Early Popular Music Genres Vocabulary

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This guide will immerse you in the rich linguistics associated with different music genres, providing you with essential terminology related to some of the most popular music genres of the late 19th and 20th centuries. 
Music Genres

Blues and Jazz Vocabulary

Two music genres that took the world by storm during the early 20th century were Blues and Jazz. Originating from African-American communities, they are recognized for their complex rhythms and emotive lyrics.

  • Boogie-woogie: A fast, upbeat style of blues characterized by repeating bass figures or riffs.
  • Dixieland: A style of jazz that combines structured and improvisational parts, originating in New Orleans.
  • Swing: An influential jazz style defined by a strong rhythm section and a lead melody, usually played by horns.
  • Scat: An improvised jazz singing style where the vocalist substitutes lyrics with nonsensical syllables or words.
  • Riff: A repeated phrase or pattern that forms the backbone of a song in jazz and blues.
  • Syncopation: A rhythmic technique where the expected beats are deliberately missed or shifted to offbeats.
  • Blue Notes: Notes sung or played at a slightly lower pitch for expressive effect in blues music.
  • Call and Response: A song structure common in jazz and blues where a phrase (the call) is followed by a reply (the response).
  • Groove: The rhythmic "feel" or sense of swing in blues and jazz music.
  • Jazz Standard: A jazz song that is widely recognized and frequently played by different artists.
  • Jam Session: An informal gathering of musicians improvising together, common in jazz culture.
  • Big Band: A large group of musicians that play jazz or swing music, often comprising sections of reed, brass, and rhythm instruments.
  • Cool Jazz: A style of jazz marked by relaxed tempos and lighter tone, contrasting with the intensity of bebop.
  • Walking Bass: A style of bass line in jazz and blues that provides a harmonic foundation and rhythmic continuity.
  • Hot Jazz: A style of jazz that is energetic, fast, and often involves improvisation.

With this newfound vocabulary, you can more deeply appreciate and articulate the nuanced complexities of these remarkable musical styles.

Rock 'n' Roll Vocabulary

Rock 'n' Roll, arguably the most popular music genre in the mid-20th century, brought about a revolution in musical styles and youth culture. Below are some key terms to help you understand this genre better.

  • Beat: The basic unit of time in music, a pulse of the underlying rhythm.
  • Chord: A group of (typically three or more) notes sounded together.
  • Rhythm Guitar: A guitar that provides the rhythmic foundation, typically by playing chords.
  • Lead Guitar: The guitar that plays the melody lines, instrumental fill passages, guitar solos, and occasionally, some riffs.
  • Distortion: Refers to an audio signal processing technique employed to modify the amplified sound of electric musical instruments.
  • Power Chord: A loud, aggressive guitar chord often used in rock music.
  • Drum kit: An assemblage of drums and various percussion instruments arranged to be played by a lone musician.
  • Bass Guitar: A guitar with a longer neck and scale length, which produces lower notes.
  • Lyrics: The words of a song.
  • Verse: A part of a song that typically contains new lyrics each time it's heard.
  • Chorus: A part of the song that is repeated after each verse, usually the most memorable part of the song.
  • Bridge: A contrasting section of the song that prepares for the return of the original material section.
  • Hook: A musical idea, often a short riff, passage, or phrase, that is used in pop and rock music to make a song appealing and catch the ear of the listener.
  • Amplifier (Amp): An electronic device that amplifies the sound of musical instruments.
  • Cover: A fresh rendition or recording of a previously released song, commercially made by an artist other than the original performer.

This vocabulary will help you connect with this music on a deeper level, allowing you to appreciate its energy, innovation, and cultural significance.


Folk Vocabulary

Folk music, with its emphasis on acoustic instruments and traditional themes, has a unique charm. Its rich vocabulary reflects its roots in the lives of ordinary people.

  • Ballad: A song that tells a story, often of a romantic or tragic nature.
  • Fiddle: Another name for a violin, particularly when used in folk music.
  • Harmonica: A compact wind instrument characterized by a row of metal reeds running along its length. It is held against the lips and played by shifting it sideways to generate distinct notes.
  • Mandolin: A stringed musical instrument in the lute family, usually plucked with a plectrum.
  • Banjo: A stringed instrument with a long neck and a round body with a tight skin cover, typically plucked with a plectrum or fingers.
  • Acoustic Guitar: A guitar not dependent on an electrical amplifier to manipulate and amplify its sound.
  • Dulcimer: An instrument that consists of a soundboard or resonating body, strings stretched over bridges, and usually played by striking or plucking the strings with hammers, mallets, or fingers.
  • Folklore: Traditional stories, songs, dances, and customs preserved among a people.
  • Campfire Song: A folk song often sung in a group setting, such as around a campfire.
  • Traditional Song: A folk song that originates from the customs and traditions of a particular region or community.
  • Busking: The act of performing music in public places for voluntary donations.
  • Jug Band: A band employing a jug player and a mix of traditional and homemade instruments.
  • Hootenanny: A gathering at which folksingers entertain, often with the audience joining in.
  • Autoharp: A stringed instrument featuring a sequence of chord bars connected to dampers. These dampers selectively silence all strings except for the ones forming the intended chord.
  • Work Song: A traditional song that people sing while they work.

As you continue exploring this genre, your enhanced understanding of these terms will bring new depth to your appreciation of folk songs and their stories.

Disco Vocabulary

The disco genre emerged in the 1970s, impacting dance, fashion, and music. Its vocabulary is as vibrant and lively as the genre itself.

  • Four-on-the-floor: A rhythmic pattern commonly employed in disco and electronic dance music. It is characterized by a consistent, evenly emphasized beat played on the kick drum, synchronously hitting on every beat.
  • Hi-hat: An integral component of a drum kit consisting of a metal stand with two cymbals and a foot pedal.
  • Synthesizer: An electronic musical instrument that generates audio signals to create sounds.
  • DJ (Disc Jockey): A person who plays recorded music for an audience, especially in a nightclub or dance venue.
  • Sequencer: A device or application software that can record, edit, or playback music by handling notes and performance information.
  • Turntable: The circular rotating platform of a record player where the record is placed.
  • Mixing: The process of combining different sound sources into one or more channels, creating a balance that mixes the sonic elements of a band or performance.
  • Fade Out: The gradual reduction of the sound level in a recorded song or piece of music, often used as a closing technique.
  • Groove: In disco, this refers to a song's flow that makes it appealing for dancing.
  • Hook: In disco music, this term usually refers to the part of the song that catches the listener's ear.
  • Break: A musical interlude, often featuring a solo and/or highlighting the percussion.
  • Loop: A repeating section of sound material.
  • Reverb: An effect applied in sound recording to give the illusion of a space's acoustics, such as a hall or room.
  • Sampler: An electronic or digital device that can record, store, play, and manipulate sound.
  • Discotheque (Disco Club): A nightclub where dancing is a primary activity.

Now, when you listen to disco, you'll be able to identify and appreciate the key elements that define and distinguish this uniquely danceable genre.

Reggae and Ska Vocabulary

Reggae and Ska, originating in Jamaica, have influenced various musical genre names globally. The associated vocabulary is deeply intertwined with the culture of the Caribbean.

  • Ska Beat: A musical genre characterized by a walking bass line, rhythm guitar, and offbeat emphasis, precursor to reggae.
  • Riddim: The Jamaican Patois pronunciation of the English word rhythm, used to refer to the instrumental accompaniment to a song in reggae, Ska or other Caribbean genres.
  • Dub: A subgenre of reggae, which involves remixing existing recordings electronically.
  • Toasting: A style of lyrical chanting in reggae and dancehall, often improvised, akin to rapping.
  • Rocksteady: A music genre that was a precursor to reggae, featuring a less frenetic beat than Ska.
  • Sound System: A term used in reggae culture referring to a group of disc jockeys, engineers, and MCs playing Ska, rocksteady, or reggae music.
  • One Drop Rhythm: A drumming style characteristic of reggae, with emphasis on the third beat of a bar.
  • Upstroke/Offbeat: A feature of ska and reggae music where the guitar hits the lighter strings on an up-stroke, emphasizing the offbeats of the measure.
  • Deejay: In reggae culture, a person who raps or chats over the record, different from the American usage where it refers to a person who plays records.
  • Roots Reggae: A subset within the reggae genre that delves into the everyday experiences and ambitions of the artists involved.
  • Nyabinghi: The oldest of the Rastafarian sects, it's also a style of drumming and a type of reggae music.
  • Dancehall: A genre of Jamaican popular music that originated in the late 1970s, initially a more sparse version of reggae than the roots style.
  • Ragga: A subgenre of dancehall music or reggae that prominently features electronic music and sampling in its instrumentation.
  • Selector: A term used in reggae and Ska for the person choosing and playing the records in a sound system or on the radio.
  • Rude Boy/Girl: In ska and reggae culture, a rebellious youth who likes Ska or reggae music.

Your newfound understanding of these terms will enhance your enjoyment of these genres, adding a new layer of depth to your appreciation of their rich cultural roots and distinctive musical qualities.

Classical Music Vocabulary

One of the oldest musical genres, Classical music has a vocabulary that can seem as intricate as a symphony. Here's a musical genre list of terms.

  • Symphony: A lengthy form of musical composition for orchestra, typically in four movements.
  • Conductor: A person who directs the performance of an orchestra or choir.
  • Opera: A form of theatre in which music has a leading role, and the parts are taken by singers.
  • Ballet: A type of performance dance that originated during the Italian Renaissance, often set to orchestral music.
  • Chamber Music: A form of classical music composed for a small group of instruments.
  • Sonata: A musical composition designed for a solo instrumentalist, frequently accompanied by a piano, commonly comprising multiple movements, with one or more adhering to the sonata form.
  • Sonnet: A 14-line poem written in iambic pentameter, often set to music in classical compositions.
  • Cadenza: A virtuoso solo passage inserted into a movement in a concerto or other work, typically near the end.
  • Fugue: A compositional technique characterized by the systematic imitation of a principal theme (called the subject) in simultaneously sounding melodic lines (counterpoint).
  • Orchestra: A sizeable instrumental ensemble commonly found in classical music, encompassing instruments from diverse families.
  • Prelude: A short piece of music, the form of which may vary from piece to piece, often used as an introduction to more complex pieces.
  • Scale: A set of musical notes ordered by frequency or pitch.
  • Etude: A short musical composition, typically for one instrument, designed as an exercise to improve the technique or demonstrate the skill of the player.
  • Intermezzo: A short connecting instrumental piece in an opera or other musical work.

Your newfound understanding will allow you to better appreciate the complexities and subtleties of this genre, from intimate chamber pieces to grand symphonies.

Phrases and Idioms Related to Music

Lastly, here's a list of some phrases and idioms that revolve around music genres and their culture:

  • "Face the music:" Deal with the consequences of your actions.
  • "March to the beat of your own drum:" To do things your own way regardless of societal norms and expectations.
  • "Strike a chord:" Arouse a specific emotional reaction.
  • "Blow your own trumpet:" Brag or boast about one's own abilities.
  • "Change your tune:" Alter your stance or opinion on something.
  • "Play it by ear:" Do something by intuition rather than following a plan.
  • "Sing the blues:" Express sadness or dissatisfaction.
  • "In the groove:" Performing smoothly, especially in sports or other physical activities, sometimes with reference to music.
  • "It ain't over till the fat lady sings:" The outcome of a situation is uncertain until the very end (often in a sporting context).
  • "Bust a move:" Start dancing.

Now you're not only well-versed in different music genres but also in how music has influenced our language and expressions. The next time these idioms pop up in conversation, you'll know exactly what they mean.


Music is a universal language that transcends boundaries and cultures. Each musical genre, from Blues and Jazz to Classical, brings its unique vocabulary, coloring our understanding and experience of these sonic landscapes. Armed with this lexicon, you can confidently engage with various musical genres.

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Just AlexanderOct 31st, 2023
It's like a journey through time and music history. Great read!