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This is something that has bothered me for quite a while. I frequently participate in instrument demonstrations for children. My focus is on wind instruments but I'm also curious about others.

What I noticed is that some children just seem to have a strong affinity to certain instruments. And some seem to be absolutely unable to produce sound on some instruments. I noticed that there are children who just naturally place their lips right on the instrument and others who seem to be physically unable to hold their lips in those positions (think someone who can't roll their tongue but desperately tries to). There are children who blow in a strong and narrow fashion and others who tend to blow much broader, some have a strong grip with their mouth, others a more soft one. Finger length and lung capacity are also important of course but in children this is hard to factor in since they are not developed enough. And then there are obvious genetic malformations like missing fingers that of course can severely limit the amount of instruments you can play, but I'm more interested in the not-so-obvious ones.

You see I started thinking that maybe some people just simply don't fit certain instruments and will never do as well on them as others.

So my question is, are there lesser-visible genetic limitations (lip/mouth muscles/lung capacity/blowing capabilities...) that can prevent someone from learning certain instruments? Or can those mostly be compensated by practising?

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    We had this question recently about lip shape and embouchure: music.stackexchange.com/questions/85254/… – Your Uncle Bob Jun 3 at 11:48
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    If you have severly limited lung capacity (diaphragmatic hernia) that would make wind instruments difficult. – Carl Witthoft Jun 3 at 13:31
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    Josef Hoffman had small hands. Steinway made him special piano(s). en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josef_Hofmann#Technique_and_style How many wannabe small hand pianists would get this special treatment from Steinway? – Rusi Jun 3 at 16:25
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    I worked at a band instrument and music store for over 8 years. Anecdotally, I supplement your initial observation: there are some kids that are great at brass instruments and terrible at woodwind instruments and vice versa. As for compensation...I'm certain that there are compensations, but I would recommend...recommending to them that they try a different instrument. They may not want to , but that could change if they realize that they have a "natural aptitude" for another type of instrument. – John Doe Jun 3 at 23:12
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    Completely independently of music, you are making the unwarranted assumption that, if somebody cannot imitate some movement after being shown, there is some genetic predetermination for it - it has been proven wrong again and again. Nature-vs-nurture is not a useful way to think of people. – rumtscho Jun 4 at 7:32
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There are countless examples of people who have substantially overcome major limitations, such as Manami Ito.

This is conjecture, so please take it with a grain of salt, but I find epigenetic effects are far more important than the genetic ones. There does seem to be a mindset associated with each instrument which yields the best and most expressive playing possible. Consider the difference in mindset between an oboe player and an electric basist, or a concert percussionist. While it may be hard to pin the difference down, there is clearly a difference!

If you happen to pick an instrument that matches your mindset, you will find it comes more naturally than other instruments.

There are genetic issues, but they can be overcome. You mention finger length as one. One of my piano teachers had a demonstration on this that he loved. He had me compare the size of my hand to his. My fingers were substantially longer than his, but he could hit an interval two notes wider than I could. He had simply taught his hand to relax more than I had, so he could spread his fingers and thumb wider than I could.

Now there are going to be counterexamples. There's always music designed for the extreme. If you find music written for someone with Polydactly, you should not be surprised if its hard to play it with just 10 fingers. However, most music is designed to be played by a wide variety of people, so you'll find genetic limits far and few between.

Now, going back to mindsets, I want to make it clear that this does not mean you must play an instrument that matches your mindset or you will fail. What it means is that if you pick another instrument, you will have to expand your way of thinking to encompass what the instrument has to teach you. If you are a lackadaisical person who isn't too concerned with timing, and you pick up percussion, you will have to learn how to make the instruments make their sound at the right time with nothing but a stick and some willpower. You will have to figure out how to grow your mindset to make that happen.

I would say the jury is still out as to which is the more important bit of playing music: finding something you play naturally, or finding something that expands your horizons. I'll leave that bit up to you.

  • Do you really mean epigenetic? This refers to inherited/innate characteristics caused by mechanisms not affecting the sequence of DNA bases (A,C,G,T = adenine, cytosine, guanine, thiamine) in the genes. I believe that it is not clear in what proportions a person’s mindset is influenced by (i) their environment, (ii) heredity in the form of the DNA sequences of their genes and (iii) heredity due to epigenetic effects. – PJTraill Jun 6 at 18:31
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Playing any instrument (save possibly the theremin) requires a physical interface between the instrument and the performer. If you happen to have an ideal physique for the instrument things will be easier, and if your body is lacking in some way you'll need to adapt.

But having enough desire seems to trump disability. Not just through practicing, but through a combination of practice and innovation.

I'm a guitarist, and about 15 years ago I took a deep dive into the music of Django Reinhardt. As part of that I watched every filmed performance of his that I could find, and I had an epiphany: the way guitarists approach the instrument today is at least in part the result of Django's "handicap".

Django was a professional guitarist at the age of 15. At the age of 18 he was trapped in a fire that severely injured him, and as a result he had two useless fingers on his fretting hand. Within a half dozen years of the fire he became a renowned jazz guitarist.

Jazz lines make extensive use of arpeggios. A guitarist with a fully functioning fretting hand might approach an Fm7 arpeggio by playing F and Ab on the 6th string with the 1st and 4th fingers, then C on the 5th string with the third finger, Eb and F on the fourth string with the 1st and 3rd fingers, and so on. A typical line could go through two octaves and a third, the range of the guitar in a single position.

But since Django had only his 1st and 2nd fingers available, he adapted: F with the first finger, Ab with the 2nd - which shifted to third position. C was then under his first finger... and Eb on the 5th string put him in 5th position. He'd slide up to seventh position for the next F, and so on. Django's arpeggios were diagonal across the fretboard, because that was the only way he could play them. And the diagonal approach to the instrument meant his range for a typical arpeggio was larger than that of a guitarist without a handicap. Other guitarists learned to apply this approach to extend their own lines, and "diagonal" fingerings are now something many guitarists study.

So a physical limitation can not only be overcome, but in some instances can change the way other musicians think about the instrument.

You can find other examples of musicians overcoming seemingly impossible hurdles, like the violinist Carl Unthan who was born without arms. Or one-armed pianist Nicolas McCarthy. Or Def Leppard's one-armed drummer Rick Allen.

Never say never! :)

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    I fully agree. There have been no musicians in my family for generations, and I have been able to pick up a completely new instrument at the age of 25 (I switched over from percussion to saxophone). Most people at my age would say that no new skills can be learnt, but in a matter of years I have personally been able to achieve what most others don't when they start out in a school band and play until the end of high school... Dedication to an instrument is all that it takes. You have to love your instrument of choice and be willing to face it every day. – Pyromonk Jun 3 at 11:15
  • Jeff Healey... blind, frets on his lap like a piano. Undoubtedly successful. – J... Jun 3 at 19:44
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    Perhaps, but this answer does not account for physical pain caused by the design of the instrument in certain hands. I cannot make my palms face straight up without bending my arm and moving my elbow across my body. Growing up, I thought excruciating pain while playing violin was just suffering for my art, but it's more unlucky bone structure. I was never able to find a comfortable way to play the violin. Luckily, I -am- suited to lute family instruments, but I will never be able to play pieces that require most normal classical techniques.... Perhaps erhu-style would work... – schadjo Jun 4 at 12:31
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    @schadjo - I mentioned using a combination of practice and innovation to overcome challenges. With the problem you describe, you might have been better suited to prior methods - in the early baroque the violin wasn't held under the chin: baroque-violin.info/vhold1.html – Tom Serb Jun 4 at 13:01
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    Very cool. Never realized those were designed for playing that way; I had assumed the artists depicted their subjects holding the instruments that way to make the paintings more dramatic. You learn something new every day. – schadjo Jun 4 at 13:28
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It's impossible to generalize but often genetic weaknesses can be compensated for by learning an instrument. Someone who has naturally weak lungs might strengthen them by learning a wind instrument. Someone who has weak hand muscles can improve them by learning contrabass, although they'll have to work much harder to make progress.
Sometimes there are physical factors that can't be compensated for. Someone who has a teardrop in their lips will have a very hard time getting a good sound on the flute.
But for every genetic limitation you can think of, you can probably find someone, somewhere who has overcome it and turned into an accomplished musician

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The physical question is trivial. Yes, in the last analysis you have to be able to operate the thing. Yes, there are inspiring anecdotes of musicians who have managed to overcome seemingly show-stopping physical limitations. "We (may) have the technology." (Has the prospective player $6M worth of commitment though?) Go, girl!

The more interesting question is why (and if) a certain individual feels drawn towards a certain instrument. I played piano 'because it was there'. First year at 'big school' instrumental lessons were offered, I volunteered for trumpet on a whim. A year later a trombone vacuum arose, I filled it.

I don't actually know anyone who felt born to play a specific instrument, it was more a matter of being thrown the ball, and running with it. (The great thing about a good education system is that it KEEPS throwing you balls. You catch some of them. You can't catch them ALL.)

I'm sure such people exist though. 'Ever since first hearing that sound, I knew I HAD to...'.

'Boys play the heavier instruments.' Well, OK. But harpists - the epitome of un-portability - are traditionally female. Go figure.

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I would say there are no limitations to play an instrument. If you really want to play an instruments, you will be able to learn it one way or the other.

Of course there might be some harder and some easier instruments and some may just be impossible to play for a certain person... but in general, if you put enough effort into it, you'll be able to play an instrument.

Just some examples:

  • Here is a piano player without any fingers: Piano 1
  • Here is another one: Piano 2
  • ... and a man with autism: Piano 3

Well, I think you get it. These days you hear every second person say things like "I can't play the piano, because my hands are too small", "I can't play the piano, because I didn't start when I was young"... Don't you think that if a person without any hands can play the piano, that people with small hands should be able to do it as well?

I think many reasons that people name these days are no real limitations. The only limitation that many people got, is that they don't want to put enough effort in learning an instrument ;)

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    I suffer from pretty bad carpal tunnel related problems in my hands. As a result I can't form chords (can't move my fingers independently) and fingerpicking gets extremely painful after only a few minutes. Yeah, there are physical impediments to playing instruments. And often they're invisible to the outside observer. Likewise someone with severe asthma probably won't be able to generate the volume of air needed to blow a trumpet or tuba, or indeed produce a stable enough air flow for most any wind instrument. – jwenting Jun 4 at 3:46
  • Well, like I said, some instruments might be harder than others, you still can play an instrument. I have cubital tunnel syndrome myself and I have basically the same problem playing the piano. This doesn't mean I'm not able to make music. I'm still arranging music for the piano within sibelius and I'm also able to play flute & harmonica. Even tho there might be limitations for some instruments, that doesn't mean you're not able to play any of them. – Andy Jun 4 at 9:55
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I have been a guitarist for almost 40 years and there is definitely a genetic component to playing an instrument, however, this is not about Darwin but rather about basketball. I am 5'8 and no matter how much I practiced I would never play in college or the NBA. just as shortness is a genetic trait so are small hands, tongue shape, lip shape etc. By way of example, I would argue that certain biological factors contribute to your ability to play. Using myself as an example I have been passionately in love with the guitar for ever. I have practiced almost 4 hours daily and over the years I have discovered several physical and mental deficiencies I have that have thwarted my ability to progress beyond a certain point. I first discovered how small my fingers were. I rectified this by having custom built Les Paul necks made. It sure made a difference. Then I realized how in effective my little finger was. That sent me off into years of exercises and visits to doctors. I have experienced a great deal of extra movement but after almost 15 years of working on this I have come to realize that I don't have that certain dexterity that other players have. Next in my effort to play like my hero's eg Gary Moore. I discovered that I don't have fast muscle twitch. So no matter how much I practice I have achieved all the speed there is for me to obtain. Now to the mind portion, although I am fairly accomplished, I don't have the mental capacity to see scales, notes etc. I believe that certain people have an innate ability to see and remember patterns on the fret board, scales arpegeos etc. I can't. All of these factors have come from my genetic heritage, however this is not Darwin only music.

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