The ukulele, much like the recorder and kazoo, is an instrument that is commonly associated with lower-quality performances, amateurism, and a rejection of formal music education. Are there historical or sociological explanations as to why this is so?
The ukulele has a reputation as an easy instrument because it is an excellent entry level instrument, especially for children.
- It's small, which makes it easier to hold.
- It's small, which makes jumps and stretches on the fretboard easier
- The short, nylon strings make it easy to hold down a string without pain
- It only has four strings, which makes chords possible with less fingers
- It only has four strings, which makes learning the positions of the notes on the fretboard easier
- An acceptable quality instrument can be quite cheap
Like the OP mentions it's a lot like the recorder, which also can be a serious instrument, that can be played virtuosically, but is easy to begin with as well.
Both are wonderful instruments because of this range!
So, if you want an answer to the question: "Why don't people realize how awesome and complex the ukulele can be?" it is: because it is overshadowed by its enormous ability to be a very accesible instrument for anyone who wants to start with music.
The ukulele has this rap as being inferior mostly because almost all people who "learn to play ukulele" never get much more advanced than learning how to strum a few basic chords, then sing using that minimal playing as accompaniment.
Other instruments have this problem (the guitar arguably still does to a lesser degree), but the reason ukulele gets picked on is because the only people who are famous for playing ukulele are people who sing a song while strumming entry-level chords in basic strumming patterns (henceforth the "strum and sing" style). Piano has its virtuosos; people know names like Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, and Chopin, for example. Guitar has its legends, like Hendrix, Clapton, and Van Halen. Masters of their instrument. But ukulele has no such famous virtuosos, possibly because it's just now experiencing a surge in popularity.
One of the most famous ukulele players of modern times is a girl named Grace Vanderwaal, who won America's Got Talent at age twelve by singing and strumming (she's now sixteen or so). She's a talented singer, but I would hardly put the ukulele playing from her AGT performances above beginner-level musicianship. The thing is, the world associates her with ukulele rather than with singing, and it's this type of performer that inadvertently earns the ukulele the reputation of not being a "real instrument". Their voice is their main talent, but their ukulele playing is what people think makes them unique; as a result, the general public has their belief in the ukulele's mediocrity as an instrument subtly reinforced. Put another way, people learn to believe in the idea that the ukulele needs a human voice to play behind in order to make good music.
Now, there are some real ukulele wizards out there; Jake Shimabukuro is probably the most well-known within the higher-level ukulele world. The ukulele can do some amazing things in the hands of people who are willing to put in the work and really focus on technical understanding of music. But those masters aren't highly-publicized figures in the world media; ask any 15-year-old kid who Grace Vanderwaal is, and they may very well know who you're talking about. Ask that same 15-year-old kid who Taimane is, and they'll almost always have no idea.
What's more, the boom in the ukulele's popularity has flooded the ukulele community with beginner musicians who aren't interested in learning theory or spending time mastering fundamentals; they just want to learn how to play as many songs as possible, and are willing to play super-generic, basic versions of those songs in order to make learning them as easy and accessible as possible. This, in turn, created a market for instructional materials serving that part of the community, and now YouTube is inundated with videos like "Learn To Play 15 SONGS With These 4 EASY UKULELE Chords!!!". So low-level playing gets all of the public spotlight, and high-level technique and theory is hard to access.
I'm no professional, but I've been playing for years and by my own evaluation, I'd say that I'm far above the basic levels of playing the ukulele. In my own experience, a large part of my own skill at ukulele is simply an extension of the music theory knowledge I have which I applied to my instrument; no one ever taught me how to play crazy jazz chords on ukulele. In other words, I HAD to teach myself in order to get above the basics to where I am now.
And to be fair, there certainly is some truth to the notion that the ukulele is easier than some other instruments, particularly at the beginner stages of contemporary styles of ukulele playing. Playing your first chord on an ukulele is literally (and I do mean literally here) child's play; playing your first note on a violin is a much more difficult skill by comparison. But it is certainly not so much of a difference as to limit the music made by the ukulele to the extreme basic strum-and-sing.
The ukulele is a much more expressive instrument than it is credited for, and has the potential to play much more complicated music than what it is known for creating.
Essentially, because it IS an easy instrument to play, as far as technique goes.
The ukulele and recorder can certainly be entry-level instruments (bit unfair to class them with kazoo I think!) They're cheap, and basic technique is easily achieved.
But 'rejection of formal music education'? Recorder is taught in schools with the express purpose of introducing notation. And you're not 'rejecting' anything by noodling around on an easy instrument. That's like saying I'm rejecting athletic training by taking a stroll in the park.
I taught for a time in the London Borough of Redbridge which, at the time, had an enviable integrated 'Music Scheme'. The idea was that every child should be introduced to practical music-making in recorder class. Those that showed aptitude were encouraged to take up a 'real' instrument (sorry, advanced recorder players!) with a team of visiting teachers. It all depended on there BEING a competent music teacher in each junior school to do the ground-work. Full implementation was never going to happen of course, but we got a long way towards it, and in the 1970s this otherwise unremarkable suburban area supported four orchestras, three brass bands, two wind bands etc. etc.
I don't have any experience with ukulele, but I permit myself a couple of observations about the guitar, which I think fit to the discussion.
Quality of sound
Plucking instruments, such as guitar, are in general less popular in "high" music than bow instruments, such as violin or cello. The reasons are quite objective limitations:
- Once a string is plucked, the sound cannot be controlled (its length, strength, etc.)
- The strength of the sound is also limited by the available finger movement
- The height of the sound cannot be finely controlled - it is fixed by the position of bars.
All this makes these instruments easier to master, but limits their use to chamber music and recreational use.
Standardisation has played an important role in higher prevalence of some instruments: classes, literature, records, etc. for a classical guitar are easily available. In Russia it has completely displaced traditional string instruments, such as 7-string guitar and balalaika. The former simply fell out of use for the lack of the above mentioned resources, while the latter is used solely for the traditional folk music.
The situation is not unique to this type of instruments: many "standard" instruments lived through similar competition from similar varieties. For example, Bach's "Well-tempered clavier" was intended (and succeeded) to popularize a specific variety of clavier, which is (nearly) exclusively used today.
The ukulele shares qualities with the recorder and the melodica, along with some other instruments, that hold it back in the pantheon of instruments in terms of respect and status as a "serious" instrument:
- Limited note range
- Limited dynamic range
- Limited timbral range
- Limited microtonality
To amplify the last point, while you can bend notes on a ukulele, it's very hard to make the kinds of bends that can be accomplished with the plain (unwound) strings of a steel string or electric guitar.
A ukulele shares disadvantages with the classical guitar, but the classical guitar has a much bigger fretboard and more strings as well as a much larger body, so it benefits from the ability to play louder, play larger chords, and play a greater range of notes.
The timbre of the ukulele is also "small" - it doesn't have a broad or complex timbre. And it's not very flexible in terms of timbre. It's hard to get a range of different sounds from a ukulele.
So while you can play chords and single-note passages on a ukulele, even ones that are quite difficult, they will never be as full sounding or as rich as what can be played on most other instruments.
There's also a kind of viscous circle where the fact that the ukulele is not taken very seriously means few high quality instruments are manufactured which means a lot of ukuleles are not well intonated and have weak timbres which causes the ukulele to be taken less seriously.
In some ways that's like the recorder. There are serious, high-quality recorders in the world (especially those played in medieval music groups), but the most common recorders are the cheap plastic student recorders that don't sound very good.