At my table I have ruled that 'to use as a spellcasting focus' does not imply 'to play'; since the sorcerer can simply point a wand, it seems like an undue burden that the bard should have to use both hands and/or his mouth to cast the same spell. We've decided that the bard merely holds his instrument, which perhaps emits a few notes on its own as the spell is cast.

However, I noticed that in questions like 'What counts as a bardic focus?' and 'Can a pan flute be played one-handed?', the assumption that bards have to play their spellcasting focus goes unchallenged, so I thought it warranted its own question: Does a bard have to play a musical instrument when using it as a spellcasting focus?

I've reproduced what I think are the relevant rules below. The language appears identical to that of the spellcasting foci of other classes.

PHB p. 53


You can use a musical instrument (found in chapter 5) as a spellcasting focus for your bard spells.

PHB p. 154 (the chapter 5 text)

Musical Instrument.

...A bard can use a musical instrument as a spellcasting focus, as described in chapter 10...

PHB p. 203 (the chapter 10 text)


Material (M)

Casting some spells requires particular objects, specified in parentheses in the component entry. A character can use a component pouch or a spellcasting focus (found in chapter 5) in place of the components specified for a spell... A spellcaster must have a hand free to access these components, but it can be the same hand that he or she uses to perform somatic components.

The only distinction I saw is that musical instruments are considered 'tools' while all the other spellcasting foci are 'adventuring gear'. Also the chapter 5 text appears between two statements about proficiency, which sort of implies that the bard must be proficient with their focus (which to me is less of a problem).


4 Answers 4


It isn't explicitly stated that a bard needs to play their instrument to use it, no, and if you wanted to leave it at the exact letter of the rules, that would be your answer. However, you already know that, and so I assume that the question is not whether it is explicitly stated, but if it is implicitly stated that a bard must play.

The answer would appear to be "Yes".

  • Firstly, there is the fluff of the class to consider, which states that a bard's magic comes from their music.
  • Next there is the first line of the Spellcasting section in the PHB;

"You have learned to untangle and reshape the fabric of reality in harmony with your wishes and music."

Both of these would seem to suggest that casting is meant to use the music produced by the instrument, rather than just the instrument itself. This would also be consistent with the precedent set in previous editions. While 4e seemed to waffle a bit on this point between fluff and crunch (even having bards use wands), 3/3.5 was very firmly on the "music as focus" side, requiring bards to perform as part of their spells.

Every bard spell has a verbal component (singing, reciting, or music).

However, I believe that this is actually not intended in 5e, and the reason why can be traced to the capstone ability of the College of Valor, "Battle Magic".

At 14th level, you have mastered the art of weaving spellcasting and weapon use into a single harmonious act. When you use your action to cast a bard spell, you can make one weapon attack as a bonus action.

If the bard were required to use both hands to play an instrument in order to cast, this ability would be logically unworkable. They would have to play their instrument, put away their instrument, draw a weapon, and then attack. As a single action and bonus action. That is certainly far from a "single harmonious act", and Valor bards do not get any other ability to let them get a free hand or faster equipment change. So, while ultimately a speculative answer, it should be reasonable to assume that the mechanics are indeed meant to be exactly as written, and merely holding an instrument in one hand (leaving the other free for a weapon) is enough.

tl;dr - While there is ample justification to houserule that a bard must play their instrument, the mechanics of the class do not appear to have been written with that in mind

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    \$\begingroup\$ One additional suggestion: Separate spellcasting focus from the "music" created. The "music" can simply be the Bard's voice, but still requires the instrument as focus to...focus it. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Commented May 3, 2016 at 16:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ giantitp.com/comics/oots0198.html \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 23:57
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ This search at DNDBeyond shows that there are 9 Bard spells with no Verbal Component. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 21, 2020 at 17:52

There's nothing in the RAW that requires a bard to play the instrument to cast their spells.

If we look at this from a rules-as-interpreted (RAI) perspective, I would posit that you do not have to play the instrument unless the spell also has a somatic (S) component:


Somatic (S)

Spellcasting gestures might include a forceful gesticulation or an intricate set of gestures. If a spell requires a somatic component, the cast must have free use of at least one hand to perform these gestures.

Material (M)

A spellcaster must have a hand free to access a spell's material components - or to hold a spellcasting focus - but it can be the same hand that he or she uses to perform somatic components.

PHB, pg. 203

In particular, stating that you can hold the material in the same hand that you use to perform the somatic component (intricate gestures) is telling.

The way I would interpret this is that, if a bard spell only requires a material (M) component, they need only hold the instrument. If it requires a material (M) and somatic (S) component, I'd rule that the bard must not only hold the instrument, but play it in some fashion as the somatic component of the spell.

  • \$\begingroup\$ As an aside... are there any (medieval/renaissance) instruments that can be played one-handed? \$\endgroup\$
    – Adeptus
    Commented May 2, 2016 at 1:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Adeptus The panpipes (ancient Greek) and the trumpet (very end of the medieval period) come to mind. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 2, 2016 at 3:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ It should be possible to hold a lute by the neck twixt thumb and forefinger and effect some minimal plucking by hammer and pull-off with the third of fourth fingers. I can just manage it with a guitar, though I can't offer you a melody that way. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 2, 2016 at 4:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Wibbs “RAI” can also mean “rules as interpreted”, which is necessarily a non-designer doing it. Having multiple opposed meanings is why the acronym RAI is generally to be avoided; in this case though, it's unambiguous that “interpreted” is what the I stands for. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 2, 2016 at 16:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Wibbs I clarified my use of RAI as "interpreted" rather than "intended". \$\endgroup\$
    – Shaun
    Commented May 7, 2016 at 19:49

You seem to be missing an important section of the class description for the Bard. Under the section titled "Spellcasting Ability" it states:

Your magic comes from the heart and soul you pour into the performance of your music or oration.

Also reading the description of vicious mockery, it say you unleash a string of insults laced with subtle enchantments at a creature you can see within range. No music there.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you saying that yes, a bard does need to play their focus, or that no they don't? The first paragraph seems to argue yes ("pour into the performance"), but you seem to say no in the second. Can you make clear what your answer is to the question posed: if a bard uses an instrument as a focus, must they play it? \$\endgroup\$
    – nitsua60
    Commented Jul 1, 2016 at 2:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think @smilinirish meant to emphasize "or oration," which makes a lot of sense. I submitted an edit to add the emphasis. \$\endgroup\$
    – lightcat
    Commented Oct 3, 2018 at 6:10

In general, Bards use music to replace the "Verbal" component of a cast and the action of playing the instrument to satisfy "somatic" requirements.

If A spell requires "Verbal" then it must be sung or played. if it requires "Somatic" then yes the instrument must be fingered and played. (If its Somatic but not Verbal I'd allow a Bard to play very softly.)


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