playing (the) musical instruments

John Wells wrote to ask:
Have you discussed BrE playing the piano/violin vs. AmE playing piano/violin?
Not really, John, and it turns out that it's one of those things that's (all together now!) more complicated than you might think! 

The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) has 689 play* the piano to 309 play* piano. (The * there used as a wildcard in corpus searches; so play* gets us play, playing, played, etc.) That's more than two arthrous (fancy word for having a the) cases for every anarthrous (fancy word for not having a the) one--in American English.

But those numbers need a bit more checking because any dialect would have playing piano music without a the. To get a better comparison, I looked at cases where piano is followed by an adverb (e.g. play [the] piano beautifully/well/loudly/tonight...) so that we can be sure that piano is a noun on its own and not a noun modifying another noun. Doing that, there are 53 arthrous cases and 23 anarthrous ones in COCA. So, pretty much like it was when I didn't take those sane, linguisticky precautions. The British National Corpus, in comparison, has 14 arthrous cases and 1 anarthrous. (But keep in mind that the data from BNC is 20 years older than that in COCA.)

The moral of that part of the story: it would not be right to say that  play piano is AmE for BrE play the piano. Instead, play piano is a lesser-used AmE variant of General English play the piano. The image here, from, illustrates both variants living happily together.

Personally, I could say either, but prefer it with the the.  A bit more rooting around in the Corpus of Historical American English shows a bit of anarthrous piano-playing throughout the 20th century, but it really gets going in the 1970s, when the proportions are like those in COCA.

But hold your horses. If we look at other instruments, it gets more complicated.  (I'm rounding the numbers, unless they're <2 .="" comment-2--="">
  • Violin: In COCA, the is favo(u)red 3:1.  In BNC, 5:1.
  • Harp: In COCA, the 4:1. BNC 8:0.
  • Guitar: Ziggy played guitar. Maybe the Spiders from Mars made him do it without the the, but in 1990s UK, the British were following suit and, like 2010s Americans, using play guitar twice as much as play the guitar. 
  • Bass: Looks like a reversal! COCA 2:1.  BNC: 1:5.
    I tried discounting cases like playing (the) bass line/notes, but taking them out made no real difference.
  • Trumpet: COCA1.4:1. BNC 5:2. 
  • Flute: COCA 4:1. BNC 8:1.
  • Drums: Play drums outnumbers play the drums in both dialects. Is it because it's plural? But what about...
  • Spoons: Tiny numbers, but more the in AmE and equal numbers of both in BrE.
I could go on looking for more instruments, but I won't. (Report your findings in the comments if you wish.) It looks like BrE eschews the more often for stereotypical rock instruments than for others -- guitar, bass, drums (Bowie's fault? American rock'n'roll's fault?). I don't see a clear pattern to the US preferences--but in general it's not completely unusual to have anarthrous ones. Bass is the interesting one for its anarthrousness in BrE.

Is it just with play, though? No. Going back to sticking with piano, COCA has half as many practic(e*) piano as practic(e*) the piano. BNC has four practis(e*) with the and one without.

On piano is also common in COCA (about 1/3 as many as on the piano). BNC has 20 on piano to 73 on the piano--very much the same. In this case, some of the on the pianos will have been about particular, physical pianos, as in I stubbed my toe on the piano. There's no possibility of I stubbed my toe on piano. But if a singer were giving credit to her band, she could say ...and Lynne Murphy on piano! or ...and Lynne Murphy on the piano!  (Not me, of course, I only had a year of lessons.) I'm waiting for one of you to go out and listen to dozens of concerts with British and American singers to tell me if they all say on drums! on bass! 

Finally, the why questions.

Why do we put a the before instruments? It's a funny thing. If I lie and say I play the piano, it's not a particular piano that I am playing. It's that I have the potential to play any piano. (Whereas if I say I've draped myself over the piano, it is a particular piano.) It's kind of like the bus in I ride the bus to work. In that case, it's not the particular physical bus we're talking about--that can vary. It's the whole package that goes with bus-riding. I ride a bus that travels along the route between my street/road and my workplace. There's a package that goes along with pianos too. I'm not just playing the instrument, I'm playing music on the instrument. The music that I know how to play on any "the piano" is kind of like the routes that I travel on any "the bus".

In spite of all that, there's no pressing semantic reason for the the. We don't play the cards or play the dominoes even though similarly, if I say I know how to play dominoes, I'm saying that I know the rules for playing on any instrument of that type (any set of dominoes). [Yes, dominoes are the instrument, not the game--though people who only know one domino game tend to call it 'dominoes'. I am particularly fond of Mexican Train.] So why do we usually have a the with musical instruments, but not with game equipment? (The answer: because that's what we learned to do.)

The arthrous version is unhelpfully ambiguous, so maybe that is a contributor to the rise of the anarthrous alternative. If I say I play the piano I could be trying to point out that I know how to play a piano (so invite me to play at your wedding), or it could be saying that I play a particular piano habitually (so don't get rid of it). I play piano doesn't seem to have that ambiguity, so could be seen as more communicatively efficient. The play + bare-noun construction is familiar, since we say things like I play tennis, I play jazz, I play goalie.

If you want to carry the conversation toward(s) other cases of (an)arthrous variation in AmE and BrE, have a look at the past posts with the 'determiners' label. I've written about some of the famous ones already, and your comments on them would be most welcome at those old posts (which are still regularly read). And you're most welcome to carry on the conversation about musical instruments (and games) on this post, of course!


  1. I (BrE, seventies)

    • always say play the for any musical instrument if it means 'I habitually play this class of instrument'.

    • sometimes say play the when I mean 'I am capable of playing this class of instrument'.

    • often say plays guitar, plays drums etc when i mean 'is the guitarist, is the drummer' etc in a particular group.

  2. Come to think of it, I also use plays guitar, plays piano and especially played guitar, played piano when discussing a genre where only a few different instruments are played.

    So I can't imagine myself saying She plays double bassoon or He plays viola da gamba. But I can say Peetie Wheatstraw played both guitar and piano.

  3. When you tweeted on September 9 that you'd spent the weekend playing Mexican Train but didn't yet have a finished blog post, my *first* thought was, "Is that a game or a euphemism?". If it was a game, I could tell it was probably one involving dominoes.

    So I looked it up (on, and learned that it's a domino game involving a double twelve set! That raises the question of whether double twelve dominoes are easy to come by in America, because that would be a difference right there (albeit not a linguistic one). The oldest and most common dominoes are double six; the dominoes I grew up with are double nine; I've never seen a double twelve set except in photos online.

    I invented my own game for dominoes once, called "Peaks and Pits". In fact, it is mentioned and linked to in my second-ever blog post, way back in 2006: (I am linking to the blog post and not directly to the game because, in the event that readers would like to try the game, that gives them somewhere to post comments). It has never been played with a double-twelve set, and it would be interesting to learn how that goes.

    I could talk about games all day, but this is probably long enough for now.

  4. Is there any quick and easy way of eliminating arthrous examples from your corpuses where 'the' is specifying a particular piano/other instrument rather than the general ability?

  5. I can feel the same as David Crosbie. I could also add that 'piano' can be understood as the adverb (I can play piano = I can play softly), hence a confusion if used without the article.
    I think it became 'play piano' because of the way it is pronounced ('the' being a week form), but not only: all this must stem from a general -American- trend towards assimilation. When two forms serve NEARLY the same purpose, then 'they' stop using one of them (cf. present perfect v. simple past).
    Would you agree?

  6. I wouldn't agree, Monique. Language is changing in both places for a lot of reasons. An example that is very much like the present perfect/simple past is use of progressive -ing forms over plain present. Despite people wanting to blame McD's 'I'm lovin' it', the trend seems stronger (and if I recall correctly, older) in UK. (This has been studied by the Survey of English Usage at University College London.) And, of course, a lot of so-called Americanisms are words that Brits stopped using because they were close in function to another. But I won't go on with examples; that's why I've written lots of other blog posts! :)

  7. What about play the cards/horses/whatever to mean gambling?

  8. I read a letter recently from a BBC Radio 3 listener complaining about announcers' lowering standards in referring to classical musicians by using the “jazz music” terminology ‘on piano’ rather than the correct ‘on the piano’.

    So it may be that variation is at least partly by style of music being mentioned, not just the locality of the speaker (though I have no evidence that the letter-writer was correct in their belief).

    I do remember thinking how quaint that the writer's example of nasty modern non-classical music was jazz, but unfortunately not where I read the letter. I had thought ‘The Telegraph’, but having just searched there am unable to find it. Possibly it was in ‘The Guardian’ or ‘Radio Times’ (but they wouldn't fit my archetype of the traditionalist letter writer fighting against the modern world quote as well).

    Anybody else read that and can remember where it was? Oh, and apologies if you were the letter writer and I've misrepresented you.

  9. I [BrE, 50's] would say "my nephew plays the guitar", but I would also say "he plays bass guitar in his main band but lead guitar in his other band".

    I think I would also say "my niece plays the bassoon" but "she played tenor bassoon in the Frost partita". Although if they were combined together into one sentence I think I would add "the" in front of "tenor bassoon" (otherwise it would sound strange).

  10. RWMG

    There's probably no computer program that could sort out the ambiguity of pay the piano in a databank, but I think there may be an easy way to disambiguate individual sentences. Well, at least some of them...

    I can see (at least four confusable meanings

    1. be a practitioner of any instrument of a named class: be a pianist, a trumpeter etc
    2. know how to play any instrument of a named class
    3. have the role of playing one class of instruments in contrast to others in a relatively small set
    4. play a particular instrument: a unique example of a named class

    Adding a descriptive adjective tends to sort these out

    a. She plays the etherial theramon / the mellifluous cello / the warbling flute
    b. She goes to the pub and plays the rickety piano / the moth-eaten squeezebox

    Both of these demand an article; we can't say
    *She plays etherial thermion and rickety piano

    The meaning of the adjective disambiguates between meanings (1) and (4)

    • In (a) etherial, mellifluous, warbling clearly describe all thermions. cellos, flutes. In the grammatical terminology I'm familiar with the is used for generic reference.
    • In (b) rickety, moth-eaten can only describe a particular instruments. A great many pianos are not rickety and not all squeak-boxes are moth-eaten. In grammatical terms the is used for specific reference.

    • Texts like (b) are unambiguously sense (4). Generic-reference texts like (a) are most likely to be sense (1) — for pragmatic reasons.
    • In texts like (2) the main point to get across is mastery (even if limited) of a class. In (3) the communicative emphasis is on the role. In either case a descriptive adjective is a distraction from the essential point.
    • Texts of senses (2) and (3) are generally in that this communicative thrust is usually evident.
    • An extra test for sense (3) is whether you can substitute plays the with is on.

  11. Like the others, I'd (BrE, late middle-age, Southern) agree that I'd say "My friend plays the piano" generally (if I didn't say he was a pianist). But what about teaching it? I think I'd say "He's a music teacher. He teaches piano", and I'd certainly say "He taught piano [or "he gave piano lessons"] to fund himself through university."

    The trouble is, I find, the more I try to think what I do say, the less sure I become.....

  12. I would expect them to be entirely arthrous, so perhaps a little off-topic, but what about the the use of "at" with instruments
    in British and American classical music broadcasting, particularly but not only with concertos? I'm thinking of identifications like "And that was [name and opus number] performed by the [orchestra], with [soloist] at the [instrument]" A little
    online searching reveals many confusibilia along with examples like "Heifetz played the Mendelssohn concerto with Marcel van Gool at the piano." When I hear "and Sir James Galway at the flute" I giggle a little, as instruments smaller than a grand don't seem like a location.

  13.     I tried discounting cases like playing (the) bass

        line/notes, but taking them out made no real difference.

    I wonder if that's still a factor — even without an explicit mention of a bassline or bass notes, could people still be thinking (at least partly/subconsciously) of the musical role being filled, rather than the instrument being played?

  14. "At" the instrument suggests to me something big and standing in front of you - "Seated one day at the organ".

  15. I am from the US and in my 50s, and I use 'the' in all instances.

    I was surprised that it's mostly anarthrous in the US, so I'm wondering if I'm different because of my age.

  16. Carol, have a look again--it's not mostly anarthrous in the US! It's a minority variant.

  17. Mrs Redboots

    I'm somewhat older than you and I would never normally say He teaches piano,

    The one context without thethat I can think of is if I were discussing the staff of a music school. He teaches piano and she teaches cello.

  18. Lynne

    I tried discounting cases like playing (the) bass line/notes

    In jazz and groups (and maybe in groups of other genres) this meaning is reflected in the use of the word bass to refer indiscriminately to either a string bass (in other genres called a double bass) or a bass guitar. So playing bass refers essentially to the musical role in the ensemble — just as it does in singing bass.

  19. Slightly off topic: this made me think of the times I have teased my teenagers (they think I'm so old anyway) by saying, "I saw it on THE facebook." Elderly residents of my fairly rural area will refer to road names with THE, as in, "We saw a deer on THE Lattin Road" or "Take THE Draffin Road to THE Trimmer Road" whereas residents under 60 never use THE before a road name. I thought it might be a holdover from days when Lattin Road went only to the Lattin Farm.

    With instruments, I think I (Am 50s) mostly do not use THE. A possible exception being if talking about someone in a school band or orchestra-- She plays the clarinet (in the band). But when speaking generally, She plays clarinet.

  20. I play the piano, and my experience matches your findings. I think you're on to something when you mention "stereotypical rock instruments" -- I'd say that the same applies to jazz instruments, and that would explain the usage of "play bass". In the "classical" music world (for want of a better term) the instrument would more likely be called a double-bass, and a "bass" is a singer, not an instrument.

    Smylers, I don't think that correspondent's use of the word "jazz" was quaint. Jazz is to this day regularly broadcast on BBC Radio 3, where that correspondent possibly hears jazz idioms in use.

  21. It reminded me of Jamie Cullum's jazz show on BBC Radio 2 (it's a fantastic show!). He always says "(name of the musician) on the double bass/ on the piano...". Just out of curiosity, I have to check when exactly he uses THE :)

  22. The piano is not a difficult instrument to learn.
    Dominoes is not a difficult game to learn.

    Anyone claim opposite arthrosity(?) works with either of these examples?

  23. As a UK teacher of young children it is hard to deal with the present tense. When they are asked to think of examples in sentences the children tend to think only of " I am sitting" and never "I sit". I have spent a lot of time trying to get them to think of alternatives but it takes a lot to do it.

  24. I'm intrigued by the grammar of play piano — or rather by its apparent ungrammaticality.

    Play the piano is completely grammatical. The the signifies either generic reference (any old piano, pianos in general) or specific reference (that old joanna). But what can bare piano refer to? It's hardly a substance and it's hard to see it as an abstraction like music or performance.

    To my mind it's a sort of idiom — except that the meaning isn't uniquely attached to one string of words. There's also play guitar, play drums etc. Nevertheless, it's idiom-like in that most verbs simply can't collocate with bare piano (or do so with difficulty). It's hard to say
    appreciate piano
    hear piano
    record piano
    write for piano
    [although write for piano and string trio sounds fine.

    As Zouk Delors points out bare piano can't easily stand as Subject of a clause. We don't say
    Piano is a difficult instrument to learn
    Piano is hard to tune
    Piano often supplies accompaniment
    Piano can sound jangly
    Piano has an enormous repertoire

    In all these examples we can easily use the piano as Object or Subject.

    In short, play the piano is a normal construction; play piano is idiomatic. So it's hardly surprising that the idiomatic phrase is less common than the normal construction — even in the dialect (AmE) where it's not as rare as in the other (BrE).

    Given that play piano is the oddity, I think it's highly plausible that it has spread in particular contexts —firstly (as several have suggested) in talking about jazz, from there to talk of rock groups and the like.

    This perhaps explains Graham's nephew who plays the guitar as a general proposition but plays bass guitar and plays lead guitar in different groups. However, it fails to explain Graham's niece who in a very different genre played tenor bassoon in the Frost partita.

    To explain both cases I suggest that play [name of instrument] has become a idiom class to describe musical roles irrespective of the musical genre. Everyday language doesn't find this difficult to accommodate because play regularly collocates with words denoting a role: pay Hamlet, play the lead, play the fool etc.

    By the way, I don't know whether Graham's niece is an invention, but my Uncle Lionel was very real. Of him I can say:

    He played the flute. When he played for Mantovani he made sure that he could play piccolo in a few numbers, so that he could claim extra payment in his contract.

  25. I'm American, mid-20s, and I think I'd use the anarthrous version of play in most contexts, but both sound fine to me.


    I'd leave off the "the" in your first example:
    Piano is not a difficult instrument to learn.
    But "the dominoes" doesn't work.


    I find most of your examples perfectly grammatical, actually.
    "Appreciate piano", "hear piano", and "write for piano" sound normal.

    Similarly, I *would* say:
    Piano is a difficult instrument to learn
    Piano often supplies accompaniment
    Piano can sound jangly
    Piano has an enormous repertoire.

    Both "record piano" and "Piano is hard to tune" sound odd but I think it's because I think of recording and tuning as something done to particular physical pianos rather than the abstract "piano" as a type of instrument. I think I'd say "Pianos are hard to tune" and "record some piano".

  26. Northeastern US resident (and immigrant from Russia 25 years ago) here, and here are me. I used to play violin, not "the violin". That sounds completely wrong to me (unless I was responding to "what instrument did you used to play?" in which case I could see saying either). I spent spent hours every day playing the violin, because it was the same violin (or at least for any particular day it was the same violin). Trumpet seems to follow the same rules in my mind.

    "Play harp" sounds completely wrong to me. Conversely, "Play the guitar" sounds wrong to me, unless it's pronounced (or spelled) "GEE-tar" in a mock southern/blues accent.

    With piano, I don't find this rigidity. My brother used to play (the) piano, and I'm fine saying that either way. Same with flute and drum(s).

    Something else is going on with "playing bass" due to interference from baseball terminology, although "playing base" does not seem to be a baseball term (without specifying which base the person is playing). But maybe that's why US (including me) prefers the "the" version. More so with "on base" which *is* a baseball term (not to mention military bases).

  27. I did some research in Google Books which suggests that "play piano" is one of the many examples of German usage influencing American musical terminology (others include "concert master", "quarter note").

    In the early nineteenth century, only "play the piano" is found in Google books. "Play piano" where it is found, means "play softly", using the word in its original Italian meaning.

    The first example I found of "play piano" meaning "to play the piano" comes from 1858, in Dwight's Journal of Music, an American publication based in Boston. The article is discussing the varying musical tastes of Italians and Germans. The use of quotation marks suggests that the phrase was new, and it is explicitly suggested that the phrase derived from German:

    So much, for the present, for the Italian predilection. Another class of our subscribers, reasonably enough, beset us, saying: We cannot sing, but we do "play piano" (to use the quaint German phrase, which drops the article); give us sometimes something for our fingers.

    Link to original, in the Internet Archive. Emphasis has been added.

    I don't speak German, but some online research suggests that Germans say "Spielst du Klavier?" for "Do you play [the] piano?". So the theory seems plausible.

  28. Alyssa

    "Piano is" doesn't really jar on my ear though I don't *think* I've heard it before, and doubt I'll ever use it myself. I've read somewhere, though, that it's young women's use of a language that will most strongly influence its future development, so maybe I will one day -- unless it's like scientific theories which, according to Max Planck, triumph not by convincing their opponents and making them see the light, but rather because their opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with them. Not that I'm opposed to your usage, but I may perhaps die before I ever adopt it (I'm a British male, somewhat older than you).

  29. This comment has been removed by the author.

  30. Brilliant detective work vp!

    And I'm willing to believe that your conclusion is right for that group of German-Americans. But I'm a bit sceptical as to how general it can be.

    Only Americans with musical education say quarter note and only Americans with and interest in concert orchestras say concert master. But most (all?) Americans say play piano, as do a great many Brits.

    That journalist found play piano 'quaint' but he had no difficulty understanding it. I would guess that the idiom (I still insist that it was an idiom) sprang up many times in many contexts and, being easily understood, was adopted many times.

    And subsequently in Britain. We BrE speakers can all instinctively grasp what's meant by play piano, whereas quarter note and concert master are totally incomprehensible — unless and until the terms are explained to us.

  31. Other Brits have told me that they are learning to play 'jazz piano' or 'stride piano' but they were more advanced than those who are just learning how to play the piano.
    On the other hand, singers sing soprano, alto etc when they take the soprano/alto line.

  32. David:

    I think you may underestimate the influence of German immigrants on American speech. Germans were the largest immigrant group to come here in the 19th century, and tended to settle in more rural areas instead of big cities, so their descendants are far more widely spread out than those of, say, Italian or Jewish immigrants. Correlating areas where "play piano" is common with German settlement locations could be very illuminating.

    As far as "quarter note", I had no idea there was any other name than that, and the only music education I've ever had is the violin lessons I've been taking for the last year and a half. I went to Wikipedia to see what you were talking about. "Crotchet"? Really? I have literally never heard this before. "Minim" is also entirely new to me. I have heard of quavers before, but didn't know what they were.

  33. And, of course, on the musical note front, all is revealed here:

    I shouldn't have been surprised by this, because I've found the half/quarter/eight note terminology to be a clearing of logic in a nearly impenetrable forest of ancient musical jargon.:)

  34. As an American I agree with Kirk Poore's comments and I also wonder how David Crosbie can make sweeping generalizations about the influence, or lack thereof, of German immigrants on our American language and that only Americans with musical education or interest in concert orchestras could possibly say something that is unfamiliar to him.

  35. I too was wondering about the possible influence of other immigrant languages on American English. I don't know any Russian, but I've heard that it either has no articles (like Latin) or uses them quite differently from English. So I've heard the comment that some native Russian speakers either omit all the 'the's' or, knowing that English has a lot of them, splatter them at random in the hope that they'll at least get some of them right.

    As a native English English speaker, I've agreed with how David Crosbie has described usage as I know it and speak it.

    Even if they are OK and normal somewhere else,
    Piano is a difficult instrument to learn
    Piano often supplies accompaniment
    Piano can sound jangly
    Piano has an enormous repertoire.
    all sound odd to me.

    So does 'play guitar' whether pronounced the normal way or gueetar.

  36. Jane Elizabeth

    It's the same on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain only those with some musical education or self-education — however slight — know what a crochet is. And only this with some interest in concert orchestras know that the leader of an orchestra is one of the violin players.

    I made no suggestion as to the general influence or non-influence of german on American speech. I'm just sceptical that the explanation is necessary for the particular idiom play piano.

  37. Kirk Poore

    I've found the half/quarter/eight note terminology to be a clearing of logic in a nearly impenetrable forest of ancient musical jargon

    But we're not starting from zero. We learn the terminology that everybody has used before us. Logic doesn't enter into it. Because I learned semibreve, minim, crotchet, quaver the terms are crystal clear. The American terms mean virtually nothing to me because although I can see the length relationships, I never remember which of them equals a crotchet.

    OK, I recognise the American terms, but I forget the translations.

  38. David:

    Of course logic comes into it. If you can infer the relative length of a note from the name, that's logic. If you have to memorize a group of names and their order, that is more work than simply knowing one name and then deducing the order of the rest. Given that I find that musical terms are jumble of Italian, French, Latin, and who-knows-what-other-language words that have been run through a cement mixer and then had all the serial numbers filed off, any bit of logic is a welcome change. Since I started learning to play music at 54 and not as a child, I'm probably less forgiving of arbitrary vocabulary than, say, your average eight-year-old music student.

  39. Dru

    Yes it's true that Russian has no articles whatsoever. My wife is Russian and speaks excellent English, but every once in a while makes a language mistake. Almost invariably it's question of the or not-the.

    On the subject of music, we find it impossible to discuss keys. In English we speak of C, D, E, F, G A, as well as C-sharp, C-flat etc. In Russian they use do, re, mi, fa,, sol, la, si. Contrary to the way we use the sol-fa notes, do = C, re = D etc.

    Neither AmE nor BrE uses the pan-European terms derived from diesis 'sharp' and bemol 'flat'.

    Another exception: German so far as I can tell uses b-moll (which sounds very like French bémol) to mean 'B minor', which has made it extra confusing when trying to discuss Russian sol bemol etc.

  40. Kirk Poore

    I can infer the relative length of a note from the (to me) weird American terminology. But thatt's no use whatsoever in recognising the absolute length.

    Logic helps you learn the names if you start from zero. But as the old saying goes, if we had some eggs and some ham, we'd have some ham and eggs. Nobody here starts from zero. In a matter of minutes we learn the tiny set of Italian-based names.

    You can't learn the BrE names because your head is filled with AmE names. I can't retain the AmE names in memory for the same reason.

  41. I'll third Kirk Poole and Jane Elizabeth's comments, a) the german-influence theory sounds plausible and it would be interesting to test it against whatever data could be found, and b) quarter notes, term and concept both, are pretty much common knowledge in the US. But i'm not sure what that has to do with anything.

  42. And I generally play piano or guitar without the "the", which does have something to do with this all.

  43. I said

    In Britain only those with some musical education or self-education — however slight — know what a crochet is.

    I should add that many many more people know that a crotchet is something to do with music and the length of notes. This is thanks to one of the 'silly things to do' on the radio 'antidote to panel games' named I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. Each of the 'contestants' has to sing along with a record and continue singing when the sound is turned off. After a while the sound is turned up again and the 'host' promises:

    If within a gnat's crotchet you're in time with the original, I'll be awarding points. And points mean prizes. (to audience) What do points mean?

    A running gag is to alter the definition of points. But whatever the question-master has said before, the audience always answer the question with a shout of PRIZES!.

    There are no comparable clues to the meaning of semibreve, minim and quaver.

  44. This is all very interesting.

    I'm an American with about 3/4 German heritage, but I would say and usually hear "play the piano"; to me "play piano" and "Piano is a difficult instrument to learn" and other such examples sound very odd. I would also say "play the guitar," but for some reason (probably the influences of jazz etc. described above) "play guitar" sounds OK.

    Of course, I can't carry a tune, and my one childhood foray into learning a musical instrument (the guitar) ended abruptly when my teacher realized I couldn't tell the difference between the notes she was playing on the piano nor could I tell if my guitar was in tune with them or not. So, I don't discuss playing either instrument often.

  45. David

    "I can infer the relative length of a note from the (to me) weird American terminology. But that's no use whatsoever in recognising the absolute length"

    The "quarter-note" ("crochet" to you and me) is one quarter (clue!) of a bar in 4/4 ("common") time, isn't it? Seems reasonable enough. (Don't mention the hemidemisemiquaver, anyone. Please!)

    PS Anyone here play (e.g.) "a bit of (the?) guitar?

    PPS I expect no prizes for mentioning that the ISIHAC game is called "Pick up Song", btw.

  46. Zouk Delors

    The "quarter-note" ("crochet" to you and me) is one quarter (clue!) of a bar in 4/4 ("common") time, isn't it?

    If you say so. I've been told what a quarter note is several times, but it's all-too-easy to forget. My mind is filled with the perfectly serviceable word crotchet and there's limited room for a foreign term.

    Of course it's obviously a quarter of something — but one need to remember what it's a quarter of.

  47. This comment has been removed by the author.

  48. Zouk, Yesterday I thought I understood why I've always been confused by quarter note — and posted my explanation as a reply to you.

    I've now deleted it because it was muddled nonsense. There's no escaping it quarter note just confuses me. It's a word from a foreign language which refuses to fit into my BrE mindset.

    I'll try to remember that it's based on the strange idea that 4/4 is more normal than other time signatures.

  49. I'm in awe of the marvelous variability, not to say shiftiness, of these alternatives, which far surpasses mere Am/Br difference. Like the cartoon, I have both the arthrous and an- choices available to me, and now I am very curious to see if I can figure out why I use which.

    @David Crosbie, all you have to stipulate is that a whole note is more normal than other whole units, and then divide it into four. Have you, or has anyone here, ever spent an idle moment pondering why the English system has as its largest commonly-used term a half-something, and specifically a "half-short"? I wouldn't argue against the proposal that this illogicality makes it more appealing, but I won't start using it, either.

  50. (Maybe I should add that I do know what the semi-breve is half of, that is, what history is encapsulated in the terms. It's just fun, like the jumbo being the smallest olive, or whatever.)

  51. bklyaharuspex

    all you have to stipulate is that a whole note is more normal than other whole units, and then divide it into four.

    The idea that a whole note is 'more normal' is not much use if you can't remember what it's supposed to be.

    Have you, or has anyone here, ever spent an idle moment pondering why the English system has as its largest commonly-used term a half-something, and specifically a "half-short"?

    Yes, it's been done on this blog at musical notes.

  52. gidds: "I wonder if that's still a factor — even without an explicit mention of a bassline or bass notes, could people still be thinking (at least partly/subconsciously) of the musical role being filled, rather than the instrument being played?"

    For me (AmE), I think that plays a role. In the context of playing in a band or orchestra, I think I default almost infallibly to the anarthrous form: "Fred plays trombone in the school band."

    I can speculate that, "Fred plays the trombone...", would be misleading unless he's the only trombonist. That is, without the article, Fred plays the role of trombonist, perhaps among many others*, whereas with the article, Fred is the guy who picks up the only trombone when the conductor raises his baton.

    In some cases, this role-based terminology is nearly required, IMO: "What do you play?" "Percussion." (Note: "The percussion" is impossible for me to imagine in that context, and "The percussion instruments" would seem very forced.)

    Once this pattern has been established, I will also speculate that it tends to drift over into other contexts as well.

    * I have been 14th trombone in a band. Regrettably, there were not 76 trombones in that band. I was never very good. 8-)

  53. The reason why "quarter notes" are so called is an accident of the history of musical notational practice. To quote from Wikipedia on mensural notation (the notation used in the Middle Ages), "The basic metrical relationship of a long to a short beat shifted from longa–breve in the 13th century, to breve–semibreve in the 14th, to semibreve–minim by the end of the 15th, and finally to minim–semiminim (i.e., half and quarter notes, or minim and crotchet) in modern notation. Thus, what was originally the shortest of all note values used, the semibreve, has become the longest note used routinely today, the whole note." So when time signatures of the modern form, with one figure above another, were invented, the semibreve was not such a bad choice of unit.

    It's not connected to 4/4 time in particular. Four was never the prevalent number of beats to the bar. In the Middle Ages, music was notated without bar lines. And, to translate a mediaeval concept into modern language, the tempus (number of beats to the bar) was 2 or 3 -- tempus perfectum indicating 3 and tempus imperfectum 2.

  54. When I read this the Vivian Stanshall song "The Intro and the Outro" came into my head. He only uses "on the" once, for saxophone, in a list of 30 odd instruments.
    The lyrics are spoken so this hasn't been done for the rhythm.

    And Neil Innes, piano
    Come in, Rodney Slater, on the saxophone
    With Roger Ruskin Spear, on tenor sax
    Hi, Vivian Stanshall, trumpet
    Big hello to big John Wayne, xylophone
    And Robert Morley, guitar
    Billy Butlin, spoons

  55. (American, not-quite-20) Both "I play the piano" and "I play piano" sound fine to me, but with "the" seems more formal. I think that's why it sounds weird to me to say "He plays double-bassoon" instead of "He plays the double-bassoon" while the reverse is true when talking about the instruments one would play in a band ("He plays bass in his garage band" sounds natural but "He plays the bass in his garage band" sounds downright weird) - the double-bassoon is a traditionally classical instrument and would be played in formal contexts like orchestras, whereas bands are a less formal, lower-register sort of thing. Jazz can go either way for me - "He plays sax" and "He plays the sax" both sound equally good (but honestly using "saxophone" in either case would be weird). Honestly, I use both variants pretty often and switch between them unconsciously. Same when using "teaches" with instruments, for me - arthrous is more formal, anarthrous more colloquial, but in general either works.
    Interesting fact - my first-year roommate at university played the trumpet in our (fairly renowned) university football marching band, and my best friend in middle school played trumpet in her high school band. ;)

  56. I think, bass, it's that the double bassoon is relatively unusual instrument even for its idiom, rather than it being formal.

    A perfect parallel in jazz is Sidney Bechet. It's OK to say of different records

    He played clarinet
    He played soprano sax

    But on a wonderful 1924 record of Mandy Make Up Your Mind (check it out)

    He played the bass sarrusophone.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)