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One possible use of prestidigitation is:

You create an instantaneous, harmless sensory effect, such as a shower of sparks, a puff of wind, faint musical notes, or an odd odor.

Should that be read as 'instantly creates a sensory effect for the duration' or 'creates a sensory effect that takes place over an instant'? Basically, can I use the cantrip to cover a missing instrument during a performance without recasting it every other measure?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to stackexchange! This site has a one question per post policy so your question is currently likely to be closed as too broad. I suggest breaking it up in to two questions with one focusing on the effects of prestidigitation and one asking about having unseen servant play instruments. \$\endgroup\$ – Ceribia Feb 23 '16 at 21:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've taken the liberty of removing the question about the Unseen Servant question because, as Ceribia has already mentioned, we have a one question per post policy here and it's only related in theme, not subject matter. Please feel free to post it as a second, separate question though so that it can get the community's full attention. You can recover the text by checking the revision history (edited X minutes/hours ago) if need be. \$\endgroup\$ – Purple Monkey Feb 23 '16 at 21:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ What instrument do you have in mind? \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 23 '16 at 23:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ I edited out the secondary question about glowing as well, as it is asking about a totally different use of the spell (there's no real overlap between the two questions). It can be asked as a separate question. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jul 13 '18 at 21:28
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The effect lasts only an instant

“Instantaneous” is an adjective that must be attached to “sensory effect” or it stops making any sense as part of that sentence's grammar.

The alternative, not-very-grammatical meaning wouldn't make common-sense sense, anyway: A spell doesn't need to say when an effect happens, when the point of the effect description is by default to say what happens once the spell is cast. Lacking any mention of a delay in a spell's description, the effect is describing the spell's immediate effect.

Thirdly, spells effects are responsible for indicating their duration. If prestidigitation didn't say how long each choice of effect lasted, then they'd be horribly ambiguous and possibly interpreted as being permanent. The “instantaneous” is the require description of the duration of the effect.

So three ways—one a direct reading of the sentence, the next a backup in case grammar is ignored, the third a pragmatic argument that the spell would be broken by ignoring the first two—all indicate very strongly that it is the effect itself that is instantaneous.

Implications for instrument fills

You can't get much in the way of instrument fills out of prestidigitation. At most you can get, as it says, “faint musical notes”, plural, which suggests a trill or other quick run of notes. But also note the “faint” part there: unless you've got a pin-drop-silent auditorium, the faint noises possible with prestidigitation are going to be completely drowned out by other instruments, distance to the audience, even low-level audience noise, or all three.

Prestidigitation is just no good for auditory additions to musical performances.

What about a glow?

A glow doesn't count as a colour, if you're looking at the second-last bullet point and reading “You make a color, a small mark, or a symbol appear on an object or a surface for 1 hour.” That effect option is phrased as a complete list rather than an open list, so the limits of the spell don't allow you to add a glow to an object for an hour.

You can make a glow (on something or on its own) using the first bullet option because that is phrased as general type of effect, with an open list of examples, so a glow is certainly within the realm of a harmless visual effect it can make. But that of course is only instantaneous, not an hour long.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ So....when I have grammar questions, I know who to look for? +1 for breaking down the required adjective and why that's important. \$\endgroup\$ – Airatome Feb 24 '16 at 17:07
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You can use prestidigitation to fill in for an instrument during a musical score, to quote the spell text: "You create an instantaneous, harmless sensory effect, such as a shower of sparks, a puff of wind, faint musical notes, or an odd odor." note that the faint musical notes are only an example, and the only requirement for the effect is for it to be harmless. in DnD 6 seconds is usually the shortest amount of time we care about, because of this and how the example points out musical notes it is reasonable to assume that your sensory effect can last up to 6 seconds. since the spell takes 6 seconds to cast and last 6 seconds you can keep it up continuously through a song or musical piece.

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