Specific Instruments: Part I

by Jeremy Brock

In an earlier post I implied that learning to play a specific instrument is secondary to the goal of learning to play music. That’s very much what I believe, but on the practical level anyone who wants to learn music will need to choose an instrument to start with. With that in mind, here are some relatively brief remarks on three instruments that are among the most popular for the purpose, plus one that I think should be more popular than it is.

Yes, this list is short, and deliberately so. Some future posts will present additional (and occasionally rather oddball) alternatives. The ones mentioned here made the initial cut because (a) any of them can play more than one note at a time; (b) I have experience with them, and (c) All of them come in acoustic versions requiring no electricity, orgone, forsaken children, or any other external power source. (An ever-increasing variety of electric models are available, of course. Still, I favor acoustic instruments for most beginning students, for reasons that would constitute a major topical tangent.)

By the way, I haven’t arranged these in any particular order of desirability. Prospective musicians’ living arrangements, travel patterns, personal preferences, et cetera ad nauseam vary widely and change often.

A final caveat: I present these remarks with the adult or semi-adult novice in mind. Pre-teens introduce a few additional considerations.

And fair warning: Future posts may discuss each of these instruments in much greater depth.

With all that out of the way, then:

The guitar is well into its second century as the clear favorite, for many good reasons. Its range in terms of pitch meshes well with human voices from bass to soprano. The piano covers a much wider pitch range, but the guitar is arguably more versatile in the variety of timbres1 available to it. Although most standard-size guitars won’t fit in the overhead bin of a Boeing 737, and thus don’t quite meet my personal standards of portability, they’re still a lot more portable than pianos (which might not even fit in the luggage compartment and really shouldn’t be put there even when they will. Especially if you’re flying United. They break guitars, after all; I don’t even want to think about the havoc they’d wreak on a piano.) Guitar is the primary instrument in many genres of popular–and indeed not-so-popular–music, thus appealing instantly to semi-social nerds in search of charisma generators. <points back at self with 3 fingers>

Not much can be said about piano that hasn’t been said over and over for the past three centuries or so. It’s one of the canonical instruments for general musical instruction, with an insanely broad pitch range and the ability to adapt to almost any genre of music. Portability is obviously a major issue, with a couple of almost-as-obvious coping strategies: (1) When traveling, try to stay, as much as possible, in places where a piano is available; or (2) Get a cheap-ish electronic keyboard, with built-in speakers, to travel with.

Then there’s violin. Oh boy, is there ever. It’s been around even longer than the piano. Look, I’m biased here: This is currently my primary instrument. It really helps, though, that I’d been playing quite a few other instruments for 40+ years before picking up the violin seriously. It’s technically demanding, remarkably unforgiving, and difficult (most classical musicians would say ‘impossible’) to learn well without some kind of formal instruction. We’re talking about a major challenge for anyone who approaches it without having any prior background in music. For those who stick with it, though, the payoff can be amazing. The violin is often called ‘the world’s most versatile instrument’. It has, demonstrably, the most expressive range of timbres in the acoutstic world. Dark, bright, mellow, brassy, dry, lush, ringing clarity, grating distortion: In the hands of a skilled enough player the violin can do it all. As far as I’m concerned, the only non-electronic instrument that really rivals it is the human voice. As with piano and guitar, the violin shows up in virtually every genre of music.

As long as I’m indulging my biases, I’ll put in a plug for the mandolin. This little Mediterranean noisemaker, which came on the scene in about the same era as the violin family, is my own secondary instrument these days, getting almost equal time with the violin. The mandolin is tuned just like the violin, except that instead of having four strings it has eight, tuned in unison pairs: GG-DD-AA-EE. It uses the same fingering patterns as the violin but is much more forgiving. (Being played with a pick rather than a bow really helps.) Thus, in addition to its own merits, it’s a good ‘gateway’ instrument for people who think they might like to try violin someday but are understandably intimidated by that instrument’s technical demands. Also like the violin, the mandolin fits easily in the overhead compartment of a Boeing 737, which is my standard of portability. Although its presence in mainstream rock music is limited, it’s widely used in most genres of folk music, shows up fairly often in some styles of jazz, and has a surprisingly broad classical repertoire. It deserves to be taken more seriously.

So here we are, for the time being. There’s more to come.



(1) Timbre is a somewhat technical term but a hard one to avoid when dicussing the tonal qualities of musical instruments, so here’s an explanation straight outta Wikipedia:

…also known as tone color or tone quality from psychoacoustics, [timbre] is the quality of a musical note or sound or tone that distinguishes different types of sound production, such as voices and musical instruments, string instruments, wind instruments, and percussion instruments … In simple terms, timbre is what makes a particular musical sound different from another, even when they have the same pitch and loudness.

There are lots of links in the original, of course, so I recommend at least skimming it.