A child's first experience with music should be treated with careful thought. If they choose an instrument that they enjoy, learn from a teacher that inspires them, and get the support that they need from their family - this is a recipe for a lifelong love of music. Even if they switch instruments along the line or even take a break from music, that first experience can make or break the way they feel about music for a long time.
I have heard so many adults (usually the parents of my piano students) say that they regret quitting lessons when they were young. The stories usually involve a "mean" teacher or some sort of experience that left them feeling like they didn't have the talent. Nothing makes me sadder than hearing about someone who missed a lifetime of music just because of one experience.
Although this list is geared toward the young beginner, I hope it can inspire a few adults to learn an instrument too - whether it's for the first time, or after a long hiatus. To be honest, every instrument is the perfect instrument for someone that really loves the instrument. That being said, most music teachers agree on these four instruments as the best starter instruments for the young beginner...
As a music theory nerd, the piano is my personal recommendation. The piano is laid out in a way that helps students understand music theory from the get-go. It's a perfect diagram of music as a whole. Unlike most instruments, the sharp and flat notes are a different color. It seems like a simple concept, but when you think about a string, wind, or brass instrument, having a color-coded system suddenly seems like a luxury. Starting on piano usually yields students who really deeply understand music theory. Because of this, when a student starts with piano, they can easily transfer their knowledge onto another instrument without feeling like they are starting from scratch.
The piano also has the benefit of a built-in tone. Whether a cat walks across the keys or a virtuoso plays a concerto, the tone is technically the same - it's just buttons! In comparison, with an instrument like violin or trumpet, it can take a year to get a good tone, and with some instruments, it's hard for younger students to even make a sound at all.
If you happen to have a piano at home, this is also a good reason to start with piano. This takes out the hassle of renting or buying an instrument before you're sure your child will enjoy it. In the same vein, all the grandparents I know have a piano, so if that's the case, the kids won't have to schlepp to their monthly gig showing off for grandma and grandpa.
*For later beginners, the piano is also a great choice. The piano is a very stylistically versatile instrument. Whether you want to become a classical virtuoso, accompany yourself on some old James Taylor songs, or join a salsa band, the piano is there for you. Late beginners are often interested in learning an instrument that they can play their favorite songs on or use to accompany sing-alongs at parties. For older beginners, I often find myself teaching the student chord changes instead of written notes, and letting them play through the lead sheets of all their old favorites.
I won't go on and on about the many reasons you should learn to play the ukulele. There are endless reasons, but as far as being a great instrument for beginners, there are a few main points that stand out...
Like the piano, the ukulele is an easy instrument to get a good tone out of without a year of practice under your belt. The soft nylon strings are easy for a young student (or really any student) to press down, making it less painful on little fingers, and much easier to get a full chord sound.
There are only 4 strings (as opposed to 6 on the guitar) and the notes of the open strings are tuned in such a way that the chords are much simpler shapes than a guitar.
In this example, you can see what a C major chord looks like on the guitar vs. ukulele. The example on the left requires the guitar player to press three fingers down while muting a 4th string. On the right, you see the same chord on the ukulele - one finger only! In the guitar example, the shape requires the guitarist's hand to contort into a shape that is not very doable for small hands. And this isn't even close to the most difficult chord for guitar.
*In defense of the guitar: if you find the right guitar size for your child, and choose a guitar with nylon strings, the experience can be a little less painful than I've made it sound. But there is really no way of getting around those chord shapes!
One of the cutest perks of the ukulele: since the ukulele is a chord-based instrument, it encourages singing. Students learning ukulele are likely to be accompanying themselves. If you can make that happen, not only is it cute, but it also teaches them coordination, rhythmic independence, and a whole new level of confidence. They will also gain a skill that will make them very popular at campfires!
There's something magical about the violin. Despite the fact that it requires quite a bit of dexterity, fine motor skills, and focus, the violin tends to be a surprisingly good choice, and definitely one of the best instruments for the young beginner.
Because it's such a hands-on instrument, violin lessons don't give much wiggle room (literally) to the student. With their left-hand fingers very carefully placed on the strings and their right hand holding the bow in a very specific way, the student is too pre-occupied to get distracted or bored.
Learning the violin teaches the student a lot about patience and precision. In addition, any string instrument requires a very fine-tuned ear. Unlike the piano, string instruments are tuned by minuscule adjustments of the fingers, which trains students to listen very carefully for notes that are out of tune. If they stick with the instrument, violin players end up with very "good ears."
Another benefit of the violin, along with the other string instruments - (viola, cello, and bass), is that many school districts have a great string program. If your child's school offers orchestra at an elementary level, that's an opportunity to not miss. These string programs usually utilize the Suzuki method, which is a music curriculum and teaching philosophy created by a Japanese violinist named Shinichi Suzuki. The method is designed to mirror the experience of learning a native language, and so is heavily geared towards students learning "by ear." If you're lucky, and you have access to this type of program, your child could get a really solid start in music in a supportive community setting that fosters teamwork and patience.
If your child is going to start violin lessons, you have to be diligent about finding the right size instrument for them. This goes for the other string instruments as well. The availability of different sizes is one of the reasons that starting an orchestra instrument so young is possible.
Kids are always growing, so a great way to keep your child on an appropriately sized instrument is to rent instead of buy. If there is a string or orchestra program at your child's school, you might be able to rent or loan an instrument from the school. If that's not an option, most instrument shops rent out instruments, and many even offer a rent-to-own program so that your money is going toward eventually buying an instrument.
The recorder is not always taken seriously. It's that plastic instrument that you learn in 4th grade, and then find lying around your house 10 years later under a stack of books. Well, it doesn't have to be that way. They aren't super common but professional recorder players do exist. When I was in (music) college, I met a girl who was an amazing recorder player. That was her principal instrument, which I didn't even know was an option. I remember her using her knee to cover up the hole on the bottom of the recorder to get a really high note. She was the epitome of cool.
Like ukulele, one of the benefits of playing the recorder is that it's small, portable, and in many cases - indestructible. There's a reason they teach recorder in elementary school. Besides the fact that the cheaper models can be thrown in backpacks with absolutely no ramifications, learning the recorder is a great way for a student to focus on reading notes. The range is only an octave plus a few notes, depending on how advanced the student is. The simplicity makes learning to read music very achievable as opposed to an instrument like the cello which can be overwhelming for a student. The nature of the instrument also helps the learning process because every note has a different sensory experience. Of course this is true for any instrument, but with a recorder, the student can slowly learn each note on a few levels - the way the written note looks, the way the hand feels, and the way it sounds... not to mention the difficulty of the note (some notes are harder to produce on the recorder, so despite the frustration that might bring, it's yet another association to aid in the learning process). Since many elementary general music classes have a recorder unit, there is plenty of support for a student wanting to learn the recorder. These days, a lot of elementary music programs even use fun educational tools during their recorder units, like "recorder karate" where the student earns different "belts" - usually in the form of different colors of yarn, which makes the learning experience fun and colorful. Not to mention that the whole class is involved, so the support system is there if the student is not going to be studying with a private teacher.
Learning to play the recorder is also an easy way to get started on the road to playing a wind instrument or brass instrument without the huge learning curve. This is helpful considering the fact that the best age to start music lessons for such instruments is usually 10 or older.
A quick note on early beginners - it's important to really listen and understand where your child is at before pushing them too hard into learning an instrument. Every child is different and every instrument is different, so before you rent that instrument, you've got some questions to ask yourself. is your child ready for music lessons? And if so, have you chosen the right age to start music lessons for the instrument you have chosen? Who's idea was this, and is your child excited or resisting? If you start your child on an instrument, and it seems like they are too young or really clashing with it, maybe you should consider pressing pause until they get a little older. Sometimes even just a couple months will do the trick. The good music schools out there should understand and let you postpone your start date if you have such a revelation (make sure you check first though, I have come across a lot of schools that require signing up for an entire semester, which can get a little tricky).
Learning your first instrument is an incredible experience no matter what instrument you choose, so this is by no means an attempt to discourage. If anything, just remember that a starter instrument does not have to be the forever instrument. Learning an instrument is like learning a language that way - every language you learn becomes easier than the last. The ultimate goal is to learn music. But if you're short on inspiration, and your child doesn't have a bee in their bonnet about a specific instrument, and you are on the fence about instrument choice, these four instruments are our pick for the best instruments for the young beginner!