9 Of The Quietest Musical Instruments To Play

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

Music has always been present in people’s lives since the beginning of humanity. What’s great is that making music is easy as you can use the elements available in your surrounding environment to make a musical instrument. 

Today, there are approximately 1,500 to 2,000 musical instruments. Some are loud and some quiet, but to some extent, almost all instruments can play a whole range of volumes or dynamics. 

This article explores the musical instruments better disposed to serve in a quiet and gentle setting. Read on to learn some of the quietest musical instruments.

1. Mbira

The Mbira is not a well-known instrument, especially in the west. It originated from Zimbabwe, Africa, and is an invention of the Shona people.

In Europe, this instrument is known as the Thumb Piano, a name that gives some insight into how it produces sound and why it’s one of the quietest instruments in the world today.

The instrument comprises a resonator or wooden soundboard upon which up to 28 metal keys are fixed. The keys are built from steel, copper, brass, or recycled metal from bicycles, cars, or bedsprings.

To play the mbira, you hold it in both hands and pluck the metal keys using your thumbs. It produces a very quiet sound—so quiet that to amplify the sound, you may have to place it in a large resonator. 

2. Piano (with the quiet pedal)

The Piano, which shares the same name as the musical term for quiet, can be played very loudly. But, it also can be one of the quietest instruments as it features pedals, one of which is called a soft pedal, or una corda.

When depressed, this pedal causes the hammers to shift and only play one of the piano strings which helps to make it very quiet!

Usually, a pianist will use the soft pedal when coming across a dynamic marking like “ppp” or “pp” (pianissimo).

3. Toy Piano

The Toy Piano dates back to the late 19th Century and is one of the quietest instruments in the world.

Toy pianos are basically tiny versions of pianos, and as you may have guessed, they were originally designed for kids. 

Interestingly, despite their intended use, composers have used Toy Pianos for musical performances and music production.

For example, in 1948, John Cage used the instrument to compose his ‘Suite for Toy Piano.’ George Crumb also uses the Toy Piano pretty effectively in his haunting work titled ‘The Ancient Voices of Children.’ 

When playing the toy piano, you strike its metal bars using a small rubber or wooden hammer to produce an appealing, quiet, and soft tone. 

4. Clarinet

Musicians consider the Clarinet as one of the quietest musical instruments in a wind band. The instrument comprises a straight cylindrical tube with an almost cylindrical bore, a single-reed mouthpiece, and a flared bell.

The clarinet produces a sound similar to a trumpet, but its tone is warmer and generally quieter. That being said, like the piano, the clarinet has a wide range of dynamics and it can also be one of the loudest instruments too.

What’s amazing is you can make the sound even quieter by covering the instrument completely using a mute.

There are three types of mutes (for the mouthpiece, barrel, and bell) and if you use them in combination, it helps dampen the sound evening more making it up to 50% quieter.

5. Shakuhachi

Next, we have a Japanese musical instrument called the Shakuhachi which is a type of transverse flute.

Traditionally, this flute was made from bamboo. The result is an impressively expressive and breathy timbre.

The instrument differs from the flutes common in today’s ensembles and orchestras in that you produce sound by blowing down a tone hole present at the end of the bamboo pipe.

In Japanese, the instrument’s name actually is referring to its length. A single ‘shaku’ is 30.3 cm long. On the other hand, ‘Hachi’ means 3cm.

You’ll find one thumb-hole on the reverse of the instrument and four finger holes on its front.

The shakuhachi is designed to produce a quietly evocative sound. The instrument’s repertoire features small and solo ensemble pieces. 

6. The Recorder

Many musicians consider the humble Recorder as another of the quietest instruments. 

The instrument is available in various sizes ranging from the large bass recorder to the sopranino (producing the highest pitches).

Each recorder has dynamic capabilities in a full range. However, the quietest, pleasing and soothing sound is achievable when you play this fine woodwind musical instrument between the medium and the low end of its dynamic spectrum.

7. Viol

Before the invention of the violin, the Viol was a popular string instrument. Its popularity was nearly unchallenged, especially between the 15th and 17th Centuries.

The viol is no different from the string family of today. It comprises both large and small instruments. You play them from your lap instead of holding them under your chin like the viola and violin.

The instrument produces a clear tone, however, its richness and resonance aren’t comparable to what a viola or violin produces.

Composers during the Renaissance period—William Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, and Henry Purcell, used the viol extensively. But, during the classical period, composers abandoned the quiet viol, preferring the violin.

Nonetheless, this quiet musical instrument is still in use in some parts of the world to date.

8. Harp

Often, people use the Harp to accompany solo instruments and singing voices. It performs harmonic and bass tasks as a thorough-bass instrument and retains both functions in orchestral composition.

The harp is a stringed instrument featuring several individual strings at an angle to the soundboard. You pluck the strings with your fingers to produce sound. 

Although harps are available in various styles played in different ways, including sitting or standing, the most common is the triangular-shaped harp made of wood.

The harp is relatively quiet, especially when you play it in an orchestral setting.

If you want people to hear it, you must practice careful orchestration in that multi-instrument texture to allow it to be heard.

9. Guqin

The Guqin, also called the Qin, is a quiet ancient Chinese instrument. It dates back to over 5,000 years ago.

Experts consider it one of the softest musical instruments ever made. And most people feel that it’s capable of not only great refinement but also expression.

The guqin comprises seven strings that you pluck to play. It has a range of four octaves, the lowest pitch being approximately two octaves below middle C or the lowest note on the cello. 

Some of this quiet instrument’s playing techniques include glissando or sliding. You can also produce harmonics, just like with a violin, viola, or cello.

Summing up our List of Quiet Instruments

Whether it’s in the middle of the night or late afternoon in your office, you have a long list of quiet musical instruments you can choose from to play without causing any disturbance.

Technology is developing rapidly, and the silent piano is one instrument that stands out as a modern, quiet instrument.

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Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.