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I was recently notified of a ranking of languages by the Defense Language Institute (for a native English speaker). It can be found here or here. The summary is that languages can be divided into categories of similar difficulty along with the number of weeks of training necessary for sufficient fluency.

  • Category I languages, 26-week courses, include Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese.
  • Category II, 35 weeks, includes German and Indonesian
  • Category III, 48 weeks, includes Dari, Persian Farsi, Russian, Uzbek, Hindi, Urdu, Hebrew, Thai, Serbian Croatian, Tagalog, Turkish, Sorani and Kurmanji
  • Category IV, 64 weeks, includes Arabic, Chinese Mandarin, Korean, Japanese and Pashto

I was wondering if there is a similar ranking for instruments (with the "native instrument" being just one's ability to differentiate tones).

This is not an opinion based question. I want to know if such a ranking systems exists and what is it called, who figured it out, etc. This is a simple musicology question.

I am not asking which instruments are more difficult.

closed as primarily opinion-based by Jacob Swanson, Caleb Hines, Todd Wilcox, Shevliaskovic, MrTheBard Jul 9 '15 at 11:13

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    I've just voted to reopen, I don't think the actual question being asked is opinion based. "is a similar ranking for instruments" is a yes/no question really. The fact that many of the answers given so far are opinion based is a separate issue. – Chris Jul 9 '15 at 21:25
  • This should be re-opened. There is nothing opinion based in this question. – Stinkfoot Dec 23 '17 at 16:39
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I'm not aware of any such ranking, and I think your analogy is somewhat flawed, in that the language rankings are ranking the difficulty of learning a 2nd language for a native English speaker, in other words somebody who is fully competent in one language already.

I don't think the ability to differentiate tones versus playing an instrument is equivalent to speaking English versus speaking a second language. A better analogy might be to rank the difficulty of learning a 2nd instrument if you already play 1 instrument.

For what it's worth, I can share some of my own experience. I have played the piano since I was five (I am now middle-aged). I played the clarinet in my school band from 4th to 8th grade. I've played the guitar on my own on and off for about the last 20 years, and would say I'm still very much at the beginner level. I found clarinet to be relatively easy to learn having already learned how to play piano, because on the clarinet you are only playing one note at a time. The hardest thing about clarinet is developing the physical capability to produce a good tone, and learning the fingerings but conceptually it was pretty easy. I've found guitar to be a little harder to learn because the physical mechanisms for producing sounds is very different from the piano and from a practical standpoint, if you don't play all the time, your fingers don't develop calluses and you can't play for very long without being in pain. Learning another keyboard instrument would be easier for me, in the way that learning French or Spanish is easier for an English speaker than Chinese because a) they use the same writing system and b) they are linguistically related, neither of which is true for English and Chinese.

If you were going to look at the difficulty of learning an instrument for adults who don't play any instrument and don't have any formal musical knowledge I think you'd find that different instruments would be difficult in different ways. Piano might be harder than instruments that don't play chords because you have the complexity of dealing with multiple notes at once, and having to coordinate the left and right hands. However, a complete beginner can hit a piano key, and the sound that comes out will not be awful. Getting a good tone from a violin or a reed instrument will take a lot more work. And playing the French Horn in tune all the time is difficult even for those who play it at the professional level!

This is an interesting question but I don't think it has a definitive answer.

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This is a tricky question because instruments can be difficult for very different reasons. I think of it as two completely independent skills--the ability to produce a good tone, and the dexterity to navigate the technical challenges of the standard repertoire.

For tone, instruments like piano are trivially easy. Guitar is fairly easy but there's at least some conscious effort involved. Flutes and single reeds are somewhere in the middle, requiring control of the airstream and embouchure (lip muscles) but still having a good portion of the tone dictated by the instrument. Double reeds and brass involve paradoxically needing to be strong yet relaxed, which requires a lot of practice (and sheer muscle development) to get down. On brass, just playing the right note requires a strong ear and extremely precise lip tension. Strings have an immense amount of nuance that isn't immediately apparent--tiny changes in the position and pressure of the bow make huge differences, and it takes years to start to sound good.

Dexterity is harder to rank because composers will write things that are as difficult as they can get away with. For example, saxophone fingering is very easy, so saxophonists are asked to play very fast and complex lines in response. So is sax technique easier or harder? There's also the question of genre--strummy campfire guitar is dead simple, but classical guitar gets as difficult as you want.

All of that aside, the best way to determine the relative difficulty of instruments is to look at beginning ensembles: middle school bands and orchestras. If you go to any 6th grade concert, the strings will all sound like cats being tortured, the brass will sound like farts (the horns will additionally be playing mostly wrong notes), but the woodwinds will be doing okay. Move to 8th grade and the top members of the brass sections are starting to sound okay, but most of the strings still sound horrible (and the woodwinds are playing circles around everyone). To me, this shows that woodwinds are objectively easiest, then brass, then strings. (NB: It's not fair to judge double reeds here, because they're usually taken from the best flute/clarinet/sax players, so there's a massive selection bias)

And finally, all of that aside, I identify a third measure of difficulty: competition. Piano is sort of middling in difficulty, having trivial tone production and a wide range of technical demands, but there are so many good pianists that if you want to stand out you have to be absolutely amazing. Rock guitar is very easy, but everyone and their dog is a guitarist, so it's all but impossible to stand out, and the guitarists that are famous got there more for their singing, songwriting, and appearance. But there are so few violists that if you can just play in tune with a decent tone you'll be in high demand.


My overall take:

Hardest to play: Orchestral strings, horn, and double reeds.

Hardest to make money with: Guitar/bass and voice

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I think the pipe organ is the easiest and the hardest. Easiest because no matter what you do you get beautiful sounds out of it, and it doesn't take long to get good enough to accompany hymns in church using just the manuals. Hardest because your left hand, right hand and feet are going 3 or 4 ways at once, you also have to work the swell pedal and make registration changes, and every organ is different and sometimes you have to perform on one you've never seen before, finding out which notes don't work as you go along.

In general, though, how hard or easy an instrument is depends on what you want to play on it and how well you want to play it. Fiddle tunes are one thing; violin concerti are something else entirely.

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