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The most popular musical instruments

Picture of a grand piano
Grand piano

According to a 2003 survey by Gallup, 54 percent of households have at least one member who plays a musical instrument.  What are the most popular musical instruments based on cost, versatility, ease of playing, and, well, just popularity among people who want to learn to play an instrument?  The top three are perennial favorites worldwide:

Number 1:  Piano.  Although sales of new pianos has declined sharply in recent decades, it remains the most popular instrument to learn to play.  About 21 million Americans play the piano, and it was estimated that in 2015, more than 40 million Chinese children were learning to play piano.  Beethoven began playing the piano at age 4, and it is said that his father, Johann, would beat him and throw him into the cellar of their home if Beethoven made an error.  The average piano has around 10,000 moving parts.

Picture of a guitar and a violin
Guitar and violin

Number 2:  Guitar.  According to the BBC, about 50 million people in the world play the guitar.  A 1997 survey by Gallup found that there were more than 16 million guitar players in the U.S.  The best guitarists ever?  There are many opinions on this, but among the top guitarists mentioned on most lists are Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eddie Van Halen, Eric Clapton, Slash, and Stevie Ray Vaughn.  We would add Ry Cooder to the list.  And Carlos Santana.  And Paco de Lucia and Andres Segovia, if we’re including Spanish guitarists, which we should.  The list goes on.  Interestingly, the popularity of the traditional six-string guitar is waning while the popularity of the four-string ukulele grows.  The uke has established itself in schools and aspiring musicians in many local communities because of its sweet sound and ease in learning to play.

Number 3:  Violin.  People have been playing the violin since the early 1600’s, and it’s estimated that today about a million people worldwide play this instrument.  Universally considered the finest violins are those made by Italian Antonio Stradivari in the  There are about 650 Stradivarius violins in the world, although the most expensive violin was made in 1741 by Giuseppe Guaneri and is appraised at $18 million.  Among the most famous violinists were Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Antonio Vivaldi.  Fun fact:  The world record for cycling backwards while playing a violin is 60.45 kilometers in 5 hours and 8 seconds.

Number 4:  Drums.  Drumming has been around since the dawn of humankind.  The first drums were made of animal skins stretched over logs or thick branches and were often used to communicate between villages and among hunters.  The first drum kits emerged in the 1700s, but most innovations in drum kits took place in the 20th Century.  Drumming is a good way to get your aerobic exercises.  When you’re drumming, you burn more calories than bicycling, hiking, or weightlifting.  And, some would argue, it’s more

Picture of an alto saxophone
Alto Saxophone


Number 5:  Saxophone.  About 350,000 people around the world play the saxophone, which looks like a brass instrument but is actually a woodwind because of the way it produces sound (with a reed).  The instrument was invented by Adolphe Sax in 1846.  There are eight variants of the saxophone:  sopranino (highest in pitch), soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, bass, contrabass, and sub-contrabass (lowest in pitch).  The most popular sax’s are the alto and tenor.  Why is this instrument so popular?  It has a sexy, mellow sound suited to jazz and blues; it looks hip; it’s capable of a broad range of sounds—from smooth to raunchy; and the people who play it are very cool.  (Confession:  I play an alto.)

Number 6:  Flute.   Worldwide, around 35 million people play the flute or one of the many variations of it:  piccolo, glass flute, bamboo flute, Irish flute, recorder, and empty Coke bottle.  The flute is one of the earliest instruments invented, no doubt by some ancient humanoid blowing into a hollow reed with holes in it.  Variations of the flute have appeared in all cultures and all ages.  Famous flute players include George Washington, John Quincy Adams, James Madison, and Leonardo da Vinci.   Despite the fact that modern flutes are made of metal and don’t have reeds, they are considered woodwinds, not brass instruments.

Number 7:  Cello.  The actual name of this instrument is violoncello.  It’s one of the most difficult instruments to master, but it’s popular because of its soulful sound and role in orchestras and string quartets.  The violoncello was invented in the early 1500’s and became popular during the Baroque period through the music of such classical luminaries as Bach, Brahms, Haydn, and Schumann.

Number 8:  Clarinet.  This woodwind instrument was invented in the late 17th century by Johann Denner in Germany.  Sometimes called “licorice sticks,” clarinets were the last instruments added to modern symphony orchestras.  Mozart was the first major composer to write specifically for the clarinet.  Its popularity is based partly on its convenience (easy to carry and easy to learn).  Celebrity clarinetists include Benny Goodman, Julia Roberts, Woody Allen, Jimmy Kimmel, Steven Spielberg, and Alan Greenspan.  The melody in Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” was originally played on an alto saxophone, but it is most commonly played on a clarinet.

Picture of a trumpet

Number 9:  Trumpet.  Like the flute and the clarinet, this instrument is small, easy to carry, and relatively easy for beginners to learn to play.  Around 5 million people globally play the trumpet, many of them in marching bands.  Trumpets have been around for about 5,000 years and were used in ancient times as signaling devices.  Famous trumpet players include Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Wynton Marsalis, Chet Baker, Maynard Ferguson, Harry James, and, of course, Louis Armstrong.

Number 10:  Harp.  The harp is also an ancient instrument, having been around since early Egypt and Mesopotamia.  Since it’s such a bulky, heavy, and expensive instrument, it seems odd that it’s more popular to play than the accordion, trombone, French horn, tuba (lots of marching bands have these—and few marching bands include harps), and even bagpipes.  Famous harp players include Loreena McKennitt, Jon Anderson (with the rock band Yes), King David, and, of course, Harpo Marx.

What makes an instrument popular?  Popularity is a combination of cost, availability, ease of learning, flexibility in playing styles and uses, and practicality.  For instance, a guitar is relatively inexpensive, readily available, easy to learn, can play many types of music, and can be played alone or in a group.


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