The Best Instruments to Learn Based On Age

Learning to play an instrument has many benefits for children of all ages, but make sure that you choose one that fits their age and ability.

Learning to play an instrument has many benefits for children of all ages, but make sure that you choose one that fits their age and ability.

As we’ve shared in previous blog posts, music is fantastic therapy for children and teens when they’re hospitalized. There are also many benefits to actually learning how to play a musical instrument as a child – whether hospitalized or not; but how do you know which one is the best fit for your child’s age and abilities? In hospitals with music therapy programs like the ones we support, a music therapist can help find a good fit for your child, taking into account interests and physical abilities. Still, if you want to know more about why they may recommend one instrument over another, you’re in luck! By the end of the article you will have a better idea of variables to consider when selecting musical instruments for the children in your life.

10 Reasons to Learn to Play an Instrument

Before we dive into best instruments based on age and skill, let’s refresh on why you should encourage your child to learn an instrument and create music. In addition to the specific advantages of music therapy, here are 10 reasons why children benefit from learning to play an instrument.

  1. Increases Memory Skills

Learning an instrument teaches children to create, store and retrieve memories more effectively. This video from TED-ED explains how playing an instrument is like a complete workout for the brain.

  1. Teaches Perseverance and Creates a Sense of Achievement

Learning to play an instrument takes a lot of time and patience. During music lessons, a teacher or music therapist will set goals. As the child reaches their goals, they will feel a sense of achievement and pride.

  1. Improves Coordination

Playing an instrument requires the brain to work at advanced speeds, converting visual information into physical movement. Because of this, children who play instruments have improved hand-eye coordination over those who do not.

  1. Improves Math Skills

Music and math are highly intertwined. By understanding beat, rhythm and scales, children are learning how to divide, create fractions and recognize patterns.

  1. Improves Reading and Comprehension Skills
Playing an instrument improves a child's reading and comprehension skills both in and out of the classroom.

Playing an instrument improves a child’s reading and comprehension skills both in and out of the classroom.

Learning and playing music requires constant reading and understanding of how the notes on the page correlate with movements on the instrument. Through special symbols and markings they also need to identify the volume the note should be played, if it should be short and crisp or smooth and connected to the next note.  This ability to read and understand the meaning of the notes can also be seen in literature classes.

  1. Creates Responsibility

Most instruments require some kind of maintenance or upkeep. Encouraging children to stay on top of regular instrument maintenance creates a higher level of responsibility for them.

  1. Exposes the Student to Culture and History

Music theory has a deep history and is often taught as part of musical instruction because music is a reflection of the culture and era it was composed in. Understanding the origins of musical styles gives children a deeper appreciation for what they are playing and they may become more attached to it.

  1. Self-Expression

Children learning to play an instrument are able to find themselves and express their feelings through music they create, which is especially important for children and teens during hospital stays.

  1. Improves Listening Skills

Playing an instrument requires children listen carefully to an array of different things. They not only need to listen to instructions from their teacher or therapist, they need to listen for rhythm, pitch and speed. This ability to concentrate and to listen is a valuable life skill.

  1. Improves Social Skills

Music lessons can be done either one-on-one or in group settings. When engaged in a group setting, this requires children and teens to work together to collaborate on a specific sound or song. Interacting with other kids will give them an opportunity to socialize and work together towards a shared goal.

Best Musical Instruments by Age Group

With all the benefits of learning to play a musical instrument, you may want to run out and buy your child a guitar. Before you rush to your car, however, take a minute to read the best options based on your child’s age. One thing to keep in mind with any age is that playing an instrument should be fun, stimulating and engage your child.

Toddlers and Preschoolers

Starting as young as 3, children can begin learning about instruments. The key with this age is keeping it fun!

Starting as young as 3, children can begin learning about instruments. The key with this age is keeping it fun!

This age group is all about fun and exploration with sound; everything else will come secondary to this. When considering musical options, think about your child’s personal skills and abilities. If you don’t feel they are ready for an instrument or if they don’t seem to be enjoying themselves, wait and revisit the idea at a later time.  If your child is ready to have some musical fun, here are a few instruments that may fit their personality.

  • Percussion: Percussion instruments include drums, tambourines, xylophones and rattles; even the body can be included as part of this group. Percussion instruments are important pieces of ensembles as they help keep the time and the beat of the group. These instruments are great for younger children because they are easy for smaller hands to manipulate and handle, while also teaching them coordination and how to keep the rhythm and beat.
  • Violin: This may not be your first thought for a preschooler, but the smaller size is manageable for younger children’s hand size and helps teach the basics in tone and pitch. The use of a bow also helps teach children coordination
  • Piano: The piano and keyboard have some of the same benefits as the violin. They aid in teaching a child how to listen for the tone and pitch of the notes, but if you don’t think your child can coordinate using a bow with the violin, the piano may be the better option with the ability for the child to “peck” at the keys to play the notes. This a great instrument that can grow with your child as their skills and interests grow.

Early Elementary

As with the toddlers and preschoolers, the lessons for children in the kindergarten through 3rd grade age range should be more about fun than formality. The children in this grouping would do well learning the above instruments in a bit more of a formal manner, and their bigger body size and improved ability to follow direction opens them to a few more options as well.

  • Recorder: This is a great introductory wind instrument. It requires coordination between breathing, mouth and finger placement to create notes, but is easier than other wind instruments as it has fewer holes to focus on. It’s also a very cost-effective way to give your child an introduction to wind instruments.
  • Viola: While this instrument is strikingly similar to the violin, it is a bit bigger in size. The basic concepts apply to the viola as the violin, but the tones of the viola are deeper.
  • Cello: Part of the string family, this instrument also uses a bow and finger positions to create notes. The instrument is positioned in front of the child to play. Since it is a larger instrument, your child will need assistance transporting it and possibly setting it up.

Later Elementary and Beyond

Starting around 4-5th grade, children should have the strength and capacity to learn most instruments. But, there is more to consider when choosing the perfect instrumental fit, from the child’s personal musical preferences, their body size, special health issues and their musical aptitude. These are all factors a music therapist considers, but as parents it’s good for you to be aware, too. Some popular instruments most children are able to learn and play well at this age are:

  • Guitar: Guitars are versatile and come in many forms, from acoustic to electric. They’re fretted instruments, which require more strength for note clarity.
  • Clarinet: This woodwind is a great option for most children. The biggest thing to consider with this instrument is if the child is able to cover all the necessary holes to create the notes while playing.
  • Flute: Like the clarinet, the child should have big enough hands with long enough fingers to cover all the holes in the instrument in order to create the notes. Another consideration with this instrument is the child’s ability to keep their hands and arms in a lifted position for an extended period of time.
  • Trumpet: A wonderful beginning brass instrument, the trumpet features three buttons that the child manipulates to create notes along with their lip/jaw/mouth position. As with the flute, a trumpeter needs to be able to hold the instrument in a lifted position for extended periods of time while they are playing, so it is important that your child has the strength and ability to do this.

While this is not a full list of instruments available, it should give you a better idea of the skill and maturity needed for each level of instrument. One final piece of advice is to remember to encourage your child to have fun while playing their instrument of choice, and be supportive of their journey, even when it may sound more like noise than music.

If you’d like to know more about how music is making a positive difference for hospitalized children and teens, please visit our Music Therapy page or follow us on Facebook. Be sure to let us know if you’d like to get involved with the Peterson Family Foundation’s efforts to expand music therapy programs across the country and internationally, too!

About the Peterson Family Foundation

The Peterson Family Foundation was founded in 2003 to enhance, restore and improve the quality of life for all human beings. Our primary mission is to seek out and support experts and institutions dedicated to enhancing and improving the lives of people dealing with illnesses requiring a stay at a medical institution by bringing music therapy to as many hospitals as possible. Learn more at our website or share your story with us.