Choosing an Instrument?

Many parents aren’t sure which instrument their child should play or when they should start learning. Fortunately, there are many instrumental music teachers across Australia that can advise you on these decisions and some schools provide an opportunity for primary school students to try different instruments. This guide is intended to complement any advice you might get locally, and explain some of the factors to consider when deciding which instrument to choose and when.

Factors to Consider

Mixed Instruments-Corporate-IllustrationThere are good reasons for introducing instruments at different age levels, including cognitive development, muscle development, dental (eg. Brass instruments), size (eg. Double Bass), coordination (eg. Percussion), and suitability for lessons and ensembles. Here is a guide with approximate age groups and suitable instruments. In some cases children may be suitable for these instruments earlier or later, please check with an instrumental music teacher for more information.

The size of the instrument is an important consideration for younger children. Some instruments come in smaller sizes (eg. guitar, violin, cello), some have modifications (eg. Flute with curved head piece for smaller children), some have a smaller instrument which may progress to a larger one (eg. Saxophones) and others are simply best to wait until the child is bigger. Check with a teacher before purchasing an instrument for a child under 12, particularly for string instruments which come in different sizes.

Some children will begin an additional, similar instrument or switch to a similar instrument (such as a Clarinet/Saxophone, Violin/Viola) based on personal interest or the instruments required to balance an ensemble! Others will switch to a completely different instrument (eg. Trumpet to Electric Guitar) based on similar reasons, particularly their own personal interests. There are many transferable skills and many musically active young people find that they enjoy and are good at an instrument other than the one they started with.

Many parents ask their child to commit to 2 years of learning one instrument before allowing a change of instrument. Between 12 and 24 months of learning one instrument, there is often a tricky lull of interest that needs to be navigated. Rewards charts, ensemble participation and playing CDs / YouTube clips of the instrument may help.

If a child is really passionate about an instrument, it is a good indication that they want to learn it. Some parents take children to an orchestral concert, and let them choose an instrument to learn. Some music schools allow children to try a range of instruments to see which instruments are best suited to each child.

Quick Guide

Under 4

Generally children do not start on any particular instrument at such a young age, but may be involved in age-appropriate group music activities.

4-6 year olds

Individual instruments: Violin and Piano

Sizes: check with Violin teacher re. size of violin

Groups: Classroom/group singing and appropriate percussion (eg. Orff instruments)

Year 2

Individual Instruments: Violin, Cello, Piano, Flute, Clarinet, Recorder, Guitar, Ukulele

Groups: Classroom/group singing and appropriate percussion (eg. Orff instruments), Ukulele and Recorder groups are suitable for this age group.

Year 3 – 4

Individual Instruments: Year 3 is a good starting age for ‘band instruments’, ie. Woodwind, Brass and band Percussion. At this age, Flute, Clarinet, Alto Saxophone, Trumpet, Trombone, Euphonium, French Horn and Percussion can be taught. Violin, Cello and Piano, Ukulele are also appropriate, as above.

Groups: Classroom/group singing and appropriate percussion (eg. Orff instruments), Ukulele and Recorder groups are suitable for this age group.

Year 5 – 6

At this age, some additional instruments become more suitable as children get bigger. For example, Tuba (larger than a Euphonium), Tenor and Baritone Saxophone (larger than an Alto Saxophone). All of the main instruments in the string family can played by children at this age, although Double Bass may only be suitable for taller children.

Instruments: Violin, Cello, Viola, Double Bass (tall students), Flute, Clarinet, Saxophone (Alto, Tenor, Baritone), Oboe, Bassoon (tall students), Trumpet, French Horn, Trombone, Euphonium, Tuba, Percussion, Guitar, Bass Guitar

Groups: Classroom/group singing and appropriate percussion (eg. Orff instruments), Ukulele and Recorder groups are suitable for this age group.

Secondary School

Any instrument.

Instrument Choices:


Piano is a great first instrument, teaching a child to use their eyes and ears and recognise patters. After learning piano for 2 years, children often start a second instrument with a flying start. For 4-8 year olds, group keyboard lessons are common. Some teachers find that technical progress is slower but motivation can be greater. Keyboard/Piano can be taught in a group environment to any age group, obviously with some limitations compared to individual tuition.

Ensembles: Pianists are rarely required in instrumental ensembles. Pianists might play percussion in ensembles, or learn a second instrument (string, wind or brass).


Violin is one of the classic instrument choices for young children, along with Piano. Other instruments become more suitable as children grow, partly due the size of the other instruments (Viola, Cello, Double Bass). These instruments are sometimes taught in groups to younger students but generally involve private tuition. It is possible for young school-aged children to learn guitar. Bass guitar is suitable for students from year 3 onwards. All of these instruments come in different sizes (1/2, 3/4, etc) appropriate to different children.


  • Guitar is used in guitar ensembles, jazz ensembles, rock bands and so on but generally isn’t found in a concert band or orchestra, and these ensembles are more common in Secondary School.
  • Bass guitar is used in the same ensembles as guitar, with the addition of concert band which is more common in Primary School.
  • Bowed string instruments (Violin, Viola, Cello, Double Bass) are used in string ensembles and orchestras but not in concert bands.

The Ukulele looks like a small guitar but is (traditionally) tuned differently and has only four strings. It is becoming more popular in schools and among adults because it is small, affordable and relatively easy to learn. Ukuleles can be played in groups but generally aren’t found in the school ensembles mentioned above.


The common instruments in the woodwind family are used in orchestras, concert bands, brass bands, jazz bands and other instrumental ensembles. In a primary school band program the most popular instruments are Flute, Clarinet, Alto and Tenor saxophones, followed by Baritone Saxophone, Oboe and Bassoon which are less common but also appropriate for older Primary School-aged students.

There are four common instruments in the saxophone family (highest to lowest pitch): Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Baritone. Typically students will start on Alto or Tenor but may add another saxophone in secondary school. Baritone saxophones are bigger and more expensive, students will often begin by trying an instrument owned by the school.

Recorders are still a popular classroom instrument and come in a range of sizes. Some students will continue to play recorder with individual lessons and/or play in a recorder ensemble.

Many woodwind instruments share similar fingering and technique so it is possible to switch between instruments, for example from Clarinet to Saxophone. There are a number of less common woodwind instruments (Piccolo, Cor Anglais, Bass Clarinet, Contrabassoon) which are generally taken as an additional instrument at the suggestion of an instrumental or ensemble teacher.

Ensembles: All of the woodwind instruments listed above are used in concert bands and orchestras, other than saxophones not being standard orchestral instruments and recorders not being standard instruments in either. Some school groups will accommodate saxophones in an orchestra. There are a range of other ensemble options, such as flute groups, saxophone quartets and so on.


The common instruments in the brass family are used in orchestras, concert bands, brass bands, jazz bands and other instrumental ensembles. The main instruments in the brass family (Trumpet, Trombone, French Horn, Euphonium, Tuba) can be taught from year 3 onwards, other than Tuba being more suitable to older (year 5-6) students due to its size. Trombones have a physical limitation because some notes are difficult to reach for children with shorter arms, but teaching methods and repertoire are able to work around this.

Trumpet and Trombone are standard in jazz ensembles; Trumpet, Trombone, French Horn and Tuba are standard in orchestras.

There are a number of other brass instruments used in Brass Bands, such as cornet, tenor horn and baritone horn. These are not standard instruments in some other ensembles but they are very close to other instruments in the family (eg. Trumpet/Cornet) and musicians can often transition between them without much trouble.

Percussion & Other

Besides classroom percussion, the percussion family has a number of options for children. One is the Drum Kit, used in rock, jazz and other forms of popular music, sometimes in concert band. Another is ‘orchestral percussion’ (or ‘band percussion’) which may cross over with Drum Kit tuition but focuses on Snare Drum and Tuned Percussion (Glockenspiel, Xylophone, etc) and may include Timpani and Auxilliary Percussion (tambourine, triangle, cymbals etc) in the school band, orchestra or percussion ensemble. There are too many other options for culturally specific or ensemble specific percussion to mention but these two options are very common in Australian schools and well suited to individual tuition.

Orchestral Percussion is suitable for children from year 3 onwards, at first this tends to focus on snare drum and glockenspiel. While a full set of orchestral percussion is quite expensive and elaborate, these instruments are affordable and quite manageable.

Drum Kit can be taught to students from year 3 onwards but it may be more productive to learn ‘Orchestral Percussion’ or even another instrument initially, then progress to Drum Kit later in primary school.

Other Instruments

This article deals with the main instruments and instrument groups used in Western music, particularly orchestral instruments. Of course, there are many other instruments in the world and some may be appropriate for children. In India, for example, some children begin to learn Tabla (drums) at a very early age but this is less common in Australia.

Some classroom music activities use particular instruments that are designed for or commonly used by children, for example, handbells and Orff percussion instruments. Generally children do not take individual lessons on these instruments as they would for piano or trumpet, they are primarily a classroom/group activity.

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