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Do you have to be attuned to an Instrument of the Bards in order to cast the spells granted by the item?

It is a bit unclear from the item's description if you need to be attuned in order to cast spells from the instrument. Members of my group argue that attunement only prevents the user from receiving damage, and that anyone who plays it can cast the spells granted from it.

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Yes, you do have to be attuned to use its magical benefits

The DMG and basic rules say this about attunement:

Without becoming attuned to an item that requires attunement, a creature gains only its nonmagical benefits, unless its description states otherwise. For example, a magic shield that requires attunement provides the benefits of a normal shield to a creature not attuned to it, but none of its magical properties.

5e rules designer Jeremy Crawford reiterates and clarifies this ruling on Twitter:

If you're not attuned to a magic item that requires attunement, you benefit from none of its properties. But it is still an object (a sword, a suit of armor, a book, etc.) and functions as such. And it is magical. See the DMG for more on attunement.

The instrument of the bards describes its various benefits, but all of the ones described there are magical. Without being attuned, you can only use it as if it were a nonmagical instrument of that kind (e.g. a harp, lute, mandolin, etc.); you gain none of the other benefits. As it so happens, bards can use any musical instrument as a spellcasting focus, so this remains true for an instrument of the bards even if you are not attuned to it.

The item description doesn't make any exceptions by specifying that you gain certain benefits without attunement.

...And trying to use its special properties without being attuned may hurt

The instrument of the bards doesn't have any negative effects if you're trying to use it as a spellcasting focus without being attuned.

However, regarding the usage of its special abilities, it does say:

A creature that attempts to play the instrument without being attuned to it must succeed on a DC 15 Wisdom saving throw or take 2d4 psychic damage.

You can use an action to play the instrument and cast one of its spells. [...]

You can play the instrument while casting a spell that causes any of its targets to be charmed on a failed saving throw, thereby imposing disadvantage on the save.

This makes it clear that not only do you need to be attuned to take advantage of these special properties, but even trying to do so without being attuned entails playing the instrument - and trying to play an instrument of the bards without being attuned carries the risk of 2d4 psychic damage on a failed DC 15 Wisdom saving throw.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch: Added. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Feb 13 at 21:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ Note: There is no rule you need to play an instrument to use it as your spellcasting focus, so no risk of damage by spellcasting without playing. \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot Feb 14 at 13:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Molot True, but a DM would not be overreaching to say that using an instrument as a spellcasting focus does in fact involve playing it. There's no rule that says you have to open a component pouch to use it to cast spells, either, but it would be reasonable to say that a pouch sewn shut can't be used. \$\endgroup\$ – Marq Feb 14 at 13:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Marq but there is! "A spellcaster must have a hand free to access a spell’s material components" - indirectly, but yes, rule about accessing components is there. \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot Feb 14 at 13:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ Detailed Q&A here: rpg.stackexchange.com/q/79549/10642 Requiring Bard to play may make sense, but it is not RAW. \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot Feb 14 at 14:22

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