Strike A Cord: Music Vocabulary For Creative People

Tori Tornreviewed bySana Liashuk / more about Editorial Process13 min
Created: Feb 2, 2023Last updated: Jul 6, 2023
Music Vocabulary

Music is one of those topics that are great for small talk. If you don't really know a person you are interacting with, asking about their music preferences won't do much harm. There are no indifferent people when talking about music. Everybody has a favorite song, genre, singer, band, and instrument. So, no wonder a music conversation often leads to a big discussion that will help you get to know the person much better. However, to cover this topic in English, you will need to add some musical terms to your vocabulary. 

Do you know enough music words in English? Let's check it right here and right now. We guarantee that the music vocabulary carefully compiled by Promova will expand your horizons in English proficiency. 

Music Terms: Idioms For Everyday Use

Music has always been an excellent source of inspiration, motivation, and useful vocabulary for English learners. So, it's not a big surprise that some English idioms originated from music-related words. Some phrases with music terms grew away from their original meanings and turned into fixed figurative parts of speech that always pop up in your head as a nasty catchy song. Since it's difficult to overestimate the importance of idioms in English, we suggest you learn some related to music. Here are the best 15 music idioms worth adding to your vocabulary. 

  • Hit the right note/ strike the right note 
    Meaning: to do or say something perfectly suitable or absolutely right in a particular situation or circumstances.  
    Example: You just hit the right note by ordering this chocolate mousse. 
  • Blow your own trumpet/ blow your own horn / toot your own horn 
    Meaning: to brag about your achievements, to talk excessively about your talents and abilities in a way that shows your pride.  
    Example: As a managing partner of this law firm, I want to see you winning this case, not just blowing your own horn!
  • Like a broken record 
    Meaning: To talk about something or someone over and over again, to tell the same story on repeat.  
    Example: Okay, we got it – you've been to France recently. Stop saying "merci" like a broken record!
  • And all that jazz 
    Meaning: and other similar/related things; etc.  
    Example: My love for lipsticks, blushes, eye shadows, and all that jazz is enormous. 
  • Music to my ears/music to my eyes 
    Meaning: to hear or to see (depending on the version) something pleasant that brings joy and happiness.  
    Example: A couple of Bradley Copper and Lady gaga in the movie A Star Is Born is true music to my eyes. 
  • Swan song  
    Meaning: a final act, gesture, or saying before ending something or disappearing 
    Example: I thought it would be a peaceful breakup, but after her swan song, I understood that I couldn't be more wrong. 
  • Ring a bell 
    Meaning: to sound familiar, to remind something but with no specific details. 
    Example: The movie Midnight In Paris rings a bell for me, but I can't really remember the whole plot. 
  • Change your tune / sing a different tune/ sing a different song 
    Meaning: to change your opinion on something, to shift your mind to other ideas than you had before.  
    Example: After this adventurous trip to Asia, I have definitely changed my tune about Asian cuisine. 
  • Face the music 
    Meaning: to accept or deal with criticism or consequences of your actions or bad decisions.  
    Example: Principal, I understand cheating during the final exam is unacceptable, so I am ready to face the music. 
  • Play second a fiddle / Be second a fiddle 
    Meaning: to be in a position where you are treated as a less important person compared to someone you are working with.  
    Example: I can't believe she did something like that. I thought we were partners, but I was just second fiddle to her.  
  • Fiddle while Rome burns 
    Meaning: to procrastinate or do something unimportant when are much more vital things to deal with.  
    Example: People say that the 2023 tech layoff was necessary. But as an expert, I can say they fiddled while Rome burned.  
  • Jazz up 
    Meaning: to improve something by making it more attractive and exciting, to add liveliness to something.  
    Example: This OOTD would be a no go if we didn't jazz it up with the leather belt and purse. 
  • Play by ear  
    Meaning: to improvise, to act in a moment according to what is happening, and to handle the situation as it comes.  
    Example: Sometimes, the best date happens when you don't follow a plan and just play it by ear. 
  • Make a song and a dance about something  
    Meaning: to make an unnecessary fuss because of something and act like something is more important than it really is.  
    Example: OMG, you just broke your nail, it's not like you broke your arm. Stop making a song and dance about it. 
  • Elevator music  
    Meaning: monotonous and boring music played in public places.  
    Example: Every song in the album can't be a hit, some of them are meant to be elevator music. 

Music Words: The Most Popular Genres And Instruments 

When it comes to music in English, people usually would love to have a music terms list that would help them keep up with everyday conversations. For instance, you've heard this trendy song on TikTok, and now it is stuck in your head. So naturally, you want to describe it to your friend. To do that, you need to know the singer, the music genre, and the instruments that make the song so catchy or touching. That is why you need to learn musical terms for the most popular genres and instruments in English. 

There are many different music genres in the modern music industry. People can choose whatever style they prefer. Finding your cup of tea on Apple Music or Spotify is not an issue nowadays. The diverse representation of all music genres does impress. 

The most appealing music genres for the last several years are the following:

- Pop

- Hip hop

- Rock

- Reggae

- Country

- Soul

- Rhythm and blues

- Funk

- Folk

- K-Pop

- Funk

- Electronic

- Blues

- Jazz

- Disco

- Metal

- R&B

Now let's move on to the musical instruments. Depending on how the instrument creates the sounds, it can belong to a particular category. According to the Hornbostel-Sachs instrument classification system, all musical instruments can be divided into:

-      Idiophones, where the sound is created by the body of the instrument vibrating;

-      Membranophones, which make the sound with the vibration of a tightly stretched membrane;

-      Chordophones in which in charge of the sound are stretched between fixed points strings;

-      Aerophones which produce sounds by vibrating air;

-      Electrophones where the sound is made by electric action or amplification. 

There is an excellent variety of musical instruments in the world. People managed to learn how to play all of them and make great melodies and songs using them. Of course, if you are not a total beginner in English (which we doubt because you can read this article), you know basic music vocabulary such as piano, guitar, violin, drums, cello, etc. Nonetheless, there are many more musical instruments that you can hear in the biggest hits of all time and some typical ones that are primarily played in a particular country or region. So, let's learn some music vocabulary - words that name musical instruments. 

Accordion

Accordion - music vocabulary

This musical instrument, as it looks today, comes from Italy. It was Paolo Soprani who invented the "modern" accordion. According to Oxford Dictionary, an accordion is played by stretching and squeezing with the hands to work a central bellow that blows air over metal reeds, the melody, and chords being sounded by buttons or keys.

Bagpipe

The following musical instrument got its name because of the way it was constructed and how it looks like. The bagpipe is literally a bag with reed pipes that make sounds because of squeezing the bag full of air with the musician's arms. This musical instrument is traditional in Scotland, Ireland, and some parts of England. Remember how Ross from Friends discovered that Chandler is half-Scottish, so he decided to play the bagpipe at his and Monica's wedding? Yeah, it was a disaster. But in reality, the sound produced by bagpipes is pretty enjoyable. 

Banjo

Banjo - music vocabulary

Banjo is a part of one of the stereotypes about Americans called rednecks. People apply the term "redneck" to white Americans who are uneducated, primitive, and dumb and come from villages in the South of the United States. They are usually portrayed wearing jeans jumpsuits, with the straw hat on their head and a banjo in their hands. Banjo reminds a classical guitar but comes with a round open-backed soundbox of parchment stretched over a metal hoop.

Castanets

If you have ever seen a live or recorded flamenco performance, you must have noticed that dancers hold some kind of musical instrument in their hands. It is called castanets. Castanets is a musical instrument that looks like two concave pieces of wood or plastic joined together with a string. When a musician puts castanets together with the fingers, it creates a clicking sound. Usually, with castanets, dancers follow the main melody of the performance. 

Cymbal

The cymbal is one of those musical instruments you could've seen in American movies about a high school where kids participate in parades. There is always one school orchestra member who plays cymbals. It looks like perfectly-shaped thin metal discs that make a crash or clang sound once smashed together. 

Harmonica

That's not Monica from Friends. And yes, we are mind readers. In fact, the harmonica is a small mouth organ that looks like a rectangular case containing a set of metal reeds connected to a row of holes inside. When musicians play harmonica, they blow and suck air into the musical instrument and move it side to side. 

Maracas

Maracas is one of the typical musical instruments for Latin America. Probably, you've seen girls using it during the Brazilian carnival. Maracas go in pairs and look like bulbs with handles. They are made from hollowed gourds with stones, beans, or seeds inside. Shaken quickly, they cause vibrating like a rattle. 

Organ

An organ is a musical instrument that looks like a giant piano. The main difference is that it has one or more pipe divisions that produce tones. These days, you can bump into organs only in churches and cathedrals. Musicians play organs during religious services. 

Tambourine

If you are European, remember the outstanding performance of the Ukrainian singer Ruslana at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2004. Back then, the artist made everyone fall for her energetic performance and the winning song Wild Dances, where they used tambourines as one of the leading musical instruments. Tambourine is a wood or plastic frame with pairs of small metal jingles. It produces sounds when the musician shakes or strikes it with a hand or hits some part of the body with it. 

Ukulele

A ukulele is a small guitar with four nylon strings. Even though people got used to thinking about the ukulele as a part of Hawaiian culture, it has Portuguese origins. At the end of the 19th century, immigrants from Portuguese islands brought the musical instrument to the Hawaiian Islands and introduced it to locals. There are four sizes of ukulele: soprano, concert, tenor, and baritone.

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Essential Music Terminology To Keep In Mind

For ordinary people, the musical vocabulary of a professional musician may seem bottomless. But the truth is that non-professionals in the music industry don't really know all the nuances and every musical term to speak more or less fluently. As an English learner, you need to have a common sense of the musical terminology you might hear in real-life communication. To your attention, we propose some music terms that you definitely need to remember. 

Baton

That's the main work instrument for the orchestra or choir conductor. Baton is a short stick for directing a group of musicians. 

Chorus

The chorus is a part of a song where lyrics repeat. That is what usually makes a song memorable and catchy. People may not remember the verse (the other part of the song), but it will be challenging to get rid of a catchy chorus. 

Cover

By the cover in music, people understand a new recording of the previously released song made by a performer other than the initial artist. The new version of the song can consist of changes in melody, vocals, and even lyrics.

Libretto

The libretto is a script of songs for musical theater, usually opera. 

Maestro

Maestro can become any great composer, conductor, or singer that left a mark in the music industry with their work. 

Pitch

A pitch is a position of a single sound in a range of sounds that allows us to define it as high or low. You could've heard this musical term in the movie The Perfect Pitch, where collocation means someone's ability to correctly identify and/or recreate a note upon hearing it. Actually, that is what the movie is really about. 

How To Learn Music Vocabulary With Promova

Learning new vocabulary regularly and implementing it into use play a key role in achieving proficiency in English. To improve any English skill, you need to memorize new words and phrases, understand grammar, and practice as much as possible. The best way to learn words is to divide them into topics, create bite-sized lessons, take turns with the repetition method, and live practice enlarging your vocabulary on each subject. 

The perfect assistant for memorizing new words in English is an innovative learning language platform Promova. With our app, you can learn new words, easy breathy lemon squeezy. To start, you just need to:

- take a quick test to determine your English proficiency level

- decide whether you want to get a guided step-by-step experience according to your level or you are more interested in exploring our bite-sized lessons independently; 

- choose a language in which you desire to learn English (we recommend learning English through English); 

- pick one of our courses – General English, Travel English, Business English, or English with TV series and jump into learning. 

As a one-stop language learning platform, Promova also offers other features - tutoring programs for all levels and needs, a free Conversation Club, social media, and a blog. So, if you want to read more on some specific topics like poetry in English or how to describe a painting, don't be shy to scroll through our feed in the Promova blog more often. 

If you are a musician, singer, or music enthusiast who wants to learn more musical terminology, you can always take individual English classes with the Promova certified tutors. Our teachers will prepare a personalized learning plan considering your current and desirable level, strengths and weaknesses, goals, interests, and preferable learning techniques. So, be sure that with Promova, the list of musical terms you need to know won't be limited to "song" or even "melismas." 

We also suggest our students participate in the Promova Conversation Club. The meetings are free and held regularly every week. Our professional teachers work on speaking with English students in small groups. So, we always suggest checking the upcoming classes' topics in advance and signing in several days prior. The Promova Conversation Club stays up-to-date with trends and requests from our students, so you can always find a fascinating topic to discuss, and music terminology is one of them. 

Conclusion

Learning languages is a lifelong process, and exploring any topic in terms of new vocabulary is gripping. So, going back to what seemed to be an easy topic is the best idea ever. We bet that before reading this article on musical terminology, you thought you knew a lot of it. However, there always are areas for improvement. After reading this article, you can make your speech more vivid and memorable with music idioms, instruments, and genres and even understand some high-end convos where professionals use specialized music vocabulary. 

FAQ

Why is music called music?

On its own, the word "music" is a simple term that English learners memorize at the beginning of their learning journey. However, it has a pretty interesting history. "Music" has Greek origins and comes from the word "mousikê," which means "art of the Muses." In Ancient Greek Mythology, Muses were in charge of the arts and sciences. Back then, the term wasn't exclusively used for the pleasant combination of sounds. Only in the fifth century did Italian philosopher Boethius split the music into three major kinds, where only "musica instrumentalis" referred to music as performed sound. The term "music," as we define it today, came into use in the 1630s. But French-American composer Edgard Varèse described it as "organized sound" only in the 20th century. 

What are the 10 elements of music?

To call any piece of gathered sounds music, it must contain several elements of music. The elements of music are the specific features that make it legit to define something as music. There are 10 elements of music – rhythm, harmony, melody, timbre, pitch, beat, tempo, texture, dynamics, and structure. 

How many music notes exist?

By note in music, people understand a specific audio vibration produced by any musical instrument or person's voice. For example, in Western music, there are 12 music notes: C, C# / Db, D, D# / Eb, E, F, F# / Gb, G, G# / Ab, A, A# / Bb, B. Simply put, notes in music are like letters in the alphabet. Musicians need them to create, read and reproduce sounds that become music pieces. Professional playing musical instruments, composing music, and singing are impossible without theoretical knowledge of notes. Any musical education starts with learning music notes and how to handle them. Only then can a person move on to practice playing chosen instrument and songwriting. 

Why do many music terms have Italian origins?

As surprising as it might be for those who never studied in music school, most musical terms come from Italy. There is a pretty rational explanation for such a phenomenon. Italy is a land of many talented musicians. So, no wonder that it is the country where music notation was established in the first place. Not only did Italian composers add annotations to their scores, but they also came up with the essential music vocabulary that describes how it should be played. In the Renaissance epoch, musicians from all over the world came to Italy to practice music, so naturally, they were using Italian music terms. Then, in the 1800s, people started annotating scores in their native languages, mixing them with Italian words. That is why some music terms may sound more Italian than English in the English language. 

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