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

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    I 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 Aug 10 '15 at 18:07
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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".

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    @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 Aug 11 '15 at 5:05
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    that's because bike and horse aren't really "tools" in the same way Why? – Mast Aug 11 '15 at 12:09
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    @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 Aug 11 '15 at 12:57
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    Most of these examples sound horribly archaic, over-ambitious or downright clumsy. Particularly "wield the camera" and "ride the rail". – Pharap Aug 11 '15 at 13:02
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    I 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 Aug 11 '15 at 21:29
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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]

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    "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 Aug 10 '15 at 11:04
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    @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. – snailcar Aug 10 '15 at 13:26
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    It 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 Aug 10 '15 at 13:53
  • Does it have anything to do with specificity? We do learn to play a musical, but the piano. – Kevin Aug 10 '15 at 14:08
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    It'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 Aug 10 '15 at 15:36
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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.

  • 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 Aug 11 '15 at 13:05
  • @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 Aug 13 '15 at 5:54
  • @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' Aug 13 '15 at 9:18
  • @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 Aug 17 '15 at 3:42
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.

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    +1 "I have never ridden a zebra, but I have ridden the zebra/meerkat hybrid that Monsanto just invented.' – Adam Aug 10 '15 at 22:17
  • @Adam. Exactly. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Aug 10 '15 at 23:45
  • @Adam Googled Monsanto, the joke became clear. – Pharap Aug 11 '15 at 13:09
  • 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 Aug 11 '15 at 14:32
  • -1 every noun is part of a category! – Aleksandr Dubinsky Aug 11 '15 at 21:39
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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).

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    Yes, 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 Aug 10 '15 at 19:52
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    The partitive case makes not much sense with "piano". – rogermue Aug 11 '15 at 1:55
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    @syntaxerror: That's a weird way of looking at it. I understand buver du vin as "translating" to drink [some] of [the] wine. – FumbleFingers Aug 11 '15 at 15:05
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    @FumbleFingers If at all, it's boire du vin ;-) – syntaxerror Aug 11 '15 at 21:38
  • @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 Aug 12 '15 at 12:46
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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.

  • 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 Aug 11 '15 at 2:31
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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.

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.

protected by Community Aug 11 '15 at 14:11

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