What is the hardest instrument? This is a very common question! Especially for a non-musician, it’s hard to know all of the details that go into playing an instrument. It can therefore be a challenge to compare the difficulty levels of each instrument. And while it is certainly true that every instrument is difficult in its own way, many musicians will agree that violin takes the cake. But exactly why is the violin so difficult?
Well, a violinist employs many different techniques at once to produce a beautiful sound. While different, all of these techniques share one theme: there is very small room for error. Many aren’t aware of this fact. To the layperson, the violin seems so natural when played by a seasoned professional. But for a beginner, it is anything but!
Let’s explore each of these precision-demanding techniques in more depth.
Violin posture is awkward
It is easy to romanticize the violinist’s posture. Just imagine the scene of a girl playing violin, her hair blowing in the wind, her face seeming to lovingly caress the instrument itself. Truly, violinists can look quite elegant when they play. But if you really think about it, the way violinists hold the violin is actually very awkward!
Just look at the two pictures below. In the first, you see me from a typical viewing angle. Looks at least a bit lopsided, considering I’m holding the violin on my left shoulder. My head is also turned left, toward the violin, and my right arm comes over slightly to my left side to bow. Fairly lopsided, right? But then look at the second photo, taken of me from my left side. I’m playing on the violin’s lowest string, which requires my elbow to swing dramatically underneath the violin. I look a bit like a contortionist, don’t I? But such is simply the ideal posture for violin playing.
As you might guess, this posture does not always come naturally. Indeed, it can take a lot of time to learn to hold your violin in the proper way to create a beautiful tone and play effortlessly. And even when you do learn the proper form, long practice sessions can often cause pain and discomfort. It can be quite a journey to find a comfortable way to play the violin for long periods of time. Finding a proper shoulder rest and/or chin rest can be a crucial step in this process!
Violins don’t have frets
This is usually my go-to response when people ask what makes violin so difficult. In case you don’t know, frets are the raised metal lines that you find on the fingerboards of certain stringed instruments. Examples include guitars, electric basses, banjos, ukeleles, mandolins, etc. Frets make intonation easy. (Intonation basically just means how “in tune” you play.) On a fretted instrument, as long as you have your finger between the two frets for any given note, your intonation will be accurate. Essentially, this means that people who play fretted instruments don’t need to worry at all about intonation.
Then we have the violin. No frets. Zero. Just a plain black slate of a fingerboard. This means that when you play any note (other than an open string), your finger needs to be in exactly the right place. Otherwise, you sound out of tune. Further, violinists depend solely on their sense of musical pitch to guide the placement of their fingers. This means they need to have a fantastic ear to stand a chance at having the kind of tonal precision needed to play the instrument.
In fact, it’s not just beginners who need to work on this. Violinists never stop needing to improve their intonation. It’s something we always need to work on, in every piece of music we learn. It’s just so difficult to play perfectly in tune!
So, never underestimate the immense challenge of playing an unfretted instrument. This includes violas, cellos, and double basses. Even for people with a great musical ear, it takes many years of diligent practice to become consistent with good intonation on any such instrument.
Bowing is crazy difficult
This one honestly deserves an entire article of its own. I will be honest and admit I have no experience whatsoever with picking (the technique that is typically used for fretted stringed instruments, such as guitars). However, I can tell you that is substantially harder to learn to bow with a good tone on the violin than it is to simply strum a guitar nicely.
Those just starting out on the violin should not expect to make a solidly smooth and rich sound until they have been playing for years. Of course, proper instruction is so important (if you are interested in teaching yourself violin, this article might help you determine if you are a good candidate!). But even with the best teacher, it takes a long time to develop a good sound. The bow really must become an extension of your arm. You must become very relaxed and fluid in all of your movements, as well as precise.
Plus, there are so many variables when it comes to bowing! And a good tone requires a perfect mixing of all of those variables. For example, where you place the bow on the string affects the tone, but it also depends on the speed of your bow motion, the pressure you apply to the bow, which part of the bow you are using, and the angle of tilt of your bow (see below). A ton of refined precision (practice) is required to blend these different techniques seamlessly.
Of course, the difficulty of bowing is most obvious to beginners. But bowing technique is insanely challenging for all violinists, beginner to advanced! The more advanced you get, the more difficult the techniques become. Such tricky techniques include sautillé, ricochet, flying up-bow staccato, down-bow staccato, and more.
Classical violin repertoire is ridiculously hard
You might be wondering at this point why I haven’t mentioned the viola yet. Surely the viola is just as difficult as the violin, right? Well, yes and no. For the points mentioned so far? Yes, viola is certainly just as difficult as violin. You will have the same challenges with awkward posture, tricky bow technique, and playing in tune. In fact, viola posture can often be more difficult since violas are heavier and more cumbersome than violins! (For more on how violin and viola differ, check out this article!)
However, there is one compelling reason that violin is more difficult than viola. It’s simply because much more is expected of violinists. The pieces written for violin are notoriously difficult. In an orchestra, violas and violins have different parts to play. A grand majority of the time, the violin part will be much more challenging than the viola part. And there is no way the viola can outmatch the violin when it comes to the solo pieces written for each instrument. The violin’s standard repertoire includes such arduous works as Paganini’s 24 Caprices, major violin concertos like Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Brahms… the list goes on and on.
So, not only is violin difficult to learn to play, but the pieces in the violin’s repertoire are infamously difficult – sometimes borderline impossible – to learn. This fact truly sets the violin apart from the other bowed instruments.
I hope this has served to demonstrate the immense difficulty that playing the violin presents. Yes, violinists look very natural, but it’s only because we’ve been doing it for years! We need to constantly contend with awkward posture, the struggle for good bow technique and accurate intonation, plus the insanely difficult pieces that have been written for our instrument.
But please, if you’re thinking of learning the violin, don’t be discouraged! There are so many resources and teachers available to make learning easier. However, definitely know that you have your work cut out for you. Learning to play the violin is not for the unmotivated! It requires a lot of upfront effort to even play your first basic song. But the effort is totally worth it!
What do you think? Is violin the hardest instrument? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!