Why should we say "play the piano" instead of "play a piano"?

71

15

We can say "ride a bike", "drive a car", why should we say "play the piano" instead of "play a piano"?

August

Posted 2015-08-10T05:42:30.723

Reputation: 1 323

2I believe the question means, why do we say these things in regard to skills? I.e. the question is not about how we describe actual activities. – LarsH – 2015-08-10T18:07:50.913

Answers

61

Contrary to what is being said by other answerers, there is a real reason for this, and it's not just for musical instruments.

We use the phrasing "play the piano" because the piano isn't technically what is being played - it's the tool by which music is being played.

We see this type of phrase whenever someone uses the tool as a reference to the activity. You "wield the sword" as a swordfighter. You "wield the pen" as an author. You "use the keyboard", you "work the shovel". An alcoholic would "bury themselves in the bottle". An artist would "wield the brush" and a photographer would "wield the camera".

The construction also works with the tool replaced with the... well, the canvas, or whatever equivalent it might be. A farmer would "work the soil", the artist would "work the canvas", and the traveller would "ride the rail".

Glen O

Posted 2015-08-10T05:42:30.723

Reputation: 735

But you ride a bike or horse. – Random832 – 2015-08-11T03:28:07.333

2@Random832 - that's because bike and horse aren't really "tools" in the same way. But you can hear it used this way for them if you're talking to someone who is using "bike" or "horse" in place of an activity, like "get back on the horse" or "master the bike". – Glen O – 2015-08-11T05:05:45.403

2that's because bike and horse aren't really "tools" in the same way Why? – Mast – 2015-08-11T12:09:31.890

3@Mast - when you "ride a bike", the normal use of that term is simply referring to the act of riding a bike - there's no deeper meaning to the phrase than that. It's specifically about biking. On the other hand, when you say "playing the piano", it's not just referring to the physical act of playing a piano, but also to the creation of music, with the piano being just a tool for that music creation. One could play a piano by randomly hitting keys... but that's not really "playing the piano". Unless the bike is being used to do something else (not just "travelling"), it's just a bike. – Glen O – 2015-08-11T12:57:20.207

2Most of these examples sound horribly archaic, over-ambitious or downright clumsy. Particularly "wield the camera" and "ride the rail". – Pharap – 2015-08-11T13:02:12.110

@Pharap - they're certainly not as common as "play the piano", but they are in use. A google search for "wield the camera" (in quotes) gets nearly 33,000 hits. And "ride the rail" has two different meanings, both specifically noted on wikipedia (one is another way of saying "run out of town on a rail", the other refers to Freighthopping) - and you also get "ride the rails". If any of my examples are clumsy, it's "use the keyboard" (on the other hand, I've heard people use the term "drive the mouse" as a way to refer to taking control of the computer). – Glen O – 2015-08-11T13:32:56.483

3I think the heuristic is: "<verb> the <something awesome>" and "<verb> a <something not awesome>". Musical instruments = awesome, bicycles = kids' toys. Usually, being a tool that is used for great things increases a noun's awesomeness points. – Aleksandr Dubinsky – 2015-08-11T21:29:00.133

@AleksandrDubinsky - if you think that's the reason for it, then give it as an answer. That said, people will "Play the triangle"... I'm not sure anybody considers the triangle to be "awesome". And a lot of people think motorbikes are awesome, but you'd still say "ride a motorbike". – Glen O – 2015-08-12T05:20:33.963

Your answer is not quite right. The real reason is that we use the definite article in English when referring to a generic object rather than an indefinite one. For example, "Wild monkeys live in the forest." Similarly "can play the piano" means "can play a generic piano". "ride a bike" refers to the action itself because "a" signals an indefinite "bike", while "ride the bike" refers to the ability to "ride a generic bike". – user21820 – 2015-08-12T16:12:23.860

@user21820 - if you feel that's an appropriate explanation, provide your own answer. But I do feel that my explanation better captures how it's used, rather than the formal explanation. I'm a native English speaker, and I'm having a hard enough time trying to figure out how you differentiate between a "generic object" and an "indefinite object". – Glen O – 2015-08-12T16:49:36.480

@GlenO: I can't provide an answer as it is protected and I just joined to give you my comments. By "generic object" I mean that it is not a specific object in the context and can apply to any instance of the same object. That is why "he is playing the piano" means "he is playing an instrument which is generically called 'the piano'" whereas "he is playing a piano" means "he is playing some particular piano". That is why I didn't say your answer is completely wrong, just that it is actually due to a more general unconsciously learnt rule for the definite article. – user21820 – 2015-08-13T01:39:39.930

@user21820 - that doesn't explain why you don't say "I learned to ride the bike", since in that case, "the bike" is a generic object, too. – Glen O – 2015-08-13T06:16:30.127

@GlenO: I am a native speaker and I find both okay. A google search suggests that both are found in existing corpus texts. Perhaps different dialects have slightly different unconsciously learnt rules, but at least for "wield the sword" your explanation is insufficient since we definitely must use the indefinite article in "he wielded a gem-encrusted sword" despite the sword being just a tool in the sword-fighting. The reason according to my analysis is that whenever we describe a tool it is no longer generic and hence we have to use the indefinite article if there are others of the same kind. – user21820 – 2015-08-13T07:12:51.290

Unless you mean that you use the definite article when referring to the mere activity, in which case my explanation already covers it because describing the activity by referring to the tool needs a reference to a generic tool. I proposed my explanation because it should also cover other such 'non-definite' uses of the definite article such as my earlier example of "lives in the forest". – user21820 – 2015-08-13T07:19:15.553

@user21820 - I don't think you understood my answer. It's not that one would always say "wield the sword". It's that if you wanted to refer to the act of swordfighting, you'd say "wield the sword" as opposed to the specific action of wielding a sword. That doesn't mean all instances of using "the" instead of "a" must refer to this usage - "lives in the forest" is a different situation. The point is, what you've said distinguishes between generic and indefinite, but it doesn't establish why "piano" is being used as generic while "bike" is being used as indefinite. – Glen O – 2015-08-13T11:08:45.790

Note that if you google for "learn to ride the bike", the first two links end up referring to specific bikes, not generic ones. And nobody would say "as easy as riding the bike", whereas one might say "as hard as playing the piano". So again, you haven't explains the distinction sufficiently, whereas I believe I have. – Glen O – 2015-08-13T11:11:34.370

@GlenO I can't post an answer because the overlords of this site have "protected" this question. – Aleksandr Dubinsky – 2015-08-13T12:54:33.527

@AleksandrDubinsky - OK, but what's your response to my point about motorbikes? – Glen O – 2015-08-13T13:29:37.800

I was of course not referring to spurious google results but those that come from actual corpuses, where indeed there are both forms. But your last comment about "as easy as X" does show that it's not as simple as I thought. So I retract all my claims. =) – user21820 – 2015-08-13T13:50:17.847

@GlenO It seems all vehicles get "a", even the really awesome ones. (Maybe because all vehicles are equally awesome? Except the Segway. Omg, noo, the stupid Segway gets a "the"!). Anyway, most tools don't get "the". ("I use a shovel," not "I work the shovel"), unless one wants to be poetic and/or pretentious. "The" = poetic device. – Aleksandr Dubinsky – 2015-08-15T10:51:23.477

@AleksandrDubinsky - I'm not saying that we use "the" for tools. I'm saying we use "the" when we use tools as a reference to the activity the tool is used in. "I use a shovel and a brush" is talking about a shovel and a brush. "I work the shovel and the brush" is a fancy way of saying "I'm an archaeologist". "I play the piano" is in the same category, it's just a more standardised example of it. – Glen O – 2015-08-15T12:19:59.337

@GlenO I this the word "work" is the reference to the activity. – Aleksandr Dubinsky – 2015-08-15T17:29:51.970

@AleksandrDubinsky - No, it's a description of the type of activity ("work"), but not the specific activity. Kind of like how "throw" doesn't tell you that you're "throwing in the towel" (and not "throwing in a towel"). The verb tells you the kind of activity, but the noun tells you the specifics. Incidentally, I don't think anybody would call a towel particularly "awesome". (note: "the towel" is referencing the item/tool used to demonstrate giving up) – Glen O – 2015-08-15T17:34:25.300

"I drive a truck" is a reference to a type of activity too. It is a non-fancy way of saying you're a truck driver. Saying "I drive the truck" would actually refer to some specific truck. Let's face it, this discussion is pointless. English is often an ad-hoc language with little logic. Maybe you're partially right. Maybe I'm partially right. It would be fascinating to really look at the statistics and study the correlations. But the overriding scheme is utter arbitrariness. – Aleksandr Dubinsky – 2015-08-15T19:11:44.603

@AleksandrDubinsky - The thing is, a truck driver drives trucks. The truck is the focus of the activity, not the tool used for the activity. On the other hand, a truck driver is "behind the wheel". The wheel is used to drive the truck, the truck is the focus and the wheel is the tool. Just as the music is the focus of playing the piano, and the piano is a tool. – Glen O – 2015-08-15T19:24:07.577

46

Actually, you can say "play a piano", it just means something different than "play the piano".

We use the definite article when describing the skill of piano playing:

I started learning to play the piano at six years old.

We use the indefinite article in all the same places as you use it for "ride a bike".

I prefer to play a piano a couple of times before deciding to buy it.

We use the definite article for describing the skill of playing any musical instrument; we don't do that for non-musical instruments. So:

I want to learn to play the piano.

I want to learn to ride a bike.

But also correct are both:

I want to learn to play piano.

I want to learn to ride bikes.

It would be technically correct but very unidiomatic to say:

I want to learn to play pianos. [WRONG]

Codeswitcher

Posted 2015-08-10T05:42:30.723

Reputation: 8 207

9"We use the definite article for describing the skill of playing any musical instrument; we don't do that for non-musical instruments." Yes, the OP knows that.The question is why. – John Bentin – 2015-08-10T11:04:19.783

7@JohnBentin Unfortunately, there isn't some general semantic principle that explains why. It's part of a small class of exceptions with no apparent semantic basis. – snailplane – 2015-08-10T13:26:50.833

4It wouldn't be wrong to learn to play pianos, it just have a different meaning, albeit a silly one. I imagine such a person to be stretched across multiple pianos trying to play them all at the same time – Tom J Nowell – 2015-08-10T13:53:29.503

Does it have anything to do with specificity? We do learn to play a musical, but the piano. – Kevin – 2015-08-10T14:08:14.613

Riding a bike is a skill. – Lightness Races in Orbit – 2015-08-10T15:26:31.557

@Kevin I have also learned it is okay to say "I play the trombone" and "I play the flute." I can't say for sure, but it seems like, in the case of musical instruments, we may talk as though we play the instrument in the abstract. Perhaps, instead of playing the physical instrument, we are playing the one in our imagination? Certainly an intriguing wording choice on the part of English speakers. – Cort Ammon – 2015-08-10T15:28:19.370

3It's not just the skill: We also use the definite article for music in other sentences: "I love the guitar", "I hate the tuba". To help you remember you might think of it as a contraction of "I love the [music of the] guitar", "I can play [the music of] the violin" and so forth. – Ben – 2015-08-10T15:36:37.457

"We don't do that for non-musical instruments" is too broad a rule. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2015-08-10T20:11:50.353

-1, you didn't explain why it's "play the piano". – djechlin – 2015-08-10T20:45:24.723

@TomJNowell I really do not think that is how it works. I learnt how to ride bikes because I learned how to ride all bikes, not just one (and not multiple at once). – Jonathon – 2015-08-11T13:45:41.723

@JonathonWisnoski you're both right and wrong, it's subjective and dependent on time and place – Tom J Nowell – 2015-08-11T17:23:29.047

11

In "play a piano" the word 'piano' will mean a particular single physical instrument.

In "play the piano" the word 'piano' will mean the whole class of instruments.

Both are valid but with different meanings, so correct usage depends on the intended message.

Peteris

Posted 2015-08-10T05:42:30.723

Reputation: 494

Also "play the piano" can be used if you only own one piano. Much like "I sat on the patio" if you only own one patio. – Pharap – 2015-08-11T13:05:50.510

@Pharap True but then the meaning is different, and I think not what the OP was aiming for. But still good to add for completeness. – donquixote – 2015-08-13T05:54:42.930

@Pharap But only if you mentioned the piano eariler. Like: "I bought a nice piano 4 years ago. ... At least once a week, I play the piano." – yo' – 2015-08-13T09:18:02.320

@yo' Unless you're assuming the other person knows you own a piano or will be able to infer that you own one based on what you're saying. – Pharap – 2015-08-17T03:42:58.647

6

We use "the" with any named item from a set of items of the same category.

Have you ever taken the redeye from LA to NY? (category: scheduled flights between those hubs)

I always take the express to work in the morning, but coming home I take the 6:15 Local out of 30th Street Station. (category: trains on the schedule)

Do you play the trombone? (category: musical instrument types)

Have you driven the 2015 Mercedes Gelaendewagen? (category: vehicle models or vehicle models from Mercedes)

Have you tried the strawberry cheesecake at that restaurant? (category: desserts served at that restaurant)

I can't wait to try out the iPhone 6. (category: smartphone models)

I've never operated the M841. (category: microscope models made by Leica)

But we would say:

I've never ridden a zebra.

P.S. But we can create a context where "the zebra" would be used:

I've ridden many a four-legged beast: the hippo, the rhino, the onager, and the horse, of course, but never the zebra.

Tᴚoɯɐuo

Posted 2015-08-10T05:42:30.723

Reputation: 116 610

3+1 "I have never ridden a zebra, but I have ridden the zebra/meerkat hybrid that Monsanto just invented.' – Adam – 2015-08-10T22:17:48.140

@Adam. Exactly. – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2015-08-10T23:45:39.480

@Adam Googled Monsanto, the joke became clear. – Pharap – 2015-08-11T13:09:05.713

I'm not sure this answer covers the issue fully, but it looks more sensible than most here. One nuance you haven't mentioned is *I learned to play a/the piano when I was ten*, where there would be a tendency to use the indefinite article if you also play other instruments (and a tendency to use the definite article if you later became a concert pianist, since *the piano* implies a degree of "reverence" for the instrument, in a "Platonic ideal" sort of way). – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2015-08-11T14:32:52.343

-1 every noun is part of a category! – Aleksandr Dubinsky – 2015-08-11T21:39:55.383

@Aleksandr Dubinsky: What is the category of each of the following? Air. Sea. Sky. Speed. Color. Texture. And I said "named item from a set" emphasis on "named". – Tᴚoɯɐuo – 2015-08-11T22:06:17.910

5

There is no logical reason for the use of "the" + musical instrumement. It is simply an idiomatic matter. Maybe there is French influence, though in French it is "jouer du piano" (to play of the piano; I have never found out how this genitive can be explained; but "du" is a form of the definite article).

rogermue

Posted 2015-08-10T05:42:30.723

Reputation: 8 304

1Yes, but the "du" has another function here. It's a sort of partitive case, albeit not a true partitive as in e. g. Finnish language. Think of buying things: acheter du pain, acheter du vin. You buy from the bread and from the wine, as you will normally leave lots of bread and wine behind for other customers ;-) – syntaxerror – 2015-08-10T19:52:21.880

1The partitive case makes not much sense with "piano". – rogermue – 2015-08-11T01:55:22.613

1@syntaxerror: That's a weird way of looking at it. I understand *buver du vin* as "translating" to *drink [some] of [the] wine*. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2015-08-11T15:05:56.560

1@FumbleFingers If at all, it's boire du vin ;-) – syntaxerror – 2015-08-11T21:38:53.740

@syntaxerror: Note that I didn't include the infinitive marker *to* in my "translated" example, which is framed as the imperative command/invitation [You] drink wine. – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2015-08-12T12:46:31.050

@FumbleFingers Can't follow you, sorry. The form buver definitely does not exist in French, that's all I wanted to say about it: (boire -- bois bois boit buvons buvez buvent) – syntaxerror – 2015-08-12T14:55:38.517

@syntaxerror: Oops! I've only just noticed I wrote *buver* (I meant *buvez*, obviously). Spelling isn't exactly my strong point in English, let alone French! :) – FumbleFingers Reinstate Monica – 2015-08-12T15:15:52.960

Ahhh! :-) So what you meant was the formal 'you', the polite way of demanding something from somebody (Sit down = Asseyez-vous.). All settled now. – syntaxerror – 2015-08-12T15:19:12.450

Never compare languages this way! – yo' – 2015-08-13T09:18:47.780

I think you're onto something about borrowing from French. In Italian we say "suono il pianoforte", and many, many English musical terms derive from Italian: piano, forte, allegro, tempo, etc. – Mari-Lou A – 2016-09-28T07:26:05.903

3

As a Grammar rule in AE, when you refer to playing a musical instrument, you usually use the definite article in front of the instrument, though omitting "the" is also possible For example:

He plays the flute/piano/guitar/clarinet, etc.

On the other hand, when you refer to a musical instrument as a unit, you can use the indefinite article. For examples:

I have a piano. There's a guitar on the table.

Interestingly, when you refer to sports or games, you don't use any article such as "He plays tennis/cricket/volleyball, etc.

Khan

Posted 2015-08-10T05:42:30.723

Reputation: 26 261

Exceptions to the sports statement: Throw the pigskin. (Play american football). Hit the links (Go golfing) Watch the ponies. (Attend a horse race) Hit the slopes (Go skiing) All of these are slang names, though. I can't think of any sports that take a definite article in front of the common name....specific events within gymnastics do, but they are named items within a set (per answer given by @Tromano) – Adam – 2015-08-11T02:31:49.427

1

I'm guessing here, but I think the correct answer is that piano is being used in two different ways.

We say:

  • "I learnt to see the future" to indicate a specific future.
  • "I learnt to build a house" to indicate a generic house.
  • "I learnt to speak the language" to indicate a specific language.
  • "I learnt to speak a language" to indicate a language without specifying which one.

So if you say I learnt to play the piano, you're saying that you learnt the skill of playing a specific type of keyboard instrument... the piano referring to specific knowledge rather than a specific object. The the is associated with the implied skill and not with piano.
If referring to the object you end up with I learnt to repair a piano, communicating that your ability isn't specific to a single particular piano.

I can play the piano = I have a specific skill.
I can play a piano = I can operate any piano.
I can play that piano = I can operate the specific piano being indicated.

Let me know via comment if I've overlooked something.

Kaithar

Posted 2015-08-10T05:42:30.723

Reputation: 189

1

I was thrown for a loop with this one, because you're right, it's odd.

Reflecting on the examples of musical instruments and the examples Glen O provided such as "wield the sword" or "wield the pen," a common thread amongst all the usages is that they invoke an abstract archetype. For example, "I wield a pen" suggests the use of a physical pen. It might be a very nice pen, but it is replaceable with another pen. "I wield the pen" invokes the archetypal pen which is responsible for shifting nations with its words ("the pen is mightier than the sword" uses the archetypal pen and "sword" in its construction).

The choice to use these words indicates something of the speaker's attitude. If one is impressed with a pianist's skill, one would laud their skill at playing "the piano." However, if one feels that it's a cheesy living not worth the money paid to the pianist, one might say "I don't know why he gets paid so much. All he does is play a piano. Any monkey could do that." The other wordings can work too ("I'm impressed how he plays a piano" / "All he does is play the piano"), but as a general rule, there's a bit more respect involved when one invokes an abstract archetype. We, as English speakers, have simply been trained to always do so with musical instruments.

Cort Ammon

Posted 2015-08-10T05:42:30.723

Reputation: 2 185