Is it acceptable in American English to omit the definite article before the musical instrument (For example, play piano/violin/flute/drum ...)?

Thank you very much for your reply.
1 2
For a start, see to play piano/the piano

TeoIs it acceptable in American English to omit the definite article before the musical instrument (For example, play piano/violin/flute/drum ...)?

Thank you very much for your reply.

Yes it is acceptable.
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I was taught in school we should always say "play the piano". But recently I learned "play the piano" and "play piano" are both correct under certain contexts. The commoner saying is "play the piano". (EX-1) I'm learning to play the piano. (EX-2) When young, she used to play the piano a lot. But the use of "play piano" is better when talking about someone's job. (EX-1) She still plays piano in that orchestra.


Yes. Much depends on the context. 'Play piano' is a general way of speaking. If there were a specific piano in the room, I would say 'Would you like to play the piano for us?'

Best wishes, Clive
Hello Clive

Please take a look at [url=]this thread in Linguists Forum[/url].

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Oh sorry I found all of the replies to the question are now deleted. I saw them two years ago. There7 linguists discussed on this subject. Their conclusion was "to play the piano" is for common uses and "to play piano" means "to be professionally a pianist". But I don't know whether the conclusion is right or wrong.

The talks on the Linguists Forum are preserved in a Japanese site.

Q) Hello, I'm a graduate student at a university in Japan. In English class at Japanese high schools, students were told to put "the" before the name of musical instrument. But I often come across musical instruments without "the" like "play piano". Some English-Japanese dictionaries say that in the case of professionals, "play piano" is used. And some native speakers say there is no difference between "play the piano" and "play piano". Others say they don't use "play the piano" in the negative. Is there any difference between these expressions? Don't you use "play a piano" or "play pianos"?

A1) I play the piano. My husband doesn't play the piano. (both of these sentences are grammatical as well as true!) I've heard "play piano", but it sounds a little odd, or perhaps it is more colloquial. It is more natural to omit the article for sports; e.g., I play tennis (which is grammatical but not true). "Play a piano" has a different meaning from "play the piano." "Play a piano" means that there is a specific piano that one plays once or twice, rather than knowing how to play generally. My Japanese isn't great, but the difference might be, say, between "piano ga dekiru" and "piano o hiku"."Play pianos" might be used to describe someone who makes her living testing out pianos. (Suzan Fischer, New York, USA)

A2) For me, 'play the piano' is the normal wording in most contexts. I am not very familiar with 'play piano', but it does sound like the sort of thing that professional musicians might say. As for 'play a piano', this is only possible for me in a narrative in which it is a specific piano being mentioned and that piano has not previously been mentioned: 'There was an old woman playing a battered piano.' But 'play pianos' does not sound normal at all. You can sell pianos, or tune pianos, but you can't play pianos. I think that's because selling or tuning pianos involves seeing pianos as individual physical objects, while playing the piano involves an acquired skill independent of any particular objects. (Larry Trask, University of Sussex, UK)

A3) For me, "I play/don't play piano" and "I play/don't play the piano" appear to be entirely synonymous in their most usual reading -- for example, a responses to questions like "What do you do in your spare time?" or "Do you play any musical instruments?" I would have to use "the" only if I needed to refer to a piano specifically; for example, "I play the piano in the hall, not the one in the living room," is only possible with "the piano." To say "I play piano in the hall, not in the living room" tells the listener where I am located when I do the piano-playing, but makes no reference to the pianos themselves.(Suzette Haden Elgin)

A4) You are caught up in several interlocking phenomena here, including the following: a) British versus American use, b) generic v specific use c) professional or amateur post in a musical organization versus general ability statement. I'm leaving (a) entirely alone. My comments henceforth are about American English, and there will be some variation in not only dialectal but possibly even idiolectal usage even among Americans. The sentence "She plays pianos." would more usually be taken to mean she goes around trying out or demonstrating various instruments. She plays the piano. is a general statement about her profession or hobby or a particularly art and skill she has. So for instance contrast these two:
1) I like to play the viola.
- A general statement about a preferred or enjoyed activity. The viola here means any viola, referring to the class of instrument.
2) I play viola in the pit orchestra of the Cincinnati Music Theatre Company.
- Here the reference is to the office, or role, position &c in the theatre company.
Observe the grammaticality of 3 with an article, the grammaticality of 4 without, but ungrammaticality of 5 with "the", where 5 refers to the office:
3. She plays the horn.
4. She plays horn in the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra.
5 She plays *the Principal Horn in the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra.
(Joseph F Foster, Ph D, Univ of Cincinnati, OH, USA)

A5) This is a British/American difference (though not often discussed, so far as I have noticed -- I am aware of it only because I lived in the USA for a few years). Britons say "play the piano"; Americans say "play piano" (and similarly for other musical instruments). It isn't just the verb "play"; I think you get "study the piano/study piano" with the same Brit/Am distribution -- and I believe there are some nouns for things other than musical instruments which also pattern similarly, though I can't just call an example to mind at the moment. (Prof. Geoffrey Sampson School of Cognitive & Computing Sciences, University of Sussex)

A6) Interesting question. This is probably one of those situations where answers vary between native speakers. For me "He doesn't play the piano." is perfectly FINE. What differences there may be between "play piano", "play the piano", "play pianos" and "play a piano" would be very subtle. I would suggest the safest course is using "the", but you will be understood even with the other variations. I'm sorry I can't be more specific. (Elizabeth J. Pyatt, Penn Uviv., USA)

[1]play the piano
Her mother also played the piano. It was her mother who got her interested in music.
Of his seven siblings, one brother played the guitar, and all others played the piano.
[2]play piano
Shane Keister played piano in early 1976 until Tony Brown was hired to replace him.
He moved to Newport in 1974 where he played piano, tenor sax and composed music.
[3]play a piano (pianos), play one's piano
Because Emily stayed with us, she and me played a piano together.
Franz Liszt played pianos made by many different manufacturers.
I haven't played my piano in ten years. Do think I need to get it tuned?

"The British use the with a musical instrument (play the piano), but Americans sometimes leave it out (play piano)."

Oxford Guide to English Grammar, by John Eastwood, 1994
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