinet).  

 

CONS – Large, heavy instrument.  Difficult to manage for small students.  Limited performance opportunities in advanced groups (not used in orchestras).  Expensive instrument to rent (more than double the cost of some other instruments).

 

JAZZ INSTRUMENT – Yes

 

 

BRASSWINDS


Trumpet

This is the smallest of the brass instruments.  It is the highest-sounding and “brightest” sounding of the brass instruments. Trumpet players will typically stay in the very top of the pyramid of sound, and they usually have the melody in a piece.  Students who currently wear braces or who will wear braces in the future may have difficulty when playing the trumpet. Consult band teacher or music store associate first. 

 

PROS – Smallest of brass instruments.  Relatively inexpensive to rent.  Few supplies needed for purchase.  Easily transferable to other brass instruments (French Horn, trombone, baritone, tuba). The trumpet is BOTH a jazz and orchestral instrument.

 

CONS – Difficult for some students to hold/play.  Has a lot of resistance when blowing through.  One of the more difficult of brass instruments to play well.

 

JAZZ INSTRUMENT – Yes

 


French Horn

Horn is a mid-range brass instrument. French horn players are typically in the middle two tiers of the pyramid of sound, and their spot on the pyramid may change depending on what part they play in a given piece. It is highly recommended that students studying horn have had some previous musical experience (piano, etc.) or take private lessons.

 

PROS – This is a very important instrument to the success of bands and orchestras at all levels.  Not many students play French Horn, leading to many opportunities for performances in different types of advanced level groups.  Good French Horn players are always in high demand at every level of music!

 

CONS – Difficult instrument to play and control.  Private lessons are very strongly recommended (although could be done with a high school student).  Expensive instrument to rent/purchase.

 

JAZZ INSTRUMENT – No

 

 

Trombone

Trombone is one of several instruments classified as “low brass”. Trombone players are typically in the bottom two tiers of the pyramid of sound, and their spot may change depending on what part they play in a given piece.

 

PROS – The smallest of the low brass instruments.  Easily transferable to other low brass instruments later on (baritone & tuba).  Relatively inexpensive to rent and maintain.  Is BOTH a jazz and orchestral instrument.  Very important to the success of a band, making players in high demand at every level.  One of the easiest instruments to produce a sound on for almost all students.

 

CONS – Because there are no keys or valves on a trombone, it is difficult to play fast moving notes. 

 

JAZZ INSTRUMENT – Yes


 

Baritone

Baritone is one of several instruments classified as “low brass”.  It is similar to trombone, except with valves.  Baritone players are typically in the bottom tier of the pyramid of sound, and they usually play the bassline in a piece.

 

PROS – One of the easiest instruments to produce a sound on for almost all students.  Easily transferable to other low brass instruments later on (trombone & tuba).  Very important to the success of a band, making players in high demand at every level.

 

CONS – Expensive to rent/purchase.  Not used in jazz bands or orchestras.  Somewhat large and bulky.

 

JAZZ INSTRUMENT – No

 

 

Percussion

Percussion is a collection of instruments that involves the use of sticks or beaters.  This is the only instrument selection that is not a “wind” instrument (involving blowing air through the instrument).  Students studying percussion MUST learn both drums & keyboard mallet instruments.  Piano experience is strongly recommended for percussionists!  (Drum Set is NOT used in the Elementary Bands!)  Percussion requires constant focus and concentration at very high levels all the time – much more so than ANY other band instrument.

 

PROS – Does not involve “blowing”.  Very important to the success of a band/orchestra.  Somewhat inexpensive to rent/purchase equipment at the elementary level (costs increase later).

 

CONS – Difficult to learn all of the different instruments (especially if no piano experience).  Requires a lot of “musical independence”, since there is generally only one person playing each percussion instrument at a time (especially at more advanced levels).

 

JAZZ INSTRUMENT – No (Unless student studies “Drum Set” privately in addition to concert percussion.)

 




    With any instrument selection, Tim's Music is here to help with every step along the way. We have all the rentals, method books, and accessories you'll need to start the school year. We also provide lessons for all the instruments listed above. If you have any questions, please contact us at the store



Photo by: Scott Swigart

Pros and Cons list adapted from Greg Conway at Hopkins Jr. High