Musical Instruments and the Motor Skills They Require

At a glance

  • Movement issues like dyspraxia can create added challenges when kids are learning to play an instrument.

  • Some instruments require stronger fine or gross motor skills than others.

  • Knowing what’s involved in playing certain instruments can help you pick the best one to suit your child’s strengths.

Learning to play an instrument can be an exciting challenge. But if your child has a movement or coordination issue like , you may wonder if certain instruments may be better for her than others. This table can help. It looks at common instruments­­ and the balance, coordination, and fine and gross motor skills they require.

Type of instrument Fine motor skills Gross motor skills Balance and coordination
Strings: Violin and viola

These require strong fine motor skills. Kids need to hold the bow precisely and sometimes pluck the strings. Fingers need to be placed carefully for the notes to be in tune.

String instruments require (and can help develop) a gross motor skill called “bilateral integration.” This is the ability to use both sides of the body together in a coordinated way.

Having the right size violin is key.

Strings: Cello and double bass

These also require strong fine motor skills to hold the bow, pluck strings and place fingers precisely. But there is more space to maneuver when playing.

The strings on these larger instruments take greater strength to push down. The player must reach up and down a longer fingerboard. The horizontal movement of the bowing arm may be easier for some kids with who struggle with gross motor skills.

These instruments can feel heavy and bulky, so keep your child’s size and strength in mind when considering them.

Cello is played sitting down. This can be helpful for kids who sway or fidget while standing.

Bass is often played standing up.

Strings: Guitar

Acoustic guitars require firm picking and fingering techniques. Electric guitars are somewhat easier to play.

A guitar can feel heavy, but you can add a strap to help support the guitar’s weight and bulk.

It can be played sitting down or standing up. This provides options for kids with balance and coordination issues.

Woodwinds: Recorder and clarinet

These require “finger isolation” skills. This is the ability to move fingers quickly and independently on different keys. Kids who have trouble with fine motor skills might find this tricky.

These have open finger holes that have to be covered. That requires precise finger placement.

Playing these instruments requires good sitting and standing posture. Over time, this can increase core strength.

Playing woodwind instruments demands whole-body coordination.

Woodwinds: Flute and piccolo

These have closed keys, which are easier than open ones because kids don’t have to put their fingers precisely over the holes.

Though these instruments are not heavy, kids still need to have shoulder and arm strength to hold them up for extended periods.

There are no special considerations.

Woodwinds: Saxophone

Closed keys make it easier to play than recorder or clarinet.

A neck strap holds the saxophone upright while the child plays it. This can give support to kids with less upper-body strength.

A neck strap keeps the sax from dropping if strength, balance or coordination are issues.

Brass: Trumpet

The trumpet only requires the use of three fingers, so it may be easier to play than woodwind instruments.

To make a sound, kids blow air through almost closed lips. That can help strengthen the fine motor skills of the mouth.

The child needs to be able to breathe strongly and with control, in and out, using diaphragm muscles.

There are no special considerations.

Brass: Trombone

To change a trombone’s pitch, the player moves the slide in and out. This may not require the fine motor skills needed for the complicated fingering patterns of other instruments.

The player needs to have strong gross motor skills to maneuver the slide in and out in coordination with breathing.

Coordinating fine and gross motor skills in combination may be hard for some kids.

Brass: French horn

Playing the French horn requires some tricky fine motor skills. The left hand needs to be large enough to grip the instrument. The right-hand keys are spaced closely together, requiring the player to have fine motor coordination.

The mouthpiece is small, and kids need to use fine motor control to learn the mouth arrangement.

The French horn doesn’t require strong arm strength because of how it’s positioned when played. It supports development of good core strength.

The player can sit and balance the horn on one thigh. That encourages controlled breathing and good posture.

Keyboard: Piano

Playing the piano requires finger strength and dexterity.

It requires moderate arm strength and endurance to hit the keys. Working the pedals requires minor foot and leg strength.

Kids need to use both hands at once to play. Each hand will be playing a different combination of notes, often using different rhythms.

Good posture and core strength make playing easier, but that can come with practice.

Percussion: Drums

Good fine motor skills aren’t required to hit a conga drum with the palm, or even to hold a snare drum stick.

Playing drums can be a full-body workout. It requires some arm, core and lower-body strength to begin with. But it builds kids’ strength as they play.

Drumming can actually help kids who have motor skill issues learn to control their movements.

Playing the drums gives kids the freedom to sit or to stand and move while playing.

Knowing what’s involved in playing specific instruments can help you and your child choose the best one for her needs. But the most important factor in picking one is how eager she is to play it. Having a strong desire will help her stay motivated, even if learning to play is hard. In the meantime, learn about ways to help your child build fine motor skills and gross motor skills.

Key takeaways

  • Playing instruments like the violin, clarinet and French horn requires strong fine motor skills.

  • Playing certain instruments may actually help kids build motor skills.

  • Learning to play an instrument is exciting but challenging, so it’s important for kids to be motivated about it.


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