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I'm a college student, and I'd really like to start playing an instrument. But I want to find something that is:

  • Inexpensive
  • Small / portable in a backpack
  • Quiet enough to practice in my dorm room

I'd like to find something that is not too difficult to learn, but has some depth (i.e., not a tambourine).

I've been thinking harmonica, pan flute, ukelele...

Do you have any other suggestions?

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That's not a proper answer but a cool thing to try is 'imaginary drumming' using your legs as snare and cymbals and of course your feet as drum pedals. A real drum of course is out of question :) –  lfzawacki Sep 26 '11 at 15:05
    
Would something like the Korg Kaossilator be okay? You can play with headphones, fit in your backpack, plug it into your computer and record music with it (like in Garageband or Adobe Audition), and pick one up for around $100 (new) or $50-$80 (used). –  rishimaharaj May 23 '12 at 12:32
    
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16 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

An attempt to synthesise the various answers given, while giving some opinions of my own.

Portability

'Portable' is a bit of a vague requirement. Some instruments fit in your pocket. Some instruments fit in a small backpack. Some instruments fit in a large backpack.

Loudness

I'm not sure what's too loud for a dorm room. It depends on your neighbour's patience. It depends how good you are (much more pleasant to hear someone good practising). It depends on how much you play and at what time of day/night.

The problem with inherently quiet instruments is that one day you may want to play to an audience, and having some volume would be desirable. But you can't have everything.

So with those things in mind:

Electronic instruments

Can be played with headphones, or an amp turned low.

Small keyboards are available. You'd probably find them limiting fairly quickly. MIDI flutes, guitars etc. exist but the affordable ones are essentially toys.

Electric instruments

Can also be played with headphones, or an amp turned low.

Electric guitar is the obvious candidate. You can get travel guitars, but they're still in the large-backpack category.

Acoustic string instruments

A uke is a pretty good candidate. It's not pocket size, but it fits in a small bag. Cheap ukes are cheap. It's worth spending a touch more to get one with reliable intonation. If you get good, you can graduate to some really quite lovely instruments.

I'm mostly a guitar player, but I've been known to take a uke on business trips, so I have something to practise on in the hotel room.

The downside of most string instruments is that they're not all that robust. I wouldn't like to put a backpack containing a uke into a coach baggage trunk, or airport baggage handling.

Skills you learn on a uke are somewhat transferable to guitar.

There are other string instruments. Travel guitars. Violins.

Violins can get pretty loud, and sound awful when you're starting out.

More obscure: autoharp, strum stick, cigar box guitar

Wind instruments

I'm not going to mention any brass instruments, because they're loud.

The smallest of the woodwind instruments are very small and pretty robust compared to string instruments.

At the cheapest end, there's tin whistles and recorders. For the sake of your neighbours, try and find an instrument with good intonation. Cheap recorders can sound dreadful. Flute, oboe, clarinet - getting progressively louder.

Some wind instruments come apart. Even a tenor recorder is pretty portable, since it separates into three robust pieces.

The lower the pitch of the instrument, the quieter it tends to be, since all the energy comes from your breath, and you have to move more air to make deeper notes. Smaller instruments might technically be quiet, but they can be shrill and the sound can carry.

Er, ocarinas are small and quiet, and surprisingly capable.

Melodica was mentioned, and seems fun.

Bellows instruments

Melodeons and accordions are designed to be loud. However concertinas are quiet and in the small-backback category.

Reed instruments

A category just for the harmonica. It fits in your pocket. Your first one will be cheap. You will be welcomed by blues/rock guitarists. It's not quiet though. If you get into it, you'll probably end up buying more of them, in various keys.

Exotica

Thumb piano, musical saw, etc.

These are fun, but perhaps odd choices as a primary instrument.

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Note that string instruments played with a practice mute can be pretty quiet. Additionally, there's electric violins and cellos which can be played with headphones. However, as you mention, with the cello in particular, its suitability would depend on your definition of "portable." However, they would not qualify on the inexpensive part. –  wadesworld Sep 27 '11 at 18:46
    
I considered mentioning ways to mute an instrument. However they all affect tone as well as volume, and I think when learning/practising you have to be paying attention to tone and expression. –  slim Sep 28 '11 at 10:11
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You could look at portable guitars - either something like the Hohner G3T (I love mine when travelling) or even folding guitars.

Electric guitars are very quiet without amplification, and can be very portable. Connect one through a headphone amp and you can play without disturbing others, or hook one up to an amp and you can still get a big satisfying sound out of them.

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I think you're on the right track with the Ukulele. That's a pretty typical "college student" instrument nowadays, and there are lots of resources online where you can find appropriate transcriptions/arrangements of contemporary songs and tunes. (And chord charts, and the like.)

As Andrew mentioned, recorder also fulfills your three criteria. It is used in lots of elementary music classrooms because it is a rather simple instrument, but beyond that it is actually capable of incredible depth and has quite the pedigree in baroque music. You can actually get a degree in recorder at a conservatory in Europe; in the US that's not so common. The downside is that no one is really writing contemporary music for the recorder. But hey, you can have a lot of fun playing gigues and sea shanties and baroque flute sonatas.

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Inexpensive portable recorder usually means soprano, which is not very quiet if you're playing it right (with good breathing). If you go for recorder you should spring for a tenor or bass (make sure the tenor has keys for the bottom holes unless you have big hands). –  Monica Cellio Sep 26 '11 at 14:59
    
An alto recorder is still much more portable than, say, a uke. –  slim Sep 27 '11 at 12:24
    
True. Is it quiet enough in the upper register? I think he'll be best off with strings because you can pluck/strum quietly without changing your technique, but woodwinds are smaller. –  Monica Cellio Sep 27 '11 at 15:37
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Yamaha Silent Instruments

Yamaha has a line of musical instruments designed for exactly this purpose. They feature instruments normally thought of as acoustic instruments, which have been re-designed to make very little acoustic sound, and to be listened to by the player through headphones to produce a sound that sounds like an acoustic instrument. You can also play them through an amplifier or PA system. These instruments are higher-end and designed to appeal to serious students and professionals.

They include:

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These are silent, but none will fit in a backpack. –  American Luke May 23 '12 at 14:06
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My first thought was recorder. Flute (the transverse, orchestral kind) could also be a possibility, depending how loud you are able to be.

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I love my recorder and it is very portable but I don't think it would be quiet enough to practice in a normal dorm room –  KennyPeanuts Sep 26 '11 at 16:45
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The Martin Backpaker

Pros:

  • is not quite small enough to toss into a backpack full of books but it is very portable
  • easily quiet enough to play in a dorm room w/o being heard outside the room
  • can be played more loudly if needed
  • sounds surprisingly "full" for a travel guitar
  • it is an actual guitar so your skills will be easily transferable to any other guitar

Cons:

  • not as small as some other options
  • Doesn't rest on your knee like a regular guitar
  • not expensive but not cheap either
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add "surprisingly durable" to the pros. I live in a military town, and have heard many soldiers remark on the durability in the field - including the one that survived an IED, when the case and other cargo didn't (non-human cargo - all occupants lived to tell the tale) –  AnonJr Oct 4 '11 at 3:06
    
@AnonJr I agree. I used to take mine with me during my field work in northern AK and although it never had to endure an IED it made it through quite a regular beating! –  KennyPeanuts Oct 4 '11 at 10:21
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Based on your given requirements I'd recommend the Korg Monotron, but it's... well... many people would not consider it an actual musical instrument, to put it this way.

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Ukes are fun and you can play at any level from casual to virtuoso. Have you considered a cigar-box guitar? Huge fun factor and you can buy a craftsman- made item or build your own. Check out the Cigar Box Nation site.

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I'm a fan of the melodica. They can be picked up for less than 50 bucks, and are an easy way to get into keyboards in general. That being said, they are somewhat goofy....

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perhaps a thumb piano would be similar but less goofy –  KennyPeanuts Sep 26 '11 at 16:46
    
Melodica was James Hetfield's band in kindergarten. –  Kaz Jun 10 '13 at 21:23
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This is a late answer (2 years after the question was asked), but: I recently faced the same problem. After finding an adequate instrument in this category, I looked around if there are any similar instruments that are somehow better.

My requirements are:

  • Small as in "fits in my backpack together with a laptop, lunch box and some books".

  • Not too loud. I wouldn't like to disturb other people in the house.

  • Tuned instrument. For a beginner it's pretty hard to correctly play by ear.

  • Be able to play at least 2 notes simmultaneously. With a "linear" instrument it's hard to learn much about intervals and chords.

  • Also be a melody instrument. I don't like instruments on which chords are easy, but playing a melody is really hard (e.g., the guitar class). The last 2 requirements are somewhat contradictory.

  • No batteries: the instrument should work anytime anywhere.

  • At least limited haptics. iPhone instruments are very nice, but you can't feel where the keys are.

What I've got is a thumb piano or kalimba (yes, exotic). I also looked around into ocarinas (too loud/shrill, no chords), harmonicas (loud, but nice) and other types of tuned percussion (tongue drums, caisa).

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+1 Yes. haptics. good word. Welcome to the site. –  luser droog Jan 28 '13 at 10:01
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I think I have the perfect instrument for you:

  • Inexpensive: Free. May actually benefit you in other areas of life.
  • Small / portable: Weightless. You already carry it with you everywhere.
  • Quiet: can be almost silent, although, like most instruments, better practiced loud and proud.
  • not too difficult, but with depth: yes, no question. There are songs that you certainly already know, and many that have more expressiveness than most other instruments will ever afford you.

The instrument?

Your voice

Your voice has the added benefit that it doesn't require your hands, so you can use it even while doing something else - riding a bike, or workin' on the railroad, all the live-long day. You can even use it while doing verbal tasks - just hum!

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Singing in your dorm room is the perfect way to get complaints from those who live near you. If you are singing softly enough that no one else complains, then you are not learning to sing correctly and are not developing proper technique. In fact you are training yourself to sing very poorly, and this will be counterproductive if what you want to do is learn to sing. –  Wheat Williams May 23 '12 at 12:23
    
I agree, but it fir the other requirements quite nicely. :) –  American Luke May 23 '12 at 13:57
    
@WheatWilliams yes, you're right. I alluded to that in my answer, but I do think it is possible to learn to breathe and sing well while not being overly loud. You just have to be more conscious of potential problems (and take every other chance you get to belt it out). Also, humming uses similar processes, and is reasonably quiet. –  naught101 May 23 '12 at 14:29
    
Maybe Yamaha makes a voice silencer just for this. Haha. –  Kaz Jun 10 '13 at 21:22
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The first thing that came to mind was a harmonica, but I realize you already included that in your post.

If you happen to have a smart phone (droid, iphone), they have pretty good instrument apps - a lot of them free.

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Strum sticks are pretty interesting, not difficult to play either.

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For me, there are two instruments that everyone should consider when starting to learn music: piano and drums.

A small keyboard with headphones might be ok but probably not portable enough.

Oddly, drums could be perfect. A couple of sticks and a practice pad or two and you're away.

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But when would he ever get to make use of these practised drum techniques? It's no fun practising if you can't perform to an audience at some point. At some point you need to hear the actual sounds you're aiming to produce, as you practice. For the same reason, you can only get so far practising on an electric guitar without an amp, or a muted violin. –  slim Sep 30 '11 at 10:15
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Jew's harp. Get a good one though, not the crummy kid's toys on Amazon.

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The politically-correct variant is jaw harp. –  luser droog Jun 12 '13 at 1:55
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Click through these products on google and see if you like them:

chosen based on the criteria of ...

  1. 'inexpensive', these instruments can be bought from under $9 usually under $49 to a few that are under $99 (as of 2011 Sept based on the use of google's shopping search, which is 'stable' way for looking for pricing of musical instruments, preferable to quotation of actual numbers which become historical rather quickly).
  2. 'portable', these instruments are lightweight and fits in a (long) backpack.
  3. 'quiet', these instruments either can be easily controlled to play softly (unlike e.g. bagpipe), or can make sound only through headphones.
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Would you be able to describe what you're linking to? A google search result is not exactly the most stable of references... –  Babu Sep 26 '11 at 16:09
    
it would also be useful if you could provide some insight into why you chose these items. –  KennyPeanuts Sep 26 '11 at 17:22
    
@Babu, next time you see google links used in answers, instead of a knee jerking reaction of down vote, click through at least one to see why google links are used. –  user1217 Sep 26 '11 at 19:16
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@user1217: I do apologize for my lack of clarity. The issue wasn't the use of google links; in this situation, I agree that they are well-chosen. The issue is not giving us any information as to what the links are or why you provided them. Since the edit fixed the issue, I've removed my downvote. –  Babu Sep 27 '11 at 12:40
    
I formatted the links - awaiting peer review. In the meantime, what's the significance of the "pink violin"? They're no smaller. Are they cheaper because they're pink? –  slim Sep 27 '11 at 13:21
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