11 Best Instruments For Elementary Students

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I’m asked all the time by parents and music teachers what the best instruments for elementary students are. 

The best instrument for elementary kids depends on the age of the student, their ability to attend for periods of time, and their interests. In general, the best instruments for this group include: 

  • Piano/Keyboard
  • Ukulele
  • Guitar
  • Soprano Recorder
  • Harmonica
  • Didgeridoo
  • Drum Set
  • Violin
  • Djembe
  • Flutophone
  • Melodica

Read the rest of the article for a quick review of each of these instruments including a suggested product appropriate for kids. Also included in this article is information on the difficulty level of the instruments, a direct comparison chart, and an age guide for which instrument to play. 

11 Best Instruments For Children To Learn

In this section, I’ll dig into each of these choices for elementary students. I’ll include pros and cons to help you decide which instrument may be best for your student or child. 

Piano/Keyboard — The Classic Choice

The first option is the most obvious and iconic instrument to learn: the piano or keyboard. 

Some of us may have taken lessons as a child, and it’s the rare piano player who doesn’t have the occasional elementary private lesson student. This is usually the first idea parents have when they consider starting their children on an instrument. 

The piano is the most versatile of all instruments with the ability to fit into any style of music and play a huge variety of music. 

All elements of music may be taught on this instrument alone, and there is no shortage of teachers, lessons, and programs out there to help. The barrier to entry is low. 

All you need to create a good sound is to press a key. But the long-term complexity is greater and requires more dedication. 

The pay-off for all this work is great, though! 

Visit a local music store or keep your eyes open for a piano to buy from a program like Craigslist. But the cost is still going to be higher. 

Fortunately, you’re able to purchase electric keyboards without sacrificing too much technique in the early days. 

Try this keyboard by The One Music Group. The keyboard is fairly small and affordable, but it also has a good sound. 

It’s neatest feature is the lighted keys.  

Pros For Learning This Instrument: 

  • Many teachers and programs available
  • Versatile instrument
  • All elements of music easily taught

Cons For Learning This Instrument: 

  • Requires more coordination
  • Often more expensive to get the instrument in the first place

Ukulele — The Amazing Newcomer

The ukulele has gained a large following in the recent past, and with good reason. As a string instrument for young players and older beginners alike, it’s much easier to learn to play than the guitar. 

The smaller size makes it much easier to hold and get your hand around the neck. The nylon strings (as opposed to steel strings) require less pressure to press down, and they also won’t give you as much pain in your fingers in the beginning. 

Most ukuleles come with 4 strings instead of the guitar’s 6. Players don’t have to worry about learning as many fingerings.

There are a lot of ukulele teachers and plans developing as the instrument’s popularity grows. And the price for a decent beginner one is much lower than that of a beginner guitar. 

Wow! This instrument sounds perfect! There are no drawbacks! 

Actually, this is the instrument I recommend all students starting on if they want to get into fretted string instruments. But this doesn’t mean it’s perfect. 

The main drawback actually comes from the large volume of poor quality ukuleles, accessories, and strings out there. 

There are so many ukuleles out there; it’s easy to end up with a junky one that will never sound good because the fretboard was built incorrectly or the tuners won’t hold a pitch. 

I can help with this though! If you’re looking for an affordable but quality uke, you should definitely look at this Kala Soprano Ukulele Bundle.

The uke is good, it holds its pitch, and the bundle includes online lessons.

Pros For Learning This Instrument: 

  • Easy on the fingers
  • Affordable instrument
  • Easier to learn
  • Sounds good

Cons For Learning This Instrument: 

  • Many ukuleles are poor quality
  • Melody playing is more difficult at the intermediate level 

Guitar — The King

With 2.6 million guitars being sold in 2017 and the number only increasing, the guitar is still the king of casual and professional musicians alike. 

The chord-playing (commonly called rhythm guitar) and solo playing (commonly called lead guitar) of the guitar gives this instrument a lot of room for players to develop their own personality. 

The guitar (acoustic or electric) is present in almost every genre of music with many play styles and lessons available online or in person. 

Learning to play the guitar is challenging for many who’ve never realized what learning a new instrument takes. For elementary students, the guitar may end up being frustrating because the steel strings do cause some pain in your fingertips until calluses develop. 

But with time, it gets easier and a lot more fun. I’ve personally taught lessons on guitar to students as young as second grade. 

The guitar is more expensive than the ukulele, and there are almost as many poor quality guitars out there to avoid. 

With elementary students, you want to go one of two routes: 

  • For young students, get a 3/4 size guitar with nylon strings. 
  • For older students, get a full-sized acoustic with lower action and narrower neck. 

A good 3/4 option is the Yamaha JR-1. It has a good sound and is easier to play for beginners. 

The Fender FA-115 is a solid option for beginner full-sized guitar. The action is fairly low and the neck shape is easy to handle for beginners and older elementary students. 

Pros For Learning This Instrument: 

  • A lot of resources available
  • Fits many genres
  • Many unique playstyles for each personality
  • It’s just cool! (I’m not biased!)

Cons For Learning This Instrument: 

  • Costs a little more
  • Harder to learn at first (until calluses and finger strength build up) 

Soprano Recorder- The One That’s A Real Instrument

If you’re a music teacher reading this, you don’t need me to justify putting the recorder on the list. 

For parents and others, you may think I’m crazy. I’m not; just hear me out. 

The soprano recorder is an actual instrument used as far back as the Renaissance period of music. It’s a melodic instrument like a violin, trumpet, or clarinet, and it teaches a huge range of skills in both musical and life. 

Musically, it helps to teach note reading, breath control, tone, and is the perfect precursor for any of the traditional wind instruments in band including: 

  • Flute
  • Clarinet
  • Saxophone
  • Trumpet
  • French Horn
  • Trombone
  • Euphonium
  • Tuba

For life skills, this instrument helps teach persistence, reflection, practice, listening, and awareness. 

Recorders are quite affordable and there are some good books to guide elementary students through learning how to play. 

Still, there are some really poorly made ones out there. So make sure you buy one that’s at least $5. 

I recommend the Yamaha YRS-23Y for those who don’t know where to start. 

Pros For Learning This Instrument: 

  • Rich history in music
  • Teaches basic life and music skills
  • Very affordable
  • Precursor to all wind instruments

Cons For Learning This Instrument: 

  • Squeaky sound when played too loud
  • Has a bad reputation 

Harmonica — The Blues Choice

The harmonica is an instrument which hasn’t gotten a ton of love lately, but for elementary students, this blues instrument is a fun choice. 

Harmonicas play by blowing into specific holes or apertures to create different pitches. Inside the harmonica is a small metal reed which vibrates as you blow in. 

When you inhale, the air direction comes from the other way which then vibrates a different metal reed. This creates a different note and is why blowing and inhaling creates different sounds on the harmonica.

For elementary students, the harmonica can help with air control and improvising. Most harmonicas are built around the pentatonic scale which makes every note sound good. 

The harmonica has many uses, but its main genre is the blues. The blues often uses call and response which makes this a good instrument for music classes. 

Decent sounding harmonicas are available for pretty cheap. The main problem with low quality harmonicas is the reeds break more easily when the musician blows too hard. 

Even professional line harmonicas like this Hohner C harmonica are affordable.

Pros For Learning This Instrument: 

  • Affordable
  • Easy to learn
  • Pentatonic focus makes everything sound good

Cons For Learning This Instrument: 

  • More fragile
  • Fits a smaller number of musical styles

Didgeridoo — The Odd Choice

The didgeridoo may not seem like a standard instrument choice for anyone, let alone elementary students. And while it may not be an instrument you work on mastering all of your life, it is fun to play and connects to other musical instruments as well. 

Didgeridoos are pretty affordable and even the cost-effective models have the characteristic sound. The sound is unique and fun for kids to play; whenever I see kids playing this, it’s always with a huge smile on their faces. 

The didgeridoo is played by buzzing your lips at a certain pitch and then humming at the same time. Pitches are changed by changing your humming and vowel shape over the buzz drone. 

The combo nature of playing increases concentration and strengthens air support. This is useful for any wind or singing instruments, and the buzzing directly transfers to brass instruments such as the trumpet. 

The vocal nature of the pitches also works really well at training the aural or ear of the student. 

Meinl Percussion’s Didgeridoo is affordable and sounds good even when compared to professional and premium ones. 

Pros For Learning This Instrument: 

  • Affordable
  • Builds air support and ear training
  • Fun to play

Cons For Learning This Instrument: 

  • Not a lot of resources out there
  • Limited in style and what it can play

Drum Set — The One You May Not Want

Drum sets are almost feared more than the recorder by many, but the skills developed by learning the set transfer to all kinds of music. 

Drum sets are present in many genres of music, and kids always find them really cool. 

Musically, a drum set will develop the student’s sense of beat, rhythm, phrase, and coordination. The main challenges with this instrument are getting kids to focus long enough to actually learn and finding teachers and resources for kids. 

Kids are definitely able to learn the complicated drum playing process from a young age. Their drum sets don’t need to be much different than a “real one,” but they don’t need all the bells and whistles to start. 

This Mendini Drum Set for Juniors has what the students need to get started. Or you can always go check what your local music store recommends.

Pros For Learning This Instrument: 

  • Fits a variety of styles
  • Kids love it
  • Develops important musical skills

Cons For Learning This Instrument: 

  • More expensive
  • Resources are less common
  • Harder to get students to focus

Violin — The Traditional Student’s Instrument

Second only to the piano, the violin is one of the most traditionally learned instruments for elementary students. It’s beautiful and sweet sounds are iconic and make it one of the most well-respected instruments ever invented. 

There a huge number of resources and teachers out there for learning violin. The instrument was also the original basis for the popular Suzuki method (check out Kodaly vs. Suzuki) for teaching young children instruments. 

Some start this instrument as early as 3 or 4. The strings aren’t hard to press down, and there are smaller versions made specifically for younger students. 

The Eastar EVA — 1 is a 3/4 size violin for kids with a good sound you may want to check out. 

Pros For Learning This Instrument: 

  • Great sound
  • Easy to play; challenging to master
  • Plays in a variety of styles
  • Lots of resources and teachers available

Cons For Learning This Instrument: 

  • Not as prevalent with today’s popular music may make it a little disconnected for some students 

Djembe — The Classroom Rhythm Instrument

Djembe, for those who don’t know, are drums played by hand from the continent of Africa. There are also similar versions of these in the Middle East called dumbeks or doumbeks. 

For those wanting their elementary students to experience drums without going for the full drum set, this is a solid choice.

There are a lot of techniques involving beat, rhythm, and tone which can be taught using these instruments. They are also often more affordable than a full drum set as well. 

The barrier to entry is much lower as they’re generally easier to get started on than other types of drums. But these still have a rich sound when compared to normal drums made for children. 

Check out the Remo Djembe for kids which has a good sound and is quite durable. 

Pros For Learning This Instrument: 

  • Reinforces beat, rhythm, and tone
  • Affordable
  • Still fun to play
  • Great for music classes

Cons For Learning This Instrument: 

  • Does Not apply to all genres easily

Flutophone — The One You’ve Never Heard Of

Flutophones are a simple instrument choice for elementary students, but you may want to check them out. Essentially, they’re a version of a soprano recorder designed for easy playing.

The first time I heard of this instrument was in my saxophone techniques class. The professor loved the idea of these because of its relation to the saxophone and other special design features of the flutophone. 

Compared to the recorder, it functions exactly the same. But the flutophone has a few key differences: 

  • Raised holes for easier covering
  • Consecutive fingerings for easier note playing
  • Resistance to squeaking
  • Lower price
  • Whistle playing quality

All these sound good, but its main drawbacks compared to recorder are a weaker sound quality, lack of chromatic pitches, and “cheaper” manufacturing. 

I have tried these before with kids and prefer recorder myself, but I know a number of music teachers who swear by these because they essentially remove squeaking. 

The Hohner Flutophone is a great example of what these instruments can be. 

Pros For Learning This Instrument: 

  • Helps prepare wind instruments
  • Prevents squeaking
  • Simple to play

Cons For Learning This Instrument: 

  • Weak sound quality
  • Lack of chromatic notes

Melodica — The One You See But Have Know Idea What It Is

Melodicas and their variants are becoming more popular in bands all over, but you likely don’t know what they are. Notable songs including this instrument are listed on this Wikipedia page.

The melodica is described as either a combination of keyboard and harmonica or a hand-blown mini-organ. 

You must blow into the instrument and press down keys on a small, often hand-held keyboard. When you press the key, a reed matching the pitch is allowed to vibrate creating the pitch. 

This results in a more controlled and versatile harmonica sound. 

Melodica can play any style, and kids find these fun to play. They easily play simple ideas with a basic understanding of how keyboards play. 

The Eastar melodica is a great example of a melodica your elementary student may want to learn.  

Pros For Learning This Instrument: 

  • Fun sound
  • Keyboard skills in a simple way
  • Affordable
  • Rising In popularity

Cons For Learning This Instrument: 

  • Doesn’t fit in with all music

Best Instruments Direct Comparison And By Age

In this section, I’ve combined all the important pros and cons of each instrument into one easy-to-read chart. Use this to help you pick which instrument is right for your elementary students. 

Note: Suggested age for each instrument is when they may want to start. Starting after this age is just fine. The recommendation is based on my experience as a teacher and may change depending on the teacher. 

InstrumentProsConsSuggested Age
PianoIn a lot of styles
Lot of resources
Iconic instrument
Higher price
More complicated at higher levels
7-8 years
UkuleleEasy to play
Lower cost
Popular
Watch out for poor quality ukes7-8 years
GuitarIconic instrument
Very popular
Sounds great
Harder to start on 10 years
Soprano RecorderAffordable
Leads into other wind instruments
Bad reputation
Sounds squeaky when blowing too hard
6-7 years
HarmonicaAffordable
Good sound
Easy to play
Fragile4-5 years
DidgeridooFun to play
Affordable
Builds air support and ear training
Not as common
Limited in what it can play
6-7 years
Drum SetKids love it
In many styles of music
Builds beat rhythm, phrasing, and coordination
Louder sound
Harder To get kids to focus
8-10 years
ViolinBeautiful sound
Easy to start on
Many resources 
No big cons5 years (yes, many start younger, but I don’t think all should)
DjembeAffordable
Smaller than drum set
Great for classroom rhythm instrument
Not a drum set
Not in all styles
3-4 years
FlutophoneNo squeaking
Affordable
Very easy to play
Weak sound
Lack of chromatic notes
4-5 years
MelodicaKeyboard skills in a simple way
Fun to play
Rising popularity
Fewer resources5 years

Is My Student Ready To Learn An Instrument?

This section is aimed towards parents considering if they want to put their students into lessons or buy them an instrument to learn. 

Every child is different and it depends on several factors whether I recommend a student towards lessons. 

As a general rule, I suggest second grade as the earliest a student should begin lessons. By this age, almost all students are ready to begin. 

I always suggest parents ask themselves these questions honestly before providing lessons to their children. (As a parent, I ask myself these questions too!)

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If you can answer these questions honestly with positive results towards lessons and learning, go for it! I strongly encourage all students to take lessons or watch online videos on an instrument they want to learn. 

Just be sure you and your student are ready. 

Commonly Asked Questions

In this section, I’ll answer some commonly asked questions about the best instruments for elementary students. 

What Is The Easiest Instrument To Learn For A Child? — The easiest instrument to learn is all a matter of what you’re looking for. The easiest one to make a sound on would be the djembe or piano. The easiest one to truly learn would be the ukulele or the violin as there are more resources, and the instruments are easier to physically play. 

What Is A Good Musical Instrument For A 4-year-old? — Any toy instrument would provide a good musical chance to play and experience music. But if you’re looking for an instrument for the student to seriously learn, I would suggest playing the flutophone, harmonica, violin, or piano. 

What Age Should A Child Learn An Instrument? — See the section above called “Is my child ready to learn an instrument?” In general, I ask if the student is interested and able to focus on one thing for at least 15 minutes. 

Conclusion

I hope you found this guide to the best instruments for elementary students helpful. Any of these may be the perfect option for your students depending on your role and what the student is interested in. 

Which one do you think would fit your student or students best? Let us know below in the comments. 

Zach VanderGraaff

Zach VanderGraaff is a K-5 music teacher with Bay City Public Schools in Michigan. He's a Past-President of the Michigan Kodaly Educators and Executive Secretary of the Midwest Kodaly Music Educators Association.

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