A rough guide to music vocabulary and expressions

Around 420 years ago, a guy you may have heard of called William Shakespeare opened his new play ‘Twelfth Night’ with the words ‘if music be the food of love, play on’. As is often the case with ‘The Bard’, the literal meaning of the words is not clear but the imagery really ‘strikes a chord’ with the person reading the words (more on music idioms later). Good music, like good food and love, seems to be something that you can never have enough of. It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t listen to music, and talking about it is often a great ice-breaker for people who have just met. For that, you will need some music vocabulary and then, if you want to sound really flash, some idioms and expressions.


Let’s start with some types of music. Other words for this are ‘style’ and ‘genre’, which is a French word but generally pronounced the English way (which means badly!)

Of course there are a mind-boggling amount of genres and sub-genres that have been created over the years, but here are some of the most popular:

Pop– this is the kind of music you will usually hear in the charts. The word comes from ‘popular’ and the songs are easy to remember and tend to stick in your head (they are ‘catchy’). The best-selling pop bands in history are The Beatles, Queen and Abba.

Rock– this often uses the same instruments as pop but has a harder edge with a stronger beat on the drums. The Beatles and Queen are examples of bands that might be called pop/rock as they produced both light and heavy songs. Nirvana are a good example of a rock band who were also very popular.

Country- this style of music is characterised by cowboy hats, banjos, whiskey and stories of lost love. It is most popular in the Southern United States, and the most famous country artist ever is Johnny Cash.

Folk- this is normally associated with a songwriter with an acoustic guitar singing a song about the local area where they live, often with a political edge. Sometimes he/she will be joined by a group of people singing the chorus. The most famous folk singer is Bob Dylan

Jazz– this is a genre that is often linked with sophistication. If you’re in a chic coffee bar talking about philosophy, you might hear jazz in the background. There are many types of jazz but the beat often swings and the melodies are smooth. Louis Armstrong is a popular name for traditional jazz, while Herbie Hancock is a good example of a more modern style.

Classical- this is the genre of music that can usually be guaranteed to get the younger people out of the room! The most famous classical composers are probably Mozart and Beethoven, and popular instruments used include violins, cellos and pianos. For aficionados, the best classical pieces take the listener on a musical journey of many parts (called ‘movements’) and can be very emotional.

Reggae- the name that is totally synonymous with this type of music is Bob Marley, and it’s often associated generally with Rastafarians and herbal substances. The grooves are slow and at concerts you will see the audience gently nodding their heads to the beat.

Disco- this became popular in the late-1970s, particularly in New York, and was a forerunner to the ‘dance music’ craze of the 1990s and beyond. Think John Travolta in the film ‘Saturday Night Fever’ strutting his stuff to the Bee Gees song ‘Staying Alive’.

Hip-Hop/Rap– these are modern styles of music that are characterised by the words being spoken rather than sung. The most famous hip-hop group is probably Public Enemy, who used this genre to make political points, and Jay Z is the most popular modern rapper.

Electronic/House/Techno- these genres characterise a trend over the last 40 years of using machines such as samplers, synthesisers and drum machines to make music. Definitely music for the kids!

Some other popular genres and their most famous exponents include heavy metal (Metallica), punk (The Sex Pistols), soul (Marvin Gaye), funk (James Brown) and gospel (Aretha Franklin). there are many more…

Next we’ll look at musical instruments and the people that play them. The instruments can be divided into a few categories with a few examples for each:

Strings- violin, guitar, bass (or bass guitar), cello

Keyboard– piano, organ, harpsichord, synthesiser, accordion (the only one where you usually stand rather than sit)

Brass- trumpet, trombone, tuba, French horn

Wind– flute, saxophone, clarinet, recorder

Percussion– drums, tambourine, bongos, bells, xylophone


Looking at the names for those who play these instruments is an excellent chance to practise some ‘job suffixes’.

In general, the most common of these suffixes are –er, -ist-, -ian and –or. The most common for jobs in general is ‘er but that is not the case when talking about instrumentalists. Matching them with the relevant instruments listed above, we have:

-er trumpeter, drummer

-ist violinist, guitarist, bassist/bass guitarist, cellist, pianist, organist, trombonist, flautist, saxophonist, clarinetist

For –ian, if you’re lucky enough to play music for a living, you’re a musician.

To use –or, we could include the conductor in a classical orchestra. He’s the one waving the stick called abaton’ in his hand to help the performance run smoothly.

With a couple of exceptions, you can also put ‘player’ after these instruments, for example ‘guitar player’.

Please note that sAxophone and saxOphonist are stressed on different syllables, quite a common thing in English with variations on the same root word.

If you sing rather than play, you are a singer (or vocalist). If you’re the main singer in the band, for example Mick Jagger in The Rolling Stones, you are a lead singer, while the others that sing with you in a pop/rock group are backing or harmony singers. In a classical orchestra, one who sings the main part alone is a soloist, a word that can also apply to playing instruments.


The four categories of classical singer, going from highest to lowest pitch, are:

Soprano– almost always a woman

Alto– usually a woman

Tenor– always a man (as far as I know!). You may have heard of ‘The Three Tenors’. This may sound like it’s £30 but is in fact the singing group of Italian Luciano Pavarotti and two Spaniards, Placido Domingo (whose name means ‘peaceful Sunday’ in English) and Jose Carreras.

Bass– always a man. He sings the lowest notes, just as a bass guitar plays the lowest notes.

Castrato– don’t ask, it’s painful!

Songs are made of lyrics (the words), melody, harmony and rhythm, but there’s also the arrangement, which is usually done by the producer.

The word ‘DJ’ (short for ‘disc jockey’) used to refer only to the person who plays songs and talks between them on the radio, but now also refers to someone doing a similar thing in a nightclub or music festival. A festival is an example of a live concert, which is also known as a ‘gig’, while albums of original music are recordings, produced in a recording studio (or occasionally in someone’s bedroom).

There is of course a lot more vocabulary involved with music but I hope that’s given you a flavour of the most common and useful.


Idioms and Expressions

As with vocabulary, there’s too must to cover in full but here are some of the best ones to use.

‘Out of tune’ could refer to an instrument or a voice that is at the wrong pitch. Think of a violin that sounds like a cat in severe pain, or your Uncle Jack drunk at a karaoke night in a pub.

Someone who can naturally hear and sing the right notes has a ‘good ear for music’, while someone who is utterly hopeless is ‘tone deaf’.

If your boss calls you to his office and announces that you’ve been selected for a promotion, you might describe it as ‘music to my ears’.

If something becomes popular, such as artisan beers did a few years ago, other pubs or bars might ‘jump on the bandwagon’ and start producing the same product to take advantage and cash in on the popularity. ‘Band’ is another name for a musical group and a wagon is a type of old-fashioned vehicle, so you can imagine someone jumping onto the vehicle to join a popular band while they travel around the country.

If you are married and have an affair with your husband or wife’s best friend, which of course I’m not recommending, if your spouse finds out you can either deny it or decide to admit it and ‘face the music’. On a similar note, if the best friend decides that it was all your fault, you could make the point that ‘it takes two to tango’.

If you’re a younger brother or sister, you might be used to or remember your older sibling dominating you, making you feel that you have to always ‘play second fiddle’. Fiddle is another name for violin, and in an orchestra the first fiddle would play the main melody of a piece while the second/third etc… would play the less glamorous harmony notes.

If you’re trying to make a decision but it’s proving difficult, you could decide to ‘play it by ear’ (which in musical terms means playing something without sheet music) and just see what happens.

I’m sure we’ve all had a friend who likes to boast/brag about their achievements or their skills. You probably won’t be too popular if all you do is ‘blow your own trumpet’ (British English) or ‘toot your own horn’ (American)

Finally, to inspire language learners, this is not a very politically-correct idiom but, if you feel that you’ll never reach the level you want to in the language you’re trying to master, just remember that ‘it isn’t over till the fat lady sings’. There’s always time!


I hope all of the above has helped your knowledge of musical vocabulary and expressions. Just to finish, if you’re in a pop or rock band and you want to gently make fun of the guy or girl who provides the ‘beat/rhythm’ in the music, you could try this joke:

What do you call a person who hangs around with musicians?

A drummer!