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last updated: 6/28/2007

FAQ - Articles in the English Language (Music Library)



Cook Music Library Brief Guides, No. 24




The adjectives a, an, and the are called " articles."  Articles are used with nouns to limit them, to make them individual, or to made their application definite or indefinite.


A and an are called the indefinite article, because they designate an indefinite or unidentified thing or person.

The is called the definite article, because it designates a definite or identified thing or person.


Articles are used before nouns, either directly ("a score") or with intervening adjectives ("a miniature score,"the old miniature score,"some battered piano-vocal scores")


Using a and an

When referring to one thing or person (concrete noun) or one example or instance of a general type, use a or an.


Almost all words beginning with consonants (B, C, D, F, G, H, J, K, L, M, N, P, Q, R, S, T, V, W, X, Y, Z) take a:

      a motive

      a symphony


Almost all words beginning with vowels (A, E, I, O, U) take an:

      an allegro

      an electric guitar

      an improvisation

      an ostinato

      an upright piano


Exceptions:Words beginning with silent H take an:

      an hour

      an honest mistake


Words beginning with U or EU when they have the sound "yoo"take a:

      a unison

      a universal principle

      a euphonium


Using the

When referring to a specific thing or person or group of things (concrete noun) use the:

      The flute has a solo, accompanied by the strings.

      The owl and the pussycat went to sea.  The duo sailed away for a year and a day.


The is also used when you have mentioned the thing or group before:

      Beethoven now introduces a new motive (see Ex. 2).  The motive appears frequently for the rest of the movement, sometimes in its original form, sometimes developed. [This sentence also assumes that you have already mentioned which movement you are discussing.]


The is pronounced "thee" in the same situations that call for an rather than a:  before vowels (except U and EU sounding "yoo") and before silent H.


When Nouns Do Not Take an Article

Most proper nouns do not take an article:

      the names of most cities and countries:



            but: The United States; The Netherlands

      the names of most schools:

            Bloomington High School South

            Indiana University

            but: The Royal College of Music

      the names of lakes or mountains:

            Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake; Mussorgsky's Night on Bald Mountain

      the names of stores:

            The textbooks are available at TIS.

      the names of most periodicals:

            Journal of Seventeenth-Century Music

            Musical America

            but: The Musical Quarterly [note that some citation styles require you to drop the article, but textual references should retain it]


When abstract nouns are used as abstractions, they do not take articles:

      Analysis reveals that all the themes are related.

      Consonance and dissonance are relative terms.

      Until recently, sketch studies have existed mainly in the realm of musicology, since they can furnish chronological and biographical evidence.


But a particular instance or example of an abstraction generally requires an article:

      The analysis made by Schenker disclosed unsuspected relationships between the themes.

      The dissonance introduced on the first beat of m. 23 alters the mood of the piece.  (Or: On the first beat of m. 23, Beethoven introduces a dissonance that alters the mood of the piece.)

      The evidence collected by scholars shows that Schubert drank far too much beer.



The word some may also function as an article.  It is called the partitive article, because it often divides a thing into parts.


Some is used when you are referring to an unspecified number of a thing:

      Some 18th-century Armenian folk songs are still sung today.


Some is also used for an unspecified quantity of most foods, liquids, cosmetics, groups of things, and spices.

      Schubert always ended his composing sessions by drinking some beer.


Most words that take some can also be used with no article at all, depending on the context:

      Some Beethoven symphonies are in minor keys. [Refers to an unspecified number of the symphonies.]

      but: Beethoven obviously valued writing symphonies. [A general reference to the genre.]


      Use no article when you mean all or you are making a general statement:

            Trombonists love to play arrangements.


      Use some when you mean an unspecified number:

            Some trombonists secretly hate arrangements.


      Sometimes it is correct both to use some in a sentence and to use no article:

            Classical pianists often yearn to play some jazz. [implies a small amount of jazz]

            Classical pianists often yearn to play jazz. [leaves the amount of jazz unspecified]



David Lasocki rev. 9/25/01

last updated: 6/28/2007