24

What is the rule for omitting/including the definite article in the following sentences:

I used to play piano.
I used to play the piano.

I would pick the first sentence, but I've heard people say the second sentence even when they are not referring to a specific piano. Which one is correct?

10 Answers 10

18

They're pretty much equivalent.

That said, omitting the article has a slight feeling of playing with a group or orchestra, wherein the instrument is a synecdoche referring to the position the person occupied within the group.

I used to play the flute.
I used to play flute in the Civic Orchestra.

Omitting the article also can carry the feeling of playing an instrument in the general sense.

I play woodwinds.

In this case it would sound strange to use the article because you are speaking of a class of instruments.

| improve this answer | |
  • 6
    I don't think I agree that "Anyone can play the guitar" sounds strange. – Chris Dwyer Dec 11 '10 at 23:18
  • @Chris: Yeah, upon further review I don't either. Revising. – Robusto Dec 11 '10 at 23:27
  • Such an amazing answer, Robusto! I never realized all this. Thanks a lot, you've taught me more with this one post than my English teacher did in 4 years. – RiMMER Jun 27 '11 at 20:25
  • 2
    Interesting point about ommission of the article suggesting playing with others. It seems strongly suggestive if the instrument in focus is normally played with others in performance. For example, clarinet, where including the article may simply suggest spent time solo learning to play it. But with, say, guitar I think that nuance pretty much disappears. – FumbleFingers Jul 6 '11 at 23:29
  • 1
    TRomano over on ELL disagrees with the answer, and I'm not fit to judge, not being a native speaker of English. – CowperKettle Jun 25 '16 at 10:50
15

I remember when I first moved from the UK to the US, I was quite taken aback by the “I play piano” usage, without the article. So I’m pretty sure that this usage is very uncommon in the UK (at least among classical music circles). In US usage, Robusto’s answer, that the article-less usage is more common in reference to playing with a particular group, fits my experience (classical groups, north-east US) pretty well.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    Agreed - "I play the piano" is far more common in the UK than the version with no article. – psmears Jun 29 '11 at 20:21
  • 1
    If you use this NGram to check British/American usage, I think it's clear that UK usage increasingly drops the article for all instruments, but this tendency is stronger with more 'modern' guitar than 'traditional' piano. – FumbleFingers Jul 6 '11 at 23:57
  • 1
    Yes - I play zampogna / hurdy-gurdy / crumhorn sound rather strange. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 9 '13 at 22:20
  • 1
    @FumbleFingers in what sense is the guitar more modern? Merriam Webster dates the English word to 1668, a third of a century before the piano was even invented. – phoog Oct 17 '18 at 4:01
  • 1
    @phoog: Historically, the guitar is absolutely the older instrument; but for the last half-century or so, the guitar is more associated with current popular music, and the piano with classical music, thought of by most as more old-fashioned. So it’s easy to believe that e.g. mentions of pianos in the n-grams corpus correlate with writing in a slightly more formal register than mentions of guitars. – PLL Oct 17 '18 at 8:16
7

Articles are creatures more of usage and discourse than of grammar. The human speech communities involved (UK vs US; musicians, cooks, scientists, etc.) have certain patterns and expectations for use in the domains they control. The surrounding text (conversation or writing) also guides usage.
As an American, I accept using or omitting the article before an instrument; they are nearly interchangeable for me. I like the idea above that the article-less usage stresses playing with a group and the article usage stresses the position within the group. As an ESL teacher, I have generally taught that omitting the article highlights the action or activity, almost as if practicing-violin were a single intransitive concept, like swimming. Using the article gives a subtle shift in focus to the instrument. The following is a sentence I would be likely to produce; I would accept any version of this (article-wise) that I might hear: "When he was little he played violin, but he switched to the cello when he got to middle school."

| improve this answer | |
  • +1 for a telling example sentence. I too would accept any [re-]distribution of the article. For reasons I'm not conciously aware of, I'd be slightly more expecting it to be spoken by someone with great interest in the process of playing if the article were swapped from your original version, where the original could be just from a proud but perhaps philistine parent. – FumbleFingers Jul 6 '11 at 23:37
  • The 7 Google hits I found for "played crwth" all seem to be Scrabble- or role-play related. This is a strong argument for regional preferences. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 10 '13 at 9:58
1

I heard somewhere that if the instrument is big and can hardly or even can't be carried (like cello, piano, drum set, harp, grand-piano, organ, etc.) the definite article is needed. I am not sure if that's correct, though.

| improve this answer | |
  • 1
    I'm not sure about needed, but perhaps more used. Those instruments you sit at, rather than hold, such is their stature. – Orbling Dec 12 '10 at 1:13
  • They also tend to be caseless, but few grammarians would suggest a link. – Edwin Ashworth Jul 10 '13 at 10:47
1

I actually play the mandolin in a group and it is a small light instrument that can be very easily carried in a small case, more easily than a guitar so this argument is not good enough. I agree that "I play mandolin" seems to be a modern way of saying "I play the part devoted to the mandolin in this group". "I play the mandolin" is the best way to specify which instrument I play and the normal classical English usage.

| improve this answer | |
1

"I shoulde'v learned to play the guitar, I shoulde'v learned to play them drums" - Dire Straits.

I would definitely go for "the piano". In fact the first sentence sounds strange.

| improve this answer | |
1

I play piano??

This is I understand an American usage and is unacceptable in British or Australian English.

I play strings I play drums

This is the usual option to omit the (indefinite) article - it means you play instruments in this category but doesn't mean you play all stringed instruments (or whatever), but that you play some (and the implication is a few). The drums is a bit of a special case plural representing a singular set of drums or a number of different percussion instruments. If you play a number of different percussion instruments in an orchestra you would normally play drums and other percussion instruments and refer to percussion. The drum set in a band (which also includes non-drum percussion components - big hat, cymbals, etc.) is actually a stand in for the whole percussion section in a full orchestra, so the "role" usage I suggest below prevails.

I play percussion I play woodwind I play brass These are actually an adjective with an implicit "instruments" omitted, so it looks like a mass noun and doesn't have plural -s, but otherwise acts like the "strings" case above.

I'm intrigued by the @brilliant idea that it has to do with being portable.

I think the indefinite usage has more to do with playing a particular role in an ensemble or orchestra where there are multiple instruments playing the X part (implicitly plural even if singular in form), rather than a unique role (so definite singular). Thus it is appropriate to say I play X (meaning the role and the part as well as the instrument). These is confirmed by it being easier to omit the article when the "in the orchestra" or similar is explicitly or implicitly present.

I can say

I play cello I play trombone I play guitar I play banjo

I can't say I play piano?? I play mandolin?? I play harp??

The mandolin is portable. But there are not often multiple of any of these in a typical modern band, ensemble or orchestra. Piano and harp fit both theories.

| improve this answer | |
  • "Play piano" is not just American, cavemen use it also: "Thog play piano... using fists!" – augurar Jan 1 '15 at 9:40
  • Well in that case it's cavemannish not English. Seriously, this is known as "telegraphic speech" and is characterized by omission of functional words (like 'the') and affixes (like -ing or -ed): "Look I'm playing the piano using my fists!" Babies talk something like this (sometimes called a pivot grammar as they have a particular set of pivot words they use with their nouns). Motherese is sometimes misrepresented as being like this (parents should always speak naturally/grammatically, and the instinctive simplifications that assist with language acquisition are quite different). – David M W Powers Jan 3 '15 at 13:49
  • The mandolin isn't portable? What kind of mandolin do you play? (I agree they're not used in marching bands, but neither are guitars.) – Peter Shor Jul 9 '15 at 12:32
  • Whoops... that should have been "mandolin is portable" (now fixed) which was the reason for excluding mandolin from the final statement about fitting both theories. – David M W Powers Jul 15 '15 at 2:09
1

"I play piano" could easily be confused with "I play softly" as in music vocabulary piano means "The sound level when music is played softly". Maybe in this case adding the article "I play the piano" could sound more precise?

| improve this answer | |
New contributor
gabriellapax is a new contributor to this site. Take care in asking for clarification, commenting, and answering. Check out our Code of Conduct.
0

Difficult to give basic rules. One idiomatic use with the definite article is

  • I'm learning to play the piano. Longman DCE.
| improve this answer | |
0

Here is an Ngram chart comparing the frequency of occurrence in published works of the phrases "played piano" (blue line), "played the piano" (red line) and "played a piano" (green line) for the period 175–2019:

The chart indicates that none of the three wordings were especially frequent until the early 1800s, at which point "played the piano" began a steady 120-year ascent, followed by a 30-year dip, followed by another period of increased frequency. For its part, "played piano" became increasingly (although somewhat irregularly) more frequent over the course of the twentieth century, after registering a low frequency throughout the nineteenth century.

The earliest Google Books matches for "played piano" involve instances where the phrase is not equivalent in meaning to "played the piano." For example, from "State of Music on the Continent," in The Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review (Autumn 1823):

March, 1823. On the 20 there was a concert for LEOPOLDINA BLAHETHA, 12 years of age, who played piano variations with orchestral accompaniments, composed by herself. This child merited and received (as usual) much applause.

Here, "played piano" is part of a longer phrase, "played piano variations"—that is "played variations on [the] piano." Elsewhere in this volume, a writer describes a child who "played the piano forte," and the periodical's usual wording for the instrument is "the piano forte," occasionally reduced to "the piano."

And from Tour in Holland in the Year 1819 (1824):

The tones of the organ are very powerful, and when played piano very sweet, but the sound of that at Trent seemed to me, on recollection, to be preferable.

Here, the meaning of piano is "softly" (a complication of "play piano" noted in gabriellapax's answer). Multiple early Google Books matches for "played piano" have this meaning.

The earliest instance I've been able to find in which "played piano" carries the same meaning as "played the piano" is from a note dated March 26, 1843, in "Henri Heine About Music and Musicians," in The Music World (August 7, 1858):

The acquisition of Herr Pixis must have been some compensation to the French. He played piano, composed, too, very neatly, and his little musical pieces were particularly valued by the bird-sellers, who teach canary-birds to sing on hand-organs.

The phrase "played the piano," meanwhile seems to have been firmly established by the early decades of the 1800s. For example, from "Miss Paton," in Pocket Magazine (November 1822):

When only two years old she could name any tone, or semitone, on hearing it sounded—which was frequently ascertained by musical professors at the time. When four years of age, she played the piano, and a small harp, and also sung not only with some execution, but with a style peculiar to herself.

Over the past century, "played piano" and "played the piano" appear most frequently in situations where they could be used interchangeably. For example, from Julie Coryell & Laura Friedman, Jazz-Rock Fusion: The People, the Music (2000):

Miles, the son of Miles Dewey Davis II, a successful dentist and dental surgeon, and a mother who played piano and violin, moved with his family to St. Louis when he was one. Miles's father was a landowner as was his father before him.

And from Julie Coryell & Laura Friedman, Jazz-Rock Fusion: The People, the Music (2000):

I started playing the guitar when I was twenty. I was in college studying psychology and I suddenly realized that the guitar was my instrument and that I wanted to play, so I got a teacher and changed my major to music. I played the piano when I was five, hating every minute of it.

There are certainly some instances where "played the piano" refers to playing a particular piano that has been identified earlier in the same text. That may be what is going on here (from the same book):

There was music in the house all day. I had a sister who played classical piano and sang spirituals. My mother played the piano by ear and I had a brother who played the bass and tenor.

and here (same book again):

I began my involvement with music when I was seven years old by learning to play piano. This was at the encouragement of my mother who also played the piano, and I learned to play piano and learned music theory.

For the most part, however, in present-day English, "played the piano" means "played a type of musical instrument called a piano"—as does "played piano."

| improve this answer | |

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.