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I want to learn to play a new instrument to some extent (which is a part of a classical/romantic orchestra) in order to understand what is possible with this type of instruments and what not, which might be very useful for me because I compose. I already play piano (anyway it is not the part of orchestra).

Question: Which instrument would I be able to play the quietest of all? I do not want to disturb my neighbors. If it is relevant, I do have a room in my apartment which is not adjacent to any of the neighbor's rooms.

Choice: flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, viola and horn. I do not include really "big" instruments, for they are also expensive.

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    I've heard that people do not like listening to amateur violin practice, and the stereotype in commercials is that the little kid plays violin awfully, because it's far too easy to play notes on the violin that "fall between the cracks" and are not found in the typical A440 12TET scale. This is a non-volume-related reason to avoid violin if you want an instrument that doesn't disturb the neighbours. – Dekkadeci Nov 11 at 15:28
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    @Dekkadeci Other troubles with string instruments are the scratching and squeaking you get when you aren't controlling your bow correctly. – Rosie F Nov 11 at 15:45
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    This is what I am trying to do "talking with experienced players". And by horn I meant a french horn, which is quite obvious – NickQuant Nov 11 at 18:25
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    Well, there is a wikipedia article, which call is just horn: de.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horn_%28Instrument%29?wprov=sfla1 – NickQuant Nov 11 at 18:31
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    "Horn" is a bit of an overloaded term, but in the context of a list of orchestral instruments it's entirely obvious what's meant. The name "French horn" is discouraged in the orchestral world. – MattPutnam Nov 11 at 20:09

13 Answers 13

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The best way to avoid disturbing the neighbors is to talk to them first! In my experience, most neighbors are fine with a little muffled noise at reasonable hours. An interior room with no walls adjacent to the neighbors also helps a ton. It's not a good idea to always practice very quietly or timidly; you should do the bulk of your practicing at a normal, comfortable volume level. Others have suggested brass with mutes, but this is inadvisable.

An important part of your question is that you mention your motivation for learning a new instrument: General musical knowledge, and I would guess fun as well. Importantly, your goal is not to become a virtuoso on the instrument. This is important because you're going to want an instrument that you can learn relatively quickly. The orchestral strings take a very long time to get any good at--you're looking at a matter of years just to play notes in tune with a good tone consistently. With woodwinds, you can start seeing decent results much sooner.

In all, I would recommend flute or clarinet.

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    I was also considering those two (flute and clarinet) in the beginning. But then my colleague (not a musician) said flute is very loud (his sister plays it). Still it seems to be tge best solution. And are there any mutes for clarinet? – NickQuant Nov 11 at 18:19
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    @NickQuant there's no such thing as a clarinet mute. The sound comes out of the whole body of the instrument, not just the bell like a brass instrument, so there's no way for such a thing to work. Both flute and clarinet can be piercing in the high registers, but they're both very easy to play gently in the "normal" part of the range. – MattPutnam Nov 11 at 19:57
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    It's worth noting that while flutes are loud, they are also high pitched, and high pitch sounds is absorbed more easily by walls (which is why you can often hear the bass clearly outside a club or in the bathroom, but not the higher notes). While flute is a loud instrument it is likely to be less noisy from your neighbors house. – Turksarama Nov 12 at 9:28
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    @Turksarama I disagree – the high-pitched sounds are also one of the most annoying, and often hit the sensitive upper-mid band with ringing, piercing sounds. While the lower register of the flute can sound very charming, I would avoid this instrument if I wanted to avoid annoying my neighbors. – dtldarek Nov 12 at 10:13
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    @dtldarek my argument is not that high frequency noises are less annoying, but that they travel less well so the neighbors are less likely to hear them at all. See physics.stackexchange.com/q/87800 – Turksarama Nov 12 at 10:19
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An electric violin is very quiet. Some with chambered bodies are loud enough to be heard by other people in the same room; some (the "skeleton" type) are only just loud enough for the player to hear in a quiet room. Unlike many other electric instruments, there is no difference in technique between an electric and a "normal" violin. The electric violin also tends to respond to playing technique better than a "normal" violin with a mute.

The same also applies to some degree to the electric cello and upright bass. However the size, shape and weight of the "normal" instruments is significant, so whilst the playing technique may be the same, the electric will have a different playing position. This is not the case for the electric violin, because its outline and weight are the same.

Electric violins (at least the cheap ones) can be very reasonably priced, so if you don't get on with it, you've not lost too much.

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    Even an acoustic stringed instrument can be played with a cloth damping the strings so it is much quieter. My wife was a violinist for a number of years and she practiced this way. – GalacticCowboy Nov 12 at 15:23
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    @GalacticCowboy It can, for sure - and we have mutes which also do a reasonable job. My experience though is that because they're damping the strings, it does change the dynamics of your playing because either the strings or the bridge are no longer giving the behaviour you'd expect. With an electric violin you don't get that - it simply isn't as loud, but the strings still work the same. – Graham Nov 12 at 17:22
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    FYI: playing an electric violin is very different from playing a real violin. – Apollys supports Monica Nov 13 at 0:05
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    @ApollyssupportsMonica YMMV then. The sound from the pickup is different from an acoustic sound, sure. But if you're just using it as a quiet practise instrument and not relying on amplification, the differences are marginal to imperceptible, and are certainly no more than the differences in feel between two "normal" violins. – Graham Nov 13 at 12:46
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    @ApollyssupportsMonica for a beginner are they really that different? I had both, as a beginner. I did not notice a great difference and I thought the electric version sounded pretty good (as well as being much more convenient to throw in a suitcase). – Adam Eberbach Nov 13 at 22:30
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A harp can be pretty quiet. Do not choose bagpipes; they're loud enough to cover up a harp even when the pipes are not playing.

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    This is also huge and expensive.. – NickQuant Nov 11 at 18:15
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    +1 for funny. You could add tympani to 'loudest" – Carl Witthoft Nov 11 at 18:19
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    I was thinking of 105mm howitzers as used in some July Fourth versions of the "1812 Overture." I think both trombones and trumpets can sound as loud a tympani though. All (bass drums too) can generate 100+ decibels. – ttw Nov 11 at 18:58
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    @BenCrowell - and, thankfully, no bagpipes part... But it would make a change from having to tune to the oboe - trying to tune to the bagpipes! – Tim Nov 12 at 10:37
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    @NickQuant A full-sized orchestral harp is indeed huge and expensive, but you can get a smaller range harp for fairly cheap - there are even build-your-own kits out there. – Darrel Hoffman Nov 12 at 15:41
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Have you considered an electronic string instrument? Those are very quiet, and rely on amplification for the majority of their volume. It may be out of your price range, but it might be possible to find something on the used market that might fit your budget.

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    Actually after, reading the answers I started considering it – NickQuant Nov 12 at 10:41
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Actually I think flute is a good choice. While it also can become piercing in the higher registers, these likely appear only after one made some progress (and so are better compliant with the ears of your neighbors). From my experience the higher frequencies of a flute are also better filtered by a closed door or standard walls than cello/bassoon or the lower clarinet register. There are also wooden heads for flutes, which may be worth a try.

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    Comment from a flautist (professionally trained): Whilst I love the instrument, flute sound actually carries remarkably (read extremely) well throughout a buildning. Learning to control dynamics whilst preserving pitch also takes years of work. The progress to higher notes, by which I mean from as low as e2, makes for some painful listening for the musically not-so-interested. To make matters worse, there is no effective way of muting a flute, differing it from most other instruments. If neighbors are a concern I would suggest an instrument with an effective mute or an electronic alternative. – ErikE Nov 12 at 7:02
  • @ErikE every orchestral instrument has the potential to get neighbours upset, and probably every musician thinks their instrument is particular problematic because that's the one the neighbours are complaining about! But from direct comparison, it's fairly safe to say that flute is one of the least wall-penetrating ones. The main problem is that you can't completely decouple dynamics and notes – string players naturally tend to play a lot quiter when practising, brass can be muted quite effectively, but overblown flute notes just don't work without some power. (Are there mutes for flute?) – leftaroundabout Nov 13 at 5:52
  • Also, flute does carry very well along stone hallways and stairwells. But that vector is fortunately fairly easy to address, by insulating the doors and/or damping the stone walls with curtains etc.. For the lower-pitched instruments, that by itself would be rather useless. – leftaroundabout Nov 13 at 6:01
  • @leftaroundabout 😂 – ErikE Nov 13 at 15:26
  • I think one of the comments to another answer is helpful in pointing out that high pitch travels as far as low pitch but is also piercing. In addition, looking at decibel charts for different instruments can be helpful. Note that both playing very softly and very loudly are skills in and of themselves. Somewhere in the middle is where most amateurs spend their time. Example: music.eku.edu/sites/music.eku.edu/files/ekuhealthandsafety.pdf I would like to have written an answer along these lines but the question seems to be locked now. – ErikE Nov 13 at 15:36
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In the list of possible instruments that you gave, the obvious choice for me would be the viola. Mellow and not piercing. And of course, if you wanted to make it even less audible put a mute on.

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    The learning curve there would be however as steep as violin, am I right? I won't be able to play simple melodies, say, after a month of one-hour-a-day training. I really do not have a clue – NickQuant Nov 11 at 22:40
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    @NickQuant I play viola so yeah, the learning curve is steep (no difference to violin) but given you have a good sense for pitch I'd say a month of daily practice should be more than enough to play simple melodies with a decent tone. One thing you might want to consider, at least in my area violas are much rarer than violins. So if joining an actual orchestra some time is an option, viola might have an advantage here. – MaxD Nov 11 at 23:00
  • @MaxD good that it worked for you, but I'd say “a month of daily practice” is an extremely optimistic estimate for the time it needs to play simple melodies with a decent tone. Most students need more like a year, and many years before it gets really satisfying. – leftaroundabout Nov 13 at 5:45
  • @leftaroundabout Yeah but most students probably don't practice for an hour EVERY SINGLE DAY, especially at the start. If you do that, and additionally already have experience on another instrument, I think a month is not that unrealistic. – MaxD Nov 13 at 8:21
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A few points:

  • Brass instruments have mutes
  • Wind instruments are hard to play quietly when you are starting out.
  • Do not pick Oboe.

Volume doesn't really matter because all orchestra instruments can be played quietly.

Clarinet is probably the easiest woodwind (I might be biased), though you have to deal with reeds. Flute has no reeds, but to play some notes you need to have good control of wind speed since there are fingerings that are for multiple notes. Beginner flutes are cheaper than beginner clarinets as far as I know.

While I know very little about string instruments, I am aware that there are no markings or frets to show where the notes are, so you need to memorize hand locations. Strings also have the upkeep of replacing strings and applying rosin to the bow.

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    So you mean, I can play horn with a mute at home, so that I don't go to jail and my neighbours will be ok with it? – NickQuant Nov 11 at 15:52
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    you should probably be okay, though mutes change the tone quality a lot, so if this is for composition you might get misinformation. – Legorhin Nov 11 at 16:12
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    @NickQuant - Yamaha sells a cool electric mute called "Silent Brass" that lets you plug in headphones (and also has an aux input to pipe in accompainment) so you hear more of the real tone in your headphones rather than the muted sound – NKCampbell Nov 12 at 16:31
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    Why should one not pick Oboe? – User42 Nov 14 at 7:05
  • @User42 oboe is extremely difficult and sounds terrible unless you have put excessive amounts of time into learning it. So its not useful for OP who wants an instrument that won't annoy his neighbors. – Legorhin Nov 14 at 15:32
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Consider a regular / acoustic violin with a practice mute, which sounds just loud enough for you to hear yourself, but the sound does not carry far enough to bother your neighbors.

Note that a "practice mute" is distinct from a "mute" that is used during regular performance when "con sordino" is indicated. The latter changes the character of the sound but does not make a substantial enough impact on volume for your purpose.

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If you look at the classic orchestra, you can see just a few players of wind instrument of each kind (flute, clarinet, oboe, horn, trumpet, etc.) but tens of players in the string section. This is because string instruments sound generally quieter than wind ones, so there are more of them to achieve a comparable loudness.

So my choice from your list based just on the loudness criterion would be violin or viola. Moreover, you can use a mute with them. However, you should take other criteria into account, e.g. the learning curve, as other answers have mentioned already.

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Brass instruments you can play with dampers that will make them the less noisy ones.

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    Not strictly true, and muted instruments play differently and sound different from open ones. Not a good way to learn. – Carl Witthoft Nov 11 at 18:18
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    That’s true but he didn’t say he wants to learn and an instrument to become a great performer just wants to understand how it works. – Albrecht Hügli Nov 11 at 21:25
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I'll put down saxophone as an option.

As to the classical objection, I'll point to Ravel, Bizet etc. :-)

It can be played quite quietly, but of course when starting to learn it, one starts at a louder volume before one learns sufficient control for the softer parts.

Here is the less facetious reason for me suggesting the instrument: Roland makes an electronic sax which apparently is quite good. A friend has one and uses it to practice on flights and in hotel rooms, as it can be plugged into earphones, and is small and portable. If I remember correctly, the fingering layout can be adapted to most of the small variations of other woodwinds, so you could also play clarinet, flute, recorder etc. - obviously with a plastic "reed" mouthpiece, and switches instead of holes or valve keys. It has a slew of synthesized sounds, not only woodwinds, but also things like bagpipes and violins. (I believe other makes are also available, I do not wish to advertise any specific brand.)

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    My experience with saxophone is that it is not very "apartment-friendly". It's true that you can modulate the volume but sometimes you want to play louder... :-) I switched to clarinet for a less invasive volume. Currently both my reeds are retired and I am playing chromatic harmonica... Until now my neighborhood is still tolerating me. Fingers crossed... – Francesco Nov 12 at 10:46
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You can try playing Lute that Mideaval era Byrds used to play. Musicians still play it today.

Renaissance Lute John Dowland Album is an example.

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From comments...

...understanding what kind of passages I can write for instruments and which not.

On a very basic fingering level you might consider mandolin as a substitute for violin. Obviously you miss all the bowing, but you can get basic chord and scale patterns, and mandolin is fairly quiet.

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