Best Musical Instruments for Kids

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A Buyer’s Guide for Parents

As a parent, I am sure that you are dumbfounded by the sheer amount of musical toys on the market. We all like the idea of introducing our kids to music, but which instruments should we buy? Does my 3-year-old child really need a $300 guitar? As a professional musician and dad of a toddler, I am going to greatly simplify the process for you in a way that will save you money without compromising your child’s musical explorations. My emphasis will be on presenting cool (wood, handmade, Fair Trade, Eco-Friendly) alternatives to the plastic instruments sold at most toy stores.

The first thing I am going to do is separate musical toys from musical instruments. For clarity, I am defining a musical instrument as any device that has a direct correlation between a child’s action and pitch. For example, hitting a drum, plucking a string, striking a key, or blowing air through it all result in a tone or pitch being produced. I will even go one step further and say that there must be some way to play an actual melody (note for note) on the toy in a way that resembles a real musical instrument (excluding drums and percussion instruments like shakers). This is difficult to put in words, but it will become very clear as you read on.

Working from this definition, the following musical toys would not qualify as instruments:

I am not saying that these toys are bad or useless. Simply that they are not musical instruments. We have an activity table that I thought I would hate, but as I observed my son discovering more things on it and “commanding it”, I began to see some value. At 2, he can make it play the ‘Counting to Ten Song’ and the ‘Alphabet Song’ as he sings along.

We also have the Mozart Magic Cube. It was a gift from a grandparent when my son was 4 months old. It’s fascinating to see how his interaction with the toy changes over the years as he discovers more and more things about it.

Now that we have subtracted musical toys from the equation, the remaining choices are reduced dramatically. I am going to simply arrange the musical instruments into percussion, string, and wind categories. I will offer a suggestion from amazon.com just so you can get a basic idea of price and what the instrument looks like. I am in no way endorsing any of these products so please shop around once you know what you are looking for. However, if I happen to own a particular product or have a strong opinion, I will voice it.

For those with more discerning or eclectic tastes in instruments, I will also offer a few alternatives. They will often be a little more expensive, but have the unique characteristic of being able to possibly ‘survive’ the toddler years and become lasting pieces of art. They can even be picked up and played again in later years. You are not going to pick up that plastic drum adorned with Dora and her entourage ever again after a few years.

The way I see it, we only have a few years to really control how are kids are introduced to music. Why fill their ears with cheesy electronic bleeps, buzzes, and unreal musical instrument sounds? They are going to hear that stuff soon enough.

Avoiding Frustration is the Key

For children under the age of 5, music should be all about play and the joy of discovery. You don’t want to frustrate your child by introducing an instrument beyond their capabilities.

Disclaimer — Please Read

I do not manufacture, sell, or ship any of these products so please shop around, especially on the amazon links. There could be someone else on amazon selling it cheaper. I also do not endorse or work for any of the manufacturers or stores. However, I did go through a pretty strict process of elimination to find a handful of independent stores that sell instruments that meet my criteria. I was surprised to find so few, but it made my work here easier. As much as possible, I tried to choose independent stores that are eco-friendly, that adopt Fair Trade policies, and that have made a concerted effort to sell quality toys and instruments. I also gave more weight to stores that actually use the instruments they sell by offering classes — this is why JAMTOWN appears frequently.

Safety Concerns: Some of the alternative instruments are handmade and imported. A few of the retailers screen the products to make sure that they are not manufactured with toxic materials. If you have questions or concerns about a particular instrument, please contact the store directly before buying.

Prices may not be accurate or up to date.

Please double check the dimensions of the instrument before buying. Some of them are smaller than you might think, especially in the case of drums.

Here’s a directory to help you navigate through my suggestions for musical instruments for kids under age 5. However, you should read the entire article first so you can get the complete picture and then use this directory when you return.

DIRECTORY
I. Percussion Instruments for Kids
A. Drums, shakers, and other hand percussion
B. Melody Percussion for Kids
1. Xylophones & Glockenspiels
2. Pianos
C. Percussion & Musical Instrument Sets
II. Wind Instruments for Kids
A. Flutes & Recorders
B. Other Wind instruments: Ocarinas, Harmonicas, and Kazoos
C. Trumpets, Saxophones, and Clarinets
III. String instruments for Children
A. Guitars
B. Violins
C. Lyres
D. Music Maker

Percussion Instruments for Kids

I have further divided the percussion instruments into single note and melody percussion. Single note percussion covers hand drums and shakers, while melody percussion covers instruments like xylophones and pianos.

Drums, shakers, and other hand percussion

Plan Toys

The first set of instruments is from Plan Toys. Plan Toys is an environmentally conscious company that makes its toys from recycled rubber wood and colored eco-friendly dyes. They get big points for this!!

These toys tend to be more for the ages 1 – 3, but be sure to double check before purchasing.

My favorite one of this bunch is the Solid Wood Drum. It can produce three different tones and is a great example of an early instrument that can be played for years and years. It is also a nice keepsake.

The Big Drum is cool especially if there is a family connection to marching bands because the drum can be strapped on. However, I can’t see it having much use after the toddler years.

The Musical Band Drum Set is cool again if there is a family connection to a drummer — perhaps dad, mom, or an older sibling plays a drum set. These role models provide your child with something to mimic. Otherwise, the tone of this instrument is nonexistent, and according to amazon.com reviews, the pieces tend to fall off when being played. This is definitely not something with staying power, and I would go for a higher quality single drum at this price.

The last two products are just glorified shakers and rattlers to me, so if you are in search of a tambourine or shaker I would consider something further down on my list.

Remo Kids Percussion

Remo is a maker of quality instruments for percussionists, but they also have a line called Remo Kids Percussion.

While most are rated for kids 3 and older, I think they are also fine for younger kids under supervision. And since these instruments are of a higher quality and price, it is probably a good practice to put them away when not being played. This may also have the added benefit of teaching your child that musical instruments are a little different from their other toys and should be handled with care.

The tone/sound quality of all of these instruments give them staying power, and they are all highly rated on amazon.com.

I prefer the drums with the Rain Forest design simply because it will add to the longevity of the drum. The more cartoon like designs are less likely to last past elementary school.

Buyer Beware!! The Gathering Drum (second from top) is just a single drum and NOT 3! Some of the ads for this drum depict 3 drums for some reason. Lots of complaints about this on amazon. I have no idea why they would use such a misleading ad. Not cool. [It seems to be corrected now, but watch out for it as you shop around]

The last item is a real tambourine which is around the same price as the one made by Plan Toys. Might as well go for the real one in my opinion.

Meinl Nino Percussion

I actually stumbled across this line in my research, and I’m glad I did. Meinl is another maker of quality percussion instruments for professional musicians with a cool line for children called Nino. However, their Nino line is not google friendly so it doesn’t come up high in the search results when you look for “percussion for kids”. They are also pretty invisible on a kids percussion search on amazon.

That’s a real shame because they offer some of the best affordable percussion instruments for kids. In fact, the djembe drums are the best I’ve seen in that they are made of wood like most professional djembes. The drums come in xxsmall, xsmall, and small. Be sure to check the dimensions because the drums are smaller than you think.

These instruments have real staying power and will make fine keepsakes and/or instruments for years and years.

Since they are so hard to find online, I would recommend visiting their web site to see what they have and then do an exact search online for the item you want. Amazon does carry most of the Nino line, but it just isn’t indexed well. Some of the Nino products are not even listed with Nino in the title! So if you search for Meinl Nino on amazon you won’t even see all of their products.

All Products Sold by
JAMTOWN
turlte drum
Turtle Frame Drum
$44.95

fish frame drum
Fish Frame Drum

$44.95

Inca Drum
Inca Drum
$31.95

Gecko Drum
Gecko Drum – Indonesia
$44.95

Frame Drum
Frame Drum
Indonesia
$26.95

Tinya Drums
Tinya Drums
$16/$25/$35

sun moon star drum
Sun Moon Star Drum
$39.95

wngo shaker
Wingo Shakers
$11.95/$17.95

Caxixi Shaker
Caxixi Shaker
$9.00

Pecay Fruit Shaker
Pacay Fruit Shaker
$7.95

JAMTOWN

JAMTOWN is an independently owned world music store based in Seattle. The founder, John Hayden, buys directly from artisans around the world, supporting their work through the principles of Fair Trade.

In addition, JAMTOWN offers rhythm classes and events in the Seattle area, so they have hands-on experience with their products.

These are instruments that you can keep for a lifetime. They are beautiful works of art and fine musical instruments as well.

However, you definitely want to touch base with JAMTOWN to be sure that the instrument you want is age appropriate for your child. I would put these in the category of supervision required simply because they are handmade and have small parts that a child might be able to get loose. And you don’t want to bang these instruments on the pavement — you should teach your child how to properly play them.

I have not purchased any of these products because I already have quite a stash of similar instruments that I have collected while on tour over the years. These closely resemble the instruments that my child plays under supervision.

The Sun Moon Star Drum looks particularly interesting. It comes with a CD and activities.

JAMTOWN also sells an award winning Rhythm Pak which I will present below in the ‘percussion sets’ section.

Sold by
A Toy Garden
owl shaker

Owl Shaker
$5.95 each?

A Toy Garden

A Toy Garden is an online store run by a work-from-home mom that features Fair Trade and Made in the USA toys.

I think these shakers are excellent alternatives to the Toys-R-Us plastic junk, and they are beautiful pieces as well, satisfying my longevity criteria.

They are made in Peru using non-toxic materials. Note that you only receive one per order.

Melody Percussion Instruments for Kids

As mentioned earlier, melody percussion covers instruments like xylophones and pianos. For this section, I will present the options by instrument instead of by company because it will be easier to compare.

rainbow glockenspiel
Rainbow Glockenspiel
Sold by Nova Natural Toys
$25.00

pentatonic glockenspiel
Auris pentatonic
Glockenspiel
Sold by A Toy Garden
$69.95
Sold by Nova Natural Toys
$99.00

 

Xylophones/Glockenspiels

The thing to watch out for with these instruments is tuning. There are a lot of these on the market, but most of them are horribly out of tune — making them more noise makers than instruments and failing my criteria of being able to play a simple melody.

Unfortunately, the Plan Toys Xylophone (at left) falls into this category. I know because I bought one without doing my homework. I just assumed that it would be in tune. Is it entirely useless? No, not really because it still allows a toddler to explore different tones, but the sound quality is not great, and it is not going to have much use after a year or so.

If I decide to buy another one I will go for something like the Hohner, Meinl or one of the ones sold by Nova Natural Toys. These are all in tune and will allow your child to actually grow with the instrument and eventually play a melody.

There are also a few award winning alternatives to the traditional xylophone. The 8 tubes of the Boomophone are tuned to a diatonic scale, and it comes with a song book. The Chimalong also comes with a song book and can be configured as a pentatonic instrument by removing two tubes. The Boomophone seems to be more of a toy to me, but since you can actually play a melody I can see that it could be a lot of fun.

Pianos

Yes, a piano is considered a percussive instrument because the hammers strike the strings to produce a tone. However, in the world of toddler pianos, a hammer hits a tuned metal bar, giving the instrument more of a chime- like tone. Therefore, it sounds more like a kid’s xylophone/glockenspiel than a real piano. This might be disappointing for some parents, but I still prefer these over the electronic keyboards that have all the bells and annoying whistles.

There are really only 4 contenders that I found in this category, Melissa & Doug, Schoenhut, Schylling, and Sky Enterprise. Most of them appear to give you color options such as black, red, pink or white in addition to offering a few design styles.

They all come with some kind of ‘learning system’ in terms of instructional books and colored keyboard overlays, so there is some room for growth if your child decides to get more into it.

So which one should you get?? Well, I think it comes down to your preference. Personally, I prefer the ones that look the closest to the real thing, and not the kiddie colored ones. The black baby grands and the spinets have a classic feel.

We own a Schoenhut Baby Grand that was passed down from our 3 nieces. Seeing as my child’s hands are the fourth set to play it, and it still works is a testament to the durability of the Schoenhut.

In addition, Schoenhut is the only one in the ‘musical instrument for kids’ business. Sky Enterprise USA seems to make all kinds of things so I would be a little suspicious of their piano even though it seems to be the cheapest baby grand, but that’s just me. Both Schylling and Melissa&Doug are big toy manufacturers.

The longevity of these toy pianos is a little less than I would hope. They may not have much use after age 5 or so, simply because if your child is really into piano, then you should buy or rent him a real one at that age. Or if you happen to have a real piano in the house, he might be ready for it by age 3 or 4.

These pianos really are toys in that respect — they lend themselves to single note melodies and do not sound very good when chords are played. Because of this, I would not spend the extra money for a toy piano with more than 30 keys. Those extra notes are not going to sound very good.

kalimba
Kalimba or Thumb Piano
$23.95
Sold by
A Toy Garden

Kalimbas

The Kalimba is an African instrument which is played by plucking the tines or keys with the thumb. It is also called a Thumb Piano or Mbira. A friend of mine has this exact model so I know that it produces a beautiful tone and is well made.

There are tons of import versions of kalimbas on amazon.com, but none of them claim to be child friendly and consistency/quality seems to be a big issue. There are larger more expensive professional versions, but this particular one is perfect for small hands.

In addition, this Kalimba includes a numbering system for the keys and comes with a songbook giving a brief history and information about scales, along with instructions for tuning.

A Toy Garden sells this model and also offers additional songbooks as an option. For some reason they call it a Thumbdrum, and I have never heard that term.

This is another great example of an instrument with staying power. You’ll be able to play it for a lifetime.

Percussion & Musical Instrument Sets

rhythm pak
Junior Rhythm Pak
$50.00
Sold By
JAMTOWN
Most musical instrument sets are total junk and unfortunately, Melissa & Doug Deluxe Beginner Band Set
falls into this category. If you are interested in one of their band sets, be sure to read the comments on amazon.com thoroughly to make sure that it’s right for your needs. You could also take note of what’s in their band set and create your own using some of my alternative suggestions. You will at least wind up with some nice keepsakes.Here is an eclectic option that is way cooler in my opinion.

The Junior Rhythm Pak from JAMTOWN is the winner of an Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Gold Seal and a Parent’s Choice Foundation Award. It includes a Learn-Along CD and simple rhythm cards.

Wind Instruments for Kids

Buying a wind instruments for a kid under age 5 is a little tricky because you want to be sure they have the lung capacity and are old enough to understand the concept. Unlike simply striking a percussive instrument and producing a tone, wind instruments require your child to blow and finger at the same time.Don’t forget, the key to introducing your child to musical instruments is avoiding frustration. As a result, it appears that most wind instruments are recommended for children over age 3. Here again, I believe you can introduce it sooner if a family member happens to play a wind instrument.
suling flute
Suling Flute
-Bali-
$10.95
Sold by JAMTOWNpan_flute
Pan Flute
-Bolivia-
$17.95
Sold by JAMTOWN

quinta flute

Quinta Pentatonic Flute
$109.00
Sold by
A Toy Garden

Flutes & Recorders

Flutes are often a good place to start because they don’t require much lung capacity to produce a decent tone. In addition, ethnic flutes often have fewer holes to finger and can be easier for your child to understand.

JAMTOWN sells a cool Suling flute and also a pan flute which both seem well-suited for a child over age 3.

On the much pricier side, A Toy Garden sells a Choroi Pentatonic flute for around $110. Apparently, it is the flute recommended for first graders in Waldorf Schools ages 4 – 6.

Recorders are usually for children over age 4. There are a lot of cheap toy plastic ones on the market so watch out. For some reason, I do not have fond memories of the recorder, but I can’t seem to recall exactly why! In any case, I would go for one of the cool ethnic flutes from JAMTOWN if you are simply looking for something for your child to play with. If a recorder is required for your child’s music class, then perhaps get a recommendation from the music teacher. Sorry, I’ll have to research this instrument a little more before I can offer more.

animal o
Animal Ocarinas
$6.95 each
Sold by JAMTOWN

 

Other Wind Instruments
Ocarinas, Harmonicas, and Kazoos

An Ocarina is next on my list for my 2 year old. Not only do they look cool, but they appear to be quite easy to play.

Note: I did purchase an Ocarina for my 2 1/2 year old son, however, it was a little too advanced for him. I’ve put it away, and I’ll try again when he turns 3.

Harmonicas are also popular wind instruments for children. They are tuned to a particular scale so that there are no “wrong notes”. Hohner has been making Harmonicas for 150 years, and the 2 models on the left are a good place to start.

I used to think that Kazoos bordererd on being noise makers, however, if you can hum a tune then you can play a Kazoo! Just blow in it and start humming. In fact, ealry childhood music educators recommend them because they really help in developing your child’s musical ear in the same as singing.

There are tons of cheap 99 cent plastic ones to choose from, and your local music store will usually have them in a bowl by the cash register.

 

 

Trumpets, Saxophones, and Clarinets

Unfortunately, there are few alternatives to the cheesy plastic versions of these instruments because the legitimate versions are beyond the abilities of children under 5 in terms of lung capacity and other developmental factors.

But they do have a place in households in which a family member plays the real instrument or your child simply wants one because of something he’s heard or seen. Just know that they are all toys and will have very little use after a few years.

Otherwise, I think there are much hipper alternatives in this section on wind instruments for kids.

String Instruments for Children

String instruments are actually quite challenging for kids under age 5 so you want to be careful not to introduce them too early. Guitars and violins require a toddler to do two actions simultaneously to produce a melody: fret the string with one hand while strumming, plucking, or bowing the string with the other. It also requires a fair amount of finger strength. Finally, even if your child can manage the first two actions, producing a musically pleasing tone is not easy. We all have heard the sound of a beginning violinist!



acoustic guitar
Acoustic Guitar

electric guitar
Electric Guitar

 

Guitars

Guitars are generally not recommended until age 4, but I have seen some rated for 3-year-olds. In addition, I don’t think guitars are instruments that a child can get going on his own, and I would highly recommend some form of formal instruction. You’ll have to read your child on this one, because many children are not ready for lessons at that age.

Of course, if there is a guitarist in the house your child may blossom on guitar earlier.

A Ukulele is perfect for small hands and is a genuine alternative to the plastic electronic guitars with all of the buttons and flashing lights. At least it has strings (4) and is made of wood. However, most of the toy Ukuleles do not hold their tuning so if you want an instrument that your child can grow with, I’d spend a little extra and buy a ‘real’ one. It will also look nice on a shelf if it survives the early years!

Incidentally, there are a lot of complaints about the Plan Toys Banjo
on amazon.com. It’s rated for children 3 and up, but it is really a bad buy for $28 because you can’t tune the strings at all and there is virtually no tone — just a dull thud from each string. You are much better off buying a toy Ukulele for $20.

The Lanikai Ukulele is a good example of a proper beginner’s instrument, but it’s probably even better to visit your local guitar shop and have them help you pick one out. It may cost you a little more, but you will be building a relationship with a local store that may also provide lessons.

If you are looking for an actual guitar (not a Ukulele or Banjo), then I will definitely refer you to your local guitar shop. Beginner guitars come in a variety of sizes, and your local dealer will be able to better match your child.

Finally, here’s a link to a buyer’s guide: How to Buy a Guitar for a Child to help prepare you for that first visit to your local guitar store. It will help tremendously to have some idea of what you’re looking for. i.e. are you interested in an acoustic, electric or classical guitar??

Loog Guitars are a great alternative to traditional guitars for toddlers. We got one of these for our 4 year old, and he absolutely loves it because he can play songs right away. There are only 3 strings so it’s perfect for little hands to play bar chords instantly. In addition, it comes as a kit so you will have to put it together. I highly recommend checking it out. And I love playing it too!!

violin

Violin

Violins

Violins are another instrument that I will refer you to your local dealer. This is the best approach as opposed to trying to find the right instrument online. In addition, private or group instruction is highly recommended.

Here’s a link to an article that will get you started down the right path. Violins for children.

Lyres

I discovered Lyres while I was doing the research for this article. They appear to be very cool because they don’t require a child to fret with one hand and pluck the string with the other. You tune them to a scale, pluck the strings, and there will be no “wrong” notes. They all include songbooks and tuning instructions so you will need a little musical knowledge to set it up and maintain it.

The only drag is that they are quite expensive, but if you factor in that they can be played for many years, the extra expense may not seem so exorbitant. Plus they are beautiful looking instruments. I suggest searching for a youtube video of someone playing it to see if you like the sound before buying.

The Lyre is a great casual alternative to a guitar since it doesn’t require formal instruction.

Music Maker
Music Maker Set
Sold by
A Toy Garden
$39.95

 

Music Maker

This last find is also a result of my research. I’ve never seen one of these, so this is for those who like to try new things. It looks like a simplified autoharp. You play it by sliding a song sheet under the strings and plucking the string above each printed note.

It’s made in Belarus (Eastern Europe) comes with 12 song sheets of popular songs. It also comes with a pick, tuner and spare wire. There are also additional song sheets available for purchase.

I guess the big question here is what happens once you’ve gone through all of the song sheets? I guess if you learn the pitch of each string, you can read traditional music as well (single note melodies). Not sure if you are going to be playing it for years and years, but it might fun for a while. It’s definitely unique.

If any of you purchase the Music Maker, please email me your impressions. I can add your comments here.

Hopefully, this guide will help you to make informed choices when choosing musical instruments for kids under age 5. You don’t have to buy that plastic junk that will eventually wind up in landfills for thousands of years. There are really cool alternative instruments that can grow with your child and offer years of enjoyment — and perhaps plant the seeds for a life-long appreciation of music.Musically Yours,

Rodney Lee

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