Roughly speaking, it takes anywhere between 5 and 15 years to become proficient in one of the classical music instruments, making it a very difficult skill for most of us.

But why not try and make music easier to play, similar to how cars evolved over time to make it easier to drive? As far as I can tell, instruments such as the piano haven't changed too much in the past 100 years, as even electronic pianos require about the same skills as their heavy wooden counterparts. Likewise the guitar looks about the same, with no attempts to make it more beginner-friendly. Even musical notation hasn't changed too much, requiring hundreds of hours of studying, even though we could now put a giant touch-screen display in front of every music player instead of being restricted to sheets of paper.

Or perhaps I'm wrong and there are indeed attempts to simplify musical instruments?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Dom
    Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 15:37
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    Not enough rep to answer but the key isn't easier playing instruments. You can program any computerized keyboard to play Bach by hitting one key. Or by hitting the same key multiple times at the right intervals. Or by hitting some number of keys in the right order and at the right times (the normal way). The problem isn't the instrument, it's the amount of effort you want to put into it. If you want a generic instrument, a piano doesn't get much easier to play. Playing the notes in the right order and at the right times are what makes a song easy or hard to play. Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 0:37
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    In the late 1800s, piano playing got simplified to the point that if one wanted to play a song for someone, all one had to do was go the the store, buy a roll, take it home, load it on the piano, and start pumping the foot pedals until the song was done and the roll was rewound. Now you can simply select a song from a streaming service, click "play", and enjoy. How much easier do you want?
    – supercat
    Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 17:14
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    Define proficient. it takes a few weeks to learn enough guitar to play songs around a campfire.
    – Tony Ennis
    Commented Dec 3, 2019 at 22:44
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    As long as putting in 5-15 years of practice leads to a noticeable improvement in the produced music, and there are people willing to put in that amount of time, that's the standard we'll hold musicians to. Even if you make instruments simpler and easier to use, as long as it's possible to play them better and better almost without limit, that's the result. Commented Dec 4, 2019 at 9:26

15 Answers 15


Instruments are easier to play than they used to be.

Take intonation, for example. Wind instruments don't play in tune by default. This is not a surprise to any player, or any parent of a junior-school concert band member. That being said, some take more skill to play in tune than others. Typically, modern instruments have better intonation (they are closer to being in tune by default). They still take skill, but you fight the instrument less.

If we go back a year or two (hundred), a lot of work went into the world of wind instruments. Better design, better fingering. Similar efforts still happen today. Time will tell if they catch on.

New instruments are invented all the time. Most of them are forgotten; some survive until now. The piano supplanted the harpsichord for a variety of reasons. Saxophones got snubbed by the orchestra, snuck into marching bands, and then ended up a staple of Jazz. And Kenny G. Ok, bad example. Electric guitars opened up a whole new way to cause tinnitus.

My point is that we do try new things all the time. Each new thing comes with a set of advantages, and disadvantages. Arranger keyboards can play along with you (making it easier to play certain styles), but they also play along with you (making it impossible to play anything else). Plastic reeds for woodwinds last longer and don't dry out, but they don't sound exactly the same as an organic one. Not necessarily worse, but not the same. We use iPads for sheet music. Well, I don't, but there's going to be a couple of them at rehearsal tomorrow night. Recorders are simpler than clarinets, but, well, it's a recorder.

So to answer your question, we do improve and innovate. We simplify. But most changes do not survive; too much compromise, limited benefit, or in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sort of like other art forms. I can paint using Paint. But that's not going to replace the paintbrush any time soon.

As a postscript, the music notation question comes up regularly. I would say we have invented a new sort of notation in the last hundred years; the chord chart (or lead sheet). It's well suited to improvisational styles. But it doesn't replace the conventional system. It solves a different problem. Replacing those five parallel horizontal lines has been attempted many times. I can count the number that succeeded on the fingers of zero hands. It would be like replacing the written spelling of the English language. The Americans got away with dropping the occasional 'u', but imagine changing everything. At the end of the day, why would you?

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    "Americans got away with dropping the occasional 'u'" --> Are yo sre? ;-) Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 16:23
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    I take issue with your statement about recorders and the terrible and pointless video you linked.
    – Nobody
    Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 19:07
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    For clarity's sake, the recorder thing is an example of humour. It is not intended to be a value judgement on said instrument (or Celine Dion, for that matter). If you want to remove the humour, my point is that simpler is not always better. Sometimes less is less. Recorders have their place. So do clarinets, despite the fact they are more complicated (range, fingering, mechanics, reeds, etc). The recorder is much older. If simplicity was the driving factor, would the clarinet has caught on at all?
    – endorph
    Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 21:20
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    @endorph ...you mis-spelled humor .... oh :p
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 15:58
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    "Electric guitars opened up a whole new way to cause tinnitus" - bah. Electric guitars are practically silent and do not cause tinnitus. Electric guitars AND A STACK OF MARSHALLS, ON THE OTHER HAND...!!!!!!!!! Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 17:10

Here's my armchair-philosophical speculation.

For the purposes of this speculation, I assume that the "difficulty" of playing an instrument means having too much responsibility i.e. freedom relative to the player's capability. And making something "easier" means somehow narrowing the set of responsibilities.

Freedom and responsibility go hand in hand. "You don't have to do x" is very close to "you cannot do x". Artistry is in the area where "you could do x, but you choose not to." If you reduce a person's (musical) responsibility by limiting her possibilities to do (play) "wrong", you limit her freedom at the same time. The ultimate musical freedom would be something like, create your own world and develop a civilization where there's a culture of music and instrument-making. Think of the possibilities? On the other end of the spectrum, you just listen to existing music made by others and don't have to do / you cannot do anything.

The set of things you can do and things you have to do, define an instrument. Each different set creates its own kind of dynamics or mechanics, things that happen naturally with that instrument, as in "fluid mechanics" vs. "solid mechanics" - different interactions, different phenomena. I guess you're not happy with currently available instruments, and you'd like something with a different set of can-dos and have-to-dos? What would you like to have?

On the violin you're totally responsible for all the pitches, and you can easily play pitches and intervals "out of tune". A guitar is different. It has frets in order to make it easier to play nice-sounding pitches and intervals, but on the other hand, your possibility/freedom to do pitch slides and different intonation is somewhat limited. It can be done with other means, but it's not totally fluid like on a violin. The lack of frets in violins requires time and effort to be spent on learning to play nice-sounding pitches, and that's time guitarists don't have to spend. Some people cannot learn to play violin cleanly even if they try all their lives. But would you say the guitar is a better instrument because of that? It's just different. Would punk music have been invented if they had only had cellos and contrabasses, not guitars?

Do we have any violinists here, is there something that you can do with your instrument, but wouldn't want to be able to do? You can play out of tune if you want, but would you like to give up that freedom, perhaps so that you could concentrate on something more important?

I'd like to turn the question around. Whatever the instrument is, whatever the art is, you need to have talent and spend the 5 - 15 years mastering your skills with it. What is the instrument - what is the area of can-do/must-do where you operate skillfully? What is the art? If you don't have to spend time learning to play nice sounds, then that aspect is trivialized away, and your art, your creative effort, has to be somewhere else. It's pretty incredibly easy to produce a nice-sounding note with a piano, so that doesn't count as art, and your art has to be about which notes you play and when. If the song has been composed for you, then that further narrows down the area of art. But if you have to improvise what you play, it's different. For a DJ, the art could be in selecting what songs to play, when, and how to mix them. A random classical violinist might completely suck at that. But DJs and producers are making very different sorts of music with their instruments - they have a different perspective.

So. If it doesn't take at least a few years to learn, then it's trivial and commoditized. If it's respect and social status you're after, you don't get that by doing trivial things anyone could do. ;) But if it's not social status but music itself, if you'd just like to enjoy making music, there are lots of computer-assisted ways to do that. Click-click-click, try to make sounds in a music production application and see where you can take it? You might be able to produce beautiful violin sounds and piano chords without having any idea what you're doing. Is that art? It can be if you spend time learning it.

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    +1 for the mastery aspect. You can make expressive, powerful music even by literally banging on pots and pans, but it's still going to take both talent and 5-15 years of mastering your skills to do so well.
    – Peteris
    Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 16:19
  • @Peteris maybe if you're a producer and it's a brilliant idea to bang on pots and pans, it may not have to be world-class banging. ;) The question is: what is your art, is it to play a classical instrument in an orchestra, or is it writing melodies, or harmonizations, orchestration ... creating synth sounds maybe? If you're the first person in the world to explore something, going to new places can be valuable in itself. Whatever the art, it needs to be mastered, and it takes time. :) Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 19:27
  • In particular, I was thinking about artists such as Dario Rossi (here's an example youtube.com/watch?v=YbsvFMEvPo4) - on one hand, it's literally banging some junk; a toddler can "play this instrument", but on the other hand it's obvious how bringing it to this level requires extensive mastery.
    – Peteris
    Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 20:41
  • @Peteris: Check out the band "Einstürzende Neubauten". Not banging on pots and pans, but on anything you find in a decent junkyard. I think it took them a few years to master it and create some impressive music.
    – gnasher729
    Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 20:46
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    As a violinist of a sort, what I'd like my instrument to not be able to do is make squeaking noises instead of playing an open E. But that's a fault in my technique, and I'm pretty sure I'd have to give up something else I can do with bowing technique in order to fix that annoyance. Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 8:27

Instruments are already easy to play. A piano could hardly be simpler, you push a key and it makes sound. You could teach an absolute beginner how to play jingle bells in around an hour. You need no understanding of how the piano works, no understanding of music either.

The thing is when you make something simpler people just get better at it. Its not difficult to play the piano but it is difficult to play as well as the pros since they have spent x years learning it. If you make something simpler the pros still spend x years learning it only their output improves.

This is why almost all skills take roughly the same amount of time (~10,000 hours) to learn. Not because they are all exactly the same difficulty but because that is the amount of time we have in our lives to learn a skill professionally.

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    Yeah. If our lives kept the same general pattern but lasted twice as long, we'd probably have a 20,000 hour rule :) Even if we develop teaching techniques that make X ten times as easy to learn, the guy with 1,000 hours of learning may master the virtuosos of old, but still be an amateur "today".
    – Luaan
    Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 9:59
  • Most skills take significantly less time time to learn, the 10,000 hours are usually what it takes to master in that if you put in 4 years (of 8 hours per day) or stretch that over way more years, you're likely ahead of 99,9% of the global population who didn't, hence officially mastered that craft.
    – haxor789
    Commented yesterday

I reject your premise. Lots of work is being done in this regard.

  1. The synthesizer. Now you can use a single interface to make any sound you want. Do you want to play guitar but you only know piano? MIDI keyboard->guitar sound library and hey presto. Don't play the piano either? Well, there are MIDI controllers in many forms. Some emulate classical instruments, but entirely new forms have also been invented. You can also set up a synthesizer to make more sounds when you hit one note, so you can accompany yourself.

  2. Don't want to learn to play? Well, you can build a song note-by-note in software.

  3. Making the learning process easier: Alternative notations have been invented. My 6 year-old nephew is learning to play using a color coding.

That said, music is complex. It involves several different skills at once:

  1. operating an instrument
  2. reading a new language (notes), which has some unavoidable complexity because of the number of variations you get. A new notation does not change the underlying complexity.
  3. keeping time, hand/eye coordination, doing several things at once
  • Yes virtual instruments that can be written in midi are improving all of the time. Some instruments it's hard to tell the difference anymore.
    – user61806
    Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 17:57
  • That Hob idea: works (in part) for piano - what other instrument? And somewhat like bad tab (which is exclusive to guitar) in that there's no timing guide. And - getting used to playing notes that look like crochets and minims. I'm sceptical. I remember ITA (a reading aid in UK in '60s) as a new teacher. It's now history. Kids had to re-learn it all after they could 'read' using ITA, actually making progress slower!
    – Tim
    Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 9:01
  • This is the answer. Classical instruments aren't any harder than non-classical instruments to master to the level of "proficiency", the proficiency comes from practicing music, not an instrument.
    – Beanluc
    Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 20:23

I note, that despite the progress of car technology the process of acquiring a driving license did not shorten noticably. The mechanics of handling a car or pressing the keys on an instrument is only a very small subset of what is required. A driver with a new license can hardly be considered an expert driver.

The other processes, like recognizing traffic signs or typical situations and the likely reactions by other drivers (reading scores with strange clefs and accidentals) can't really be neglected, and especially playing in ensembles (somewhat comparable to driving a car in Rome/Paris/... in the rush hour) requires cognitive processing and interactions which have to be learned step by step.

But even the mechanical part of playing an instrument has to be moved into the muscle memory, which is a slow process for many of us.

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    Indeed, it now takes longer than it used to in some countries to be able to drive (legally, safely). Despite all mod cons!
    – Tim
    Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 15:25
  • Hmmmph. As an employee of a company producing hardware & software for self-driving cars, I'm insulted (not really :-) ) Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 14:15

Learning to play is not really about overcoming technical obstacles. It's about learning to express yourself with an instrument.

Take for example the human voice. It's the most natural instrument we have ever used in music. Everyone knows how to use it, everyone does so every day. But still, how long does it take to become a proficient singer? Many years!

What do you learn when you become a singer? Mostly how to hear! Yes, you need to learn some techniques to get your vocal chords to produce the tones that you want. But until your ears tell you when you are a notch flat, you won't be able to hit any note.

Most instruments are like the human voice: It is plain simple to get a note out of a piano. But you need quite impressive circuitry in your brain to be able to play most of the literature. You don't learn to push the button, but you learn to coordinate the notes you are playing, to find the buttons blind, to know which finger to use for which button to be able to hit the next note/chord well, and, most importantly, to associate the sounds of the different chords/keys with a mental image of how they sound, allowing you to think of a sound and instinctively hit the right keys to produce that sound.

And I have not even mentioned putting expression into your music yet. There are many people who can produce correct notes from an instrument, but are unable to make music with it, to transport their feelings into the sound they produce.

That said, many instruments are already very near their respective optimum of ease of use: The piano can play any diatonic note at the push of a button. The tuning of a guitar is not just regular fourths, but rather includes one mayor third for the sole reason of making it easier to play chords. The electric guitar is so thin because it's easier to play that way (and it doesn't need a resonance body).

However, each instrument has its own kind of optimum. A violin with six strings would be much harder to play, and a guitar with only four strings would make much good music impossible to play. They are different instruments, and they call for different string counts.


The way I look at this is: instruments are designed for a wide expressive range and that makes them extremely sensitive and difficult to control!

I think the violin is the best example. The slightest movement of the bow produces a response. The smallest movement of the finger position changes pitch. It's super sensitive. That makes it very expressive... and very difficult to control.

...But why not try and make music easier to play, similar to how cars evolved over time to make it easier to drive?

I think you may be making the wrong comparison. People are developing collision avoidance systems for cars. That's like Auto-Tune for singers who can't sing. But if you are thinking of classical violin and virtuosity, it seem better to compare it to high speed F1 racing! If you want full control, you get full control and all the perils that come with it.

Easier to play instruments have been developed. In the case of string instruments there are the hurdy gurdy and autoharp as examples.

In the end it's about trade offs. If you constrain an instrument in terms of pitch and dynamics, it will be easier to control. If you want an instrument with a full range of pitch and dynamics, you need to learn how to control it.


They have been simplified. Much of that simplification happened in the late 1800s to mid 1900s. The Boehm system arrangement for flute and adapted to clarinets, saxophones, oboes, bassoons, etc., was a big simplification (and extension) of cross-fingering keyless instruments.

There are physical limits on instruments. Wind instruments produce sound by setting a column of air in motion. This column must be broken up into sections that are in tune to produce other notes. Stringed instruments, fretted or unfretted or bowed or plucked basically are just string attached at each end. The string can be shortened somehow. Not much simplification (keyed zithers are simpler but don't sound like other instruments.) Same for piano and harpsichord. One must always preserve the characteristics of the instruments.

  • Are there alternative musical instruments that solve this issue by generating every sound electronically? There are electronic pianos nowadays, but they seem to require the same skills as a classical piano, even though they don't need to generate any physical sounds at all. Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 4:19
  • @JonathanReezSupportsMonica Maybe you'd be interested in the jammer keyboard en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jammer_keyboard?wprov=sfla1 it produces all the sounds electronically and claims to have some advantages to the piano by spacing the notes based on larger intervals. There are also several other isometric keyboard layouts, like those found on the accordion, which try to simplify or improve on certain things.
    – awe lotta
    Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 4:34
  • One can record instruments (like Garritan and the like) and play them from any keyboard. However, the real-time things like moving a string with the finger to change the sound or intonation. Breath phrasing isn't that easy to mimic.
    – ttw
    Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 4:40
  • A small correction. The Boehm system never became popular on the bassoon.
    – ghellquist
    Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 5:42

Well, there are good answers that explain how various simplifications and improvements were already implemented in various instrument designs. That's true. Same goes for the notation, just look at the history of its evolution. I also want to agree and confirm that the mental abilities required to play music can only come as a result of a lot and a lot of practice.

But also I think you are interested in asking a different and a more exact and practical question:

Why are not the classical instruments made as much easier to play, as requiring only about a year or even less to master?

And I want to question your premise on this one.

A classical musical instrument is all about making a complex physical medium emit a particular characteristic sound in a very controlled manner. And the simple answer to why this cannot be simplified is because you can't avoid dealing with the particular physical configuration of materials that comprise the instrument.

There are hundreds of ways of plucking a guitar string, there are hundreds of ways of pressing and releasing piano keys, there are hundreds of ways of closing a pipe hole with a finger.. Every tiny detail of every movement of the hand contributes to exciting the physical medium into producing the particular sound with particular details. Every movement should be performed at its exact timing, lead by intuition, without additional time for consideration, and with connection to all other movements. Otherwise there will be no music.

Building your control over this to an extent suitable for playing music that can be enjoyed by other people requires a considerable amount of practice and training. Your hands, your brain, your ears, your posture, everything must be trained.

Physically, playing a classical musical instrument is a dance, and you probably won't question why dance is not being made simpler. Or shooting from a classical bow if you are familiar with that, or fighting with a sword, or learning kung-fu.. it's art.

Also, changing a guitar or a piano, would make it to be not a guitar or a piano anymore. They will sound and handle completely differently.

In your analogy with a car, I would note that playing music is more akin to professional driving like rally, drift, Formula-1 or similar kinds of it where a driver is expected to be able to control the car on an immensely vast spectrum of possible situations and to be able to have a working mental model, prediction and analysis of what is going on. Driving in these kinds of sports takes years and years to learn. Even the typical daily life car driving experience in most cases is about 5 years until the person becomes a seasoned driver.

Learning things through practice is just how life works. You are going to make a much better progress if you accept this and learn to enjoy the process.

I am not sure how electronics or touch screen technology can help with playing classical instruments or reading notation, but if you have any exact idea on this, I suggest asking a more direct question like "why methodology X is not used to simplify playing instrument Y in the way Z", so you could get a more direct answer.

That being said, there are tons of learning material available today for almost any instrument. For example you can find wonderful people on Youtube who share a lot of information, experience and spirit. As well as approaches to learning and understanding musical theory.

About musical theory and notation: from my personal experience I can say that they are already simple, it's just rules and a simple script that you need to learn. Reading notes does not take years to learn, it's more a question of about a couple of months at maximum for most people. I must also say that I know professional musicians who have trouble playing from the notesheet in real time, so that is possible too.

If you can think of an alternative and easier notation, please post a separate question about it and it can be discussed, maybe something interesting can come out of that.

Besides that, reading notes is easy, but being able to understand what they mean and how the musical piece works in terms of its inner structure and countless details, takes years to get into.

By the way, there are constant attempts to invent an alternative musical notation, for example take a look at https://www.hummingbirdnotation.com/

And there are attempts to take a fresh look on studying musical theory, for example take a look at https://www.hooktheory.com/

  • Shooting with a bow isn't a good example to make the point. Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 17:40
  • @leftaroundabout yeah, you are right, compound bows erode the example :D I know they are easy, but I don't exactly know how much body training they require though, since I only have experience with the usual bows.
    – noncom
    Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 23:03
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    +1 The comparison with F1/rally/drift is spot-on. Musical instruments don't evolve to be simpler partly because there is an underlying aesthetic that favours complexity (and velocity), and simple tools tend not to produce complex behaviour. Same with cars.
    – Kahovius
    Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 15:56

The reason it takes 10 years or more to learn to play an instrument has little to do with the physical skills required.

It is because it takes that length of time to learn to imagine the exact sound you want to produce (not just the elementary idea of "play middle C") and then to create precisely what you imagined.

The only way to shorten that process is to redesign human brains, not redesign musical instruments.

With current technology, it requires no physical skill whatever to create a performance that is indistinguishable from a virtuoso playing a conventional instrument. But the number of people with the imagination to do that, and the intellectual stamina to learn how to control the technology to make it possible, is comparable with the number of virtuosos who do it the traditional way.

Of course if you don't want to aspire to "virtuoso" level, things get easier. You might not realize that some of the muzak you hear in shopping malls and elevators was not even composed by humans, and certainly not performed by them. "Making music" doesn't get much "easier" than that, by any definition - just buy the software and press "start".

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    I like the second paragraph, but “requires no physical skill to create a performance that is indistinguishable from a virtuoso playing a conventional instrument” is dubious at best. Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 14:51
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    @leftaroundabout Try "record a virtuoso playing a conventional instrument and play it back". Nobody said you need to be creative or do something new :) In fact, even if you do require that, that's where "sampling" came from - record people playing instruments, mix and match, add effects here and there... a sampler can easily do things the greatest virtuoso couldn't ever do playing on a conventional instrument. The "playing a mechanical instrument" part is completely optional, except by a few extremists who keep telling everyone "it's not the same thing" (well, duh; so what?).
    – Luaan
    Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 9:57

Great instruments are made for great musicians. Great musicians want to have control of each corner of the instrument, hence making instruments complex.

If one desires to be a great musician, learning from a simplified instrument generally is considered waste of time, because you could be already learning to control the complex instrument since the learning start. Mastering an instrument can take a lifetime, then is important de avoid losing time...

Instruments and their manufacturing means are evolving. Topline pianos, for example, are even harder to play due to all details that it allows you, as a player, to control. Their under the hood mechanism are evolving to improve their quality in the minimal details to attend the evolution of the musical technique and improve what is already consolidated.

Now, in my opinion, instruments simplications either gives technical limitations, hence reducing artistic expressiveness range, or gives the player undesirable addictions.

And about music notation, if you are "just" performing, learning it should not take a lot of time. It's not that complex. I agree that some improvements could be made, but not big changes...


The car analogy is a little unfortunate. Most 'improvements' are focussed on safety - fewer bits and pieces to cope with makes it more effective for the driver to not kill anyone. Not many folk get killed by musicians! O.k. some get driven to kill themselves, after listening, but that's another story!

'Improvements' are being made. No need to tune up your guitar any more - and I'm not considering those little things we see on the ends of so many guitars - I'm thinking press a button, and it tunes itself!

Auto-tune comes along to aid vocalists who should but can't keep in tune.

Drum machines save us the trouble of keeping in time - and even put breaks in when we press the approriate button.

Keyboards can be made to accompany us, a little or a lot. Press one key, and the whole chord and rhythm comes out.

Plug just about anything into MIDI and there's a plethora of different sounds available - probably even more than that!

But at the end of the day, playing music is a skill and an art, so making it so that the dogs in the street can do it would be an improvement? Don't think so. We don't become great artists by painting by numbers - we strive - it's not for everyone, and many who do strive still don't achieve their dreams.

So, even when it's all automated and can be played by any old half-wit, will it still be music..?

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    Ah, the elitist argument: Making music should be difficult to keep out the riffraff. Not so long ago, before the advent of ubiquitous recorded music, people had to make music themselves if they wanted to hear any. So they'd get together and sing, with an instrument or two for accompaniment. Were they a match for the professionals entertaining the king? No. did they make music? Hell, yes. Lowering the barriers of entry into the world of making music is a good thing. Those with the skill and art will grow into the more difficult realms, those without still get to enjoy themselves at their level.
    – Hobbes
    Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 10:49
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    @Hobbes - sorry it came over that way! Throughout my career, I've played with both sides of the coin - some brilliant pros and some brilliant amateurs, and brilliant players who really didn't know what they were doing, but that never stopped the great music they played. Hard pushed to decide which of the better ones I prefer to play with. All have their plus points. Didn't realise my answer alluded to what you think.
    – Tim
    Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 10:56
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    @Tim it's mainly the phrase "making it so that the dogs in the street can do it would be an improvement? Don't think so" I tripped over.
    – Hobbes
    Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 12:39
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    "Auto-tune comes along to aid vocalists who should but can't keep in tune" - and totally trashes the sound of the human voice in the process. Imho, when you need an auto-tune to hit your notes, you are simply not ready to sing for a large audience. Commented Dec 1, 2019 at 23:14
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    @cmaster The trashing is intentional - auto-tune was intended to be used to help people who can't hold a note sing like people who can, but it was very quickly adapted to "improve" vocals in a very non-human direction (Cher again). It wasn't really even meant for audiences; heck, one of the points was exactly the music pundits that kept claiming their nonsense about there being no technological solution to something as complex as human voice. Everything after that is just moving the goalposts to keep "proving" they were right after all.
    – Luaan
    Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 9:53

For one thing instruments are improved all the time: that's why "period instrument performances" are a thing. For another, not all improvements regarding simplicity of play lead to results convincing the audience. For example, unfretted string instruments are notoriously hard to play in tune for unpracticed musicians. So there were a number of attempts using frets to make life easier for players. Viols are fretted, lutes were fretted. A simplified version of a lute that is quite easier to play and to keep in tune is the so-called "guitar" that has come into some prominence recently, with players like Segovia making this simplistic folklore instrument acceptable for some kinds of classic music environments.

Trying to turn viols into a more reliably working key instrument are known under the name of "hurdy gurdy". They haven't really made it out of the Renaissance except as an operative prop for pretend Middle Age performers.

Notoriously hard to play brass instruments not containing brass, namely cornetts, have been replaced by valved instruments made of, well, brass. Frankly, if you compare the sound quality of some leggiero runs on a cornett in the hand of an experienced player with that of a brass brass instrument, you wonder whether this change to better playability and louder volume is always beneficial.

Wind instruments like flutes and hautboys (and of course all kinds of brass instruments) have grown complex valve systems to replace more arduous fingering systems.

Even recorders have been simplified. Some instruments like ophicleides, saxophones and sousaphones have not attained their projected role in the classical orchestra permanently.

Calling a piano hard to play is a joke. You can perform a lot of polyphonic four-part harmony by just pressing straightforwardly arranged keys closely mimicking the notation. There are no wrong notes and no screeches or other things afflicting bowed string instruments. You don't need to invest any work for controlling tone or intonation. You don't need to retune your instrument every few hours or more often.

Yes, there are things like Chopin nocturnes that are hard to play. Their sole reason of existence is that a piano is a simple instrument to play compared to, say, a string quartet, and if people spend half of a life time practising a simple instrument to play, they will grow a repertoire that employs this simplicity by enabling more complex music.

You don't want to bore the audience with stuff they can hear everywhere, you don't want to bore the musicians spending their life with creating music.

The playability and simplicity instrument developments and progress deliver gets reinvested in more virtuosic and more complex play.

And worse: the ubiquitous availability of recordings and broadcasts mean that the competition by the ones having invested their life into music means that better performances are omnipresent. Living at the same time as great performers is not fun when the recordings of those performers are everywhere at the press of a button.

So while the playability of instruments and instrument families have grown a lot and keep to grow, being at the forefront of your generation with music still requires consistent dedication.


In classical music progress happens, using different material or construction techniques. A piano built today is different from one built in 1920s and piano makers have patented mechanical modification. On the other hand instruments can and will evolve morphing in other instruments, more capable and easier to play.

Musical notation evolved too, look a printed sheet music in the '700 or the Gregorian music sheets, compare them on one printed nowadays and see the differences.

The biggest problem to learn to play is understanding the music and learn to learn and to persevere.

About car analogy, it's true that car have become a bit easier to drive, you have synchromesh and ignition by key, with electronic injection you don't have to jet the carburettor and so on. But having to be aware of other cars, people and road conditions is remained the same, and that is the difficult skill.


it takes anywhere between 5 and 15 years to become proficient in one of the classical music instruments, making it a very difficult skill for most of us.

As a frame challenge, I reject the basic premise of the question. Your reason for asking it is not just wrong, but displays an entire thought pattern which is wrong. The rest of the question is therefore moot.

It is not a "difficult skill". Anyone with working ears and the relevant limbs can put in those 5 years and become proficient, literally anyone. If you picked any instrument at all and started playing it today, in 5 years you would be competent.

The "difficult skill" is not learning to play, it's learning to persevere. Of course you'll start out pretty bad, but if you keep working at it then you'll get better. The difficulty is not within the instrument, but within you.

For a similar example, consider running. There exist "couch to 5k" programs to get people into running. Generally it takes 3-6 months to get a non-exerciser fit enough to do a 5k run. The marathon is much harder, but training programs for that exist too. And coincidentally it often seems to take around 5 years of perseverance to be fit enough to do a marathon without injury too.

Will you be as good as some other people? Probably not. Even if you're an Olympic-gold-medal runner, someone is going to go faster than you eventually. But you didn't ask for best-in-the-world, you asked for competence - and that's within everyone's grasp.

Edit following a comment by @WayneConrad: The OP uses the word "proficient". But learning an instrument is not 5 to 15 years of nothing - this isn't Mr Miyagi's "wax on, wax off" method where you spend 5 years sweeping the floors and then by magic you discover you're "proficient". It's actually 5 to 15 years of getting steadily better day by day and month by month, where every step of the way from day one onwards involves you playing that instrument with gradually increasing proficiency. The only point in the process where you don't play the instrument is the point where, like the OP, you choose not to put in that time.

  • I agree very much that learning to persevere is the trick to becoming a musician; I gave you a +1 for that very important point. However, it seems to me that taking 5 to 15 years of perseverance to attain competence is the very definition of a difficult skill. Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 13:45
  • @WayneConrad It depends on your definition of "competence" or "proficiency". It doesn't take very long to learn the moves in chess. It takes a bit longer to learn the idea of looking ahead a bit. To be a good club player? Easily 5-15 years. :) But you can be playing to some recognisably-OK level, and enjoying playing, a long way before that. All instruments are the same - you won't be playing complicated stuff to start with, but you'll still be playing something.
    – Graham
    Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 15:35
  • I still agree with OP that learning to play an instrument is difficult, but I like the edit you've made: How good you sound is not a binary function of the time you've practice, for sure. I'm not sure it's linear either, but every year you practice, you do sound better than the year before. Commented Dec 2, 2019 at 16:08

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