Learn Music Vocabulary

acoustic (adjective): without inbuilt electrical equipment to amplify the sound – I can play acoustic guitar, but I can’t play electric guitar.

album (noun): a collection of songs released as a digital download or a 12-inch LP record – Do you have Michael Jackson’s album Thriller?

alternative hip hop (noun): any style that isn’t mainstream commercial hip hop – Have you heard much alternative hip hop?

alternative rock (noun): non-mainstream rock music inspired by punk and post-punk – My sister likes pop music, but I like alternative rock.

ambient music (noun): calming, atmospheric background music – Have you heard Brian Eno’s ambient music?

amplify (verb): to make sounds louder, esp. by using electrical equipment – If we don’t amplify the drums, they’ll be hard to hear.

artist (noun): a professional singer, musician or songwriter – Taylor Swift has become one of music’s best-selling artists.

art music (noun): music written and performed by professional musicians mostly for the upper classes, like classical Indian music and European opera – Wealthy Chinese lords paid musicians to play relaxing art music, while poor people played lively folk music for fun.

audio editing software (noun): software used to produce music, movie soundtracks, etc. – Before we had audio editing software, we used tape loops.

authentic (adjective): real or genuine – You can still see an authentic Chinese opera in Beijing.

autoharp (noun): a small harp with buttons to press for playing chords – Is the autoharp used much in bluegrass music?

avant-garde (adjective): new, unusual and experimental – Harry makes avant-garde electronic music in his spare time.

backbeat (noun): a beat counted as “two” or “four” in 4/4 rhythm – Can you hear the snare drum playing on the backbeats?

backing singer (also “backing vocalist”) (noun): a singer who gives vocal support to a lead singer – Tessa was one of Joe Cocker’s backing singers.

ballad (noun): a slow song usually about love – Janis sings up-tempo rock songs as well as slow ballads.

banjo (noun): an African American stringed instrument based on the African kora – Do you play four-string or five-string banjo?

bar (noun): one of many small sections in a piece of music that contains a fixed number of beats – Each bar in the song has four beats.

bass (guitar) (noun): an electric guitar with thick strings for playing low “bass” notes – We need someone who can play bass.

beat (noun): the regular pulse in music that dancers move to and audiences clap to – Dance music always has a strong beat.

beats (noun): the breakbeat rhythms that MCs rap to in hip hop music – Who produced the beats on this album?

bebop (noun): a complex style of up-tempo jazz from the 1950s – The best bebop player I ever heard was Charlie Parker.

big band (noun): a large jazz band, esp. one that plays big band jazz – Most popular singers of the 30s and 40s had their own big bands.

big beat (noun): an EDM genre with breakbeats, heavy bass, vocals and samples – Maxim loves that big beat sound.

block party (noun): a free party on the streets of a city block – Are you going to the block party on Saturday?

bluegrass (noun): a style of country music based on old-time Appalachian music – We’re going to a bluegrass concert tonight.

(the) blues (noun): African American guitar-based folk music that led to R&B and rock – I’m learning some old blues songs.

bpm (noun): beats per minute – The fastest drum and bass tracks are around 160 bpm.

boy band (noun): a group of three or more boys or young men who sing and dance – My little sister loves that Korean boy band Super Junior.

brass (noun): instruments made of brass, like the trumpet, trombone and tuba – Harry plays trumpet in a brass band.


break (noun): a moment in which most instruments stop, but one or two continue, esp. drums – We sampled a snare-drum break from an old jazz record.

breakbeat (noun): a syncopated jazz or funk rhythm of the sort sampled in hip hop music – Hip hop and dubstep use breakbeats, not disco beats.

breakdancing (noun): a style of street-dancing in hip hop culture – The breakdancing in this Turf Feinz video is incredible.

breakdown (noun): section of a dance track with less singing and more percussion – Does the track have a good breakdown?

call and response (noun): two musical phrases, one of which answers the other – The call and response is before the last chorus.

catchy (adjective): enjoyable when first heard, and difficult to forget – It’s so catchy! I can’t stop hearing it in my head.

(the) charts (noun): lists of the best-selling songs of the previous week – Our single got to the top of the charts!

chord (noun): three or more notes played together – Lots of great songs only have two chords, you know.

chorus (noun): the part of a song with the same melody and words each time it’s heard – I’ll sing the verses, and you sing the choruses.

classic (adjective): very good and highly-regarded for a long time – Neil loves those classic American cars of the 50s.

classical music (noun): European orchestral and keyboard music that’s written by composers – Sayoko loves classical music, especially Chopin’s piano pieces.

collaborate (verb): to work together with someone to produce something – Has Kanye collaborated with Drake yet?

commercial (adjective): made in order to be popular and make money –Garth’s country music is much too commercial for me.

contemporary R&B (noun): recent R&B that mixes soul, pop and hip hop sounds – Contemporary R&B is really popular these days.

crossover hit (noun): a country, dance or hip hop song that’s on the pop-music charts – We’ll all be rich if we have a crossover hit.

country music (noun): a genre of American music with origins in the rural folk music of Europe – Harry only listens to country music.

country pop (noun): a style that mixes pop and country music – Country pop is really popular in America these days.

country rock (noun): a style that mixes rock and country music – He doesn’t like country pop much, but he loves country rock.

dance-pop (noun): up-tempo pop music with a dance rhythm – Her dance-pop singles always become hits.

deejay (verb): to perform the skills of a club or hip hop DJ – Who’s deejaying for Nas these days?

disco (also “discotheque”) (noun): a 70s nightclub in which DJs played dance records – The gay discos in New York were fabulous.

disco music (also “disco”) (noun): 70s dance music with a steady four-on-the-floor beat – My sister loves dancing to disco music.

DJ (or “disc jockey”) (noun): someone who plays records at dance clubs or on radio – Do you like the tracks this DJ’s playing?

DJ mixer (noun): a small mixer made for DJs – All you need is two turntables, a DJ mixer and some records.

double bass (noun): a large stringed instrument for playing low notes – In jazz, double bass strings are plucked instead of bowed.

drop (noun): a point in EDM when the rhythm and sounds suddenly change – If it’s a really great drop, everyone goes crazy.

drum and bass (or “DnB”) (noun): an EDM genre with breakbeats, heavy bass and a fast tempo – Let’s make a drum and bass track.

drum kit (noun): a set of drums with a bass drum, snare drum, tom-toms, hit-hat and cymbals – How much did your drum kit cost?

drum machine (noun): an electronic instrument that makes sequenced drum sounds – Our drummer quit, so we’re using a drum machine now.

dubstep (noun): an EDM genre with breakbeat rhythms, very heavy bass and a slow tempo – My parents don’t even know what dubstep is!

duo (noun): two people who make music or perform together – Who’s on your list of best hip hop duos?

dynamic (adjective): lively and having a lot of energy – She’s one of the most dynamic singers I’ve seen perform.

EDM (noun): electronic dance music – That band didn’t start out playing EDM, did they?

explicit (adjective): offensive, obscene or “rude” language – Has the album got an explicit language warning?

fan (noun): someone who likes a particular artist or band very much – Our teacher’s a really big fan of Eminem.

feedback (noun): a high-pitched noise made when a microphone is close to a loudspeaker – How do you control feedback so it fits the music?

fiddle (noun): another word for “violin”, esp. in country and folk music – Who’s playing fiddle on that record?

flow (noun): the ability to rap rhythmically and stylishly – He’s been practising, so his flow’s getting better.

folk music (noun): traditional music from a particular region or country – Did you hear any folk music while you were in Chile?

folk rock (noun): a style that mixes folk and rock music – We heard lots of folk rock bands in San Francisco in the early 60s.

formula (noun): a method or plan that’s believed to succeed – What’s your formula for success in business?

four-on-the-floor (noun): a 4/4 rhythm with bass drum on the beat and hi-hat on the offbeats – Terry’s sick of playing those four-on-the-floor disco beats.

funk (or “funk music”) (noun): rhythmic groove-based music that developed from soul in the 60s – Bootsy Collins was the best funk bass player ever.

funky (adjective): having the feel of funk music, esp. rhythmically – That track Superstition by Stevie Wonder is incredibly funky.

gangsta rap (noun): hardcore-style rap from Los Angeles – My cousin still buys gangsta rap records!

genre (noun): a kind or style of music, movie, TV show, painting, etc. – In music classes at school, the only genres we studied were classical music and jazz.

G-Funk (noun): funk-based subgenre of gangsta rap – What’s your favourite G-Funk track?

glam rock (noun): a rock style in which male artists wore make-up and glamorous clothes – David Bowie had many styles besides glam rock.

gospel music (noun): rhythmic church music of African American Christians – They sang great gospel music in those old churches.

groove (noun): a highly-rhythmic pattern repeated for a long time, esp. in funk music – Hip hop artists still sample James Brown’s funk grooves.

grunge (noun): punk-based alternative rock that developed in the USA in the 90s – Wasn’t Nirvana the first grunge band?

hardcore rap (noun): a tough style of New York hip hop music – Hardcore rap’s like those old gangster movies.

harmony (noun): the combining of musical notes that sound good when played or sung together – If we don’t sing in harmony, it’ll sound terrible.

heavy metal (noun): hard rock with heavy bass, complex drumming and singers who scream – My dad used to be in a heavy metal band.

hi-hat (noun): a pair of foot-operated cymbals that’s part of a drum kit – Drummers play bass drum with one foot and hi-hat with the other.

hip hop (also “hip hop”) (noun): a musical genre in which artists rap over beats and sampled sounds – I love Kanye West’s hip hop albums.

hit (noun): a best-selling song on the pop-music charts – It’s a great song. It’ll be a hit for sure.

honky tonk (noun): a country music style known for its powerful, emotional songs – Who’s your favourite honky tonk singer?

hook (noun): part of a song that’s easily remembered, often a chorus – The Knack’s My Sharona has one of greatest hooks ever!

horn section (noun): a group of musicians playing brass instruments and saxophones – How many songs does the horn section play on?

house (or “house music”) (noun): 80s dance music similar to disco but with more electronic sounds – Those old house tracks still sound great.

house band (noun): a group of session musicians who work for a music company – House bands don’t become famous, but singers do.

house producer (noun): one of a record company’s full-time music producers – How many house producers does Sony Music have?

hymn (noun): a religious song that’s sung in church – My grandma loves singing those old hymns.

improvise (verb): to invent music spontaneously while playing – If you want to be a jazz musician, you have to learn how to improvise.

instrumental (adjective): played on instruments, without vocals – There’s a long instrumental section in the middle of the song.

jazz (noun): a genre in which artists improvise within a rhythmic and harmonic framework – We’ve got all John Coltrane’s jazz records.

jazz rap (noun): rap music made with jazz samples or instruments – Molly doesn’t like jazz rap much.

Latin music (noun): a genre of popular music in Latin America and Spain that has complex rhythms – Latin music makes me want to dance.

lead guitar (noun): a guitar on which melodic lines and solos are played – Who’s playing lead guitar in your new band?

live (adjective): played at a concert in front of an audience – You don’t hear live music in dance clubs anymore, only recorded music.

lyrics (noun): the words of a song – If you don’t listen to the lyrics, you won’t know what a song is about.

mainstream (adjective): normal and preferred by most people – Most people like mainstream hip hop more than alternative hip hop.

mandolin (noun): a stringed instrument like a guitar with a curved back – You can hear mandolin on those early old-time recordings.

MC (or “Master of Ceremonies”) (noun): a DJ’s onstage announcer, esp. one who raps – Does your MC ever forget his raps?

melody (noun): a tune, or the notes of a song – Can you whistle the song’s melody?

mixtape (noun): a collection of free tracks, usually downloadable or on cassette tape – Let’s download some more mixtapes.

modal jazz (noun): jazz that uses Arabic or Indian modes instead of European scales – McCoy Tyner played modal jazz with John Coltrane.

neo soul (noun): a style that mixes contemporary R&B and 60s or 70s soul – Angelina played some great neo soul tracks at our party.

offbeat (noun): a beat between the main beats, often counted as “and” by musicians – Disco has hi-hats playing on all the offbeats.

old-time music (also “hillbilly music”) (noun): country music originating in the Appalachian mountains of the USA – Do people still play old-time music much?

outlaw country (noun): a style of country music popular in the 1960s –Johnny Cash was one of those outlaw country singers.

pedal steel guitar (noun): an electric steel guitar on a stand with foot pedals for changing the sound – He’s teaching us pedal steel guitar.

pop music (noun): a popular music genre with catchy songs that are easy to remember – I love listening to pop music.

pop song (noun): any song that follows the pop music formula – Paul’s favourite pop song is God Only Knows by The Beach Boys.

pop soul (noun): a style of soul music with a pop-music sound – Mum’s listening to pop soul again.

popular music (noun): music that many people like and buy, like rock music and heavy metal, hip hop and rap, pop songs, etc. – Our music teacher knows lots about classical music, but nothing about popular music.

post-punk (adjective): of a style of experimental rock that developed after punk – Have you heard of a post-punk band called Joy Division?

pounding (adjective): having a very strong, loud and steady beat – Those pounding disco tracks are still great to dance to.

power chord (noun): a basic chord that can add power to music – The Kinks used lots of power chords in their song You Really Got Me.

producer (noun): someone who oversees the recording of music – Who was the producer on Nirvana’s first album?

progressive EDM (noun): EDM made for listening to as well as dancing to – I listen to progressive EDM when I’m on the bus.

protest song (noun): a song with lyrics that protest against war, injustice, etc. – Why don’t people write protest songs anymore?

psychedelic (adjective): related to powerful drugs like LSD – Lots of bands used psychedelic designs on their album covers in the 60s.

punk (rock) (noun): 70s and 80s rock music with short, fast, noisy songs – The first punk band I saw was The Sex Pistols.

rap  (noun): a set of lyrics rapped to a hip hop beat – He’s never done a rap about getting a job, has he?

rap  (verb): to speak rhythmically in rhymes over a hip hop beat – You want me to rap? I’ve never rapped in my life!

rapper (noun): an artist who performs raps over a hip hop beat – My daughter wants to be a rapper when she grows up.

rave (noun): a large dance party held outdoors or in an empty building – Did you go to any of those raves in the 90s?

record (noun): a thin disc of black plastic on which recorded music is imprinted and sold – I bought lots of punk records in the 70s.

recording (noun): a piece of music that’s recorded in a studio or at a concert – It’s one of the best recordings they’ve made.

recording session (noun): time spent recording in a music studio – We’ve got a recording session on Monday morning.

reggae music (noun): a genre of music that developed in Jamaica in the 1960s – If you want to hear reggae music, try Bob Marley and the Wailers.

remix (verb): to change a track’s sound-level mix and add effects – When he remixed our song, he made the bass drum much louder.

reverb (noun): an electronic sound effect similar to an echo – They used lots of reverb on those early Beach Boys songs.

revival (noun): the return to popularity of an old style or form – There was a rockabilly revival during the punk music years.

rhyme (noun): a word that ends with the same sound as another word – If you don’t use rhymes, you can’t call it rapping.

rhythm (noun): a pattern of beats and sounds that musicians play in time to and dancers move to – The rhythms of African music are really complex.

riff (noun): a repeated series of chords or notes, esp. on electric guitar – Justin wants to learn some heavy metal riffs.

rockabilly (noun): a style that mixes Western swing and R&B – Sam recorded lots of rockabilly songs at Sun Studio in Memphis.

rock music (noun): rhythmic blues-based music played on guitar, bass, drums, etc. – Let’s listen to some rock music for a change.

sample (verb): to copy a sound or section of music from a record or audio file – We sampled a snare-drum break from an old soul record.

sample-heavy (adjective): having many sampled sounds – If you like sample-heavy hip hop, you’ll love this album.

scale (noun): a series of notes in a fixed order from lowest to highest – The major and minor scales each have seven notes.

scratching (noun): moving a record quickly on a turntable to create a rhythmic scratching sound – There’s a lot of scratching in his beats.

secular (adjective): not religious, or with no connection to religion – Sam Cooke recorded secular versions of old gospel songs.

session musician (noun): a musician who can be hired to play on a recording – Session musicians don’t get much work these days.

set (noun): a group of songs performed one after the other – How many songs were in the band’s first set?

singer-songwriter (noun): a musician who writes and performs his or her own songs – Most singer-songwriters also play guitar or keyboards.

single (noun): a song released as a digital download, or as one of two songs on a 7-inch record – Have you heard their latest single?

standard (noun): a song that is often recorded and performed – Lots of Roy Orbison’s songs have become pop standards.

stand-up bass (or “string bass”) (noun): another word for “double bass”, esp. in country music – Rockabilly bands had stand-up bass instead of bass guitar.

soul (or “soul music”) (noun): a genre that combines elements of gospel music, R&B and pop – My favourite soul singer is Al Green.

soundtrack album (noun): an album containing music made for a film – Has the soundtrack album been released yet?

strings (noun): an orchestral string section with violins, violas, cellos and double bass – Only the biggest jazz orchestras had strings.

swing (noun): up-tempo jazz for dancing played by big bands or jazz orchestras – Benny Goodman wrote lots of swing tunes.

synthesizer (noun): an instrument that makes and combines electronic sounds – Matt played organ and synthesizer in Use No Hooks.

tambourine (noun): an instrument with metal discs that rattles when hit or shaken – Mick Jagger often plays tambourine when he sings.

techno (noun): an EDM genre from Detroit that led to many subgenres – Which style of techno do you like the most?

texture (noun): the musical pattern created when sounds are combined – The textures on this track are amazing.

tour (verb): to perform concerts in a series of cities or countries – The Rolling Stones are touring Europe later this year.

track (noun): a recording of a song or piece of music – Their new album has some really great tracks.

traditional music (noun): music that developed over a very long time, like traditional African drumming and Chinese folk songs – People still play traditional music in Peru’s mountain villages.

trance (noun): a subgenre of techno with electronic beats and dreamy textures – Dad’s dancing to his old trance records again!

tune (noun): a song or melody – I know the tune, but I can’t remember what it’s called.

turntable (noun): a rotating plate that records sit on while being played – Dad said he’d get me a turntable for my birthday!

twelve-inch single (noun): a special single that’s longer than usual – Twelve-inch singles of Sylvester’s disco songs are awesome.

underground rap (noun): rap music by artists outside the music industry – I never hear underground rap on the radio.

up-tempo (or “uptempo”) (adjective): having a fast beat – If you want to write a happy song, it should be up-tempo.

verse (noun): the part of a song with the same melody but different words each time it’s heard – The song has a chorus and three verses.

wah-wah pedal (noun): a pedal pushed with the foot to electronically change a guitar sound – Listen to Shaft by Isaac Hayes if you want to hear a wah-wah pedal.

Western (country) music (noun): a style of country music that developed in the western states of the USA – My dad likes Western music more than old-time country music.

Western swing (noun): a style that mixes Western music and big-band swing jazz – Those Western swing records are great to dance to.

woodwind (noun): instruments played by blowing across a hole (e.g. flute) or through a reed (e.g. saxophone) – Are you sure the saxophone is a woodwind instrument?

yearn (verb): to want something very much – His yearning for a better world is expressed in his songs.

yodel (verb): to sing in a way that quickly changes from a very high voice to a normal voice – When I tried to yodel, everyone laughed.

Music Definitions

  • adoring fans: people who love a particular band or singer
  • background music: music that is played while something else is happening
  • a catchy tune: a song that is easy to remember and makes you want to sing it
  • classical music: music that is regarded as part of a long, formal tradition
  • to download tracks: to obtain music from the Internet
  • to have a great voice: to sing well
  • to go on tour: to go on a planned series of performances around a region or country
  • a huge following: a large number of fans
  • live music: music that is listened to while it is performed (not recorded)
  • live performance: (see live music)
  • a massive hit: a record that sells lots of copies
  • a music festival: music performances at a venue often over several days
  • musical talent: skilled at music
  • to be/sing out of tune: to not be in harmony/to sing the wrong notes
  • a piece of music: an item of music
  • to play by ear: to play without reading the musical notes
  • a pop group: a small group of people who play or sing pop music together
  • to read music: to understand and follow written musical notes
  • a rock band: a group of musicians that play rock music
  • to sing along to: to join in singing
  • a sing-song: to sing informally, often with other people
  • a slow number: a song with a slow tempo
  • to take up a musical instrument: to begin learning a musical instrument
  • taste in music: the music someone likes
  • to be tone deaf: to be unable to distinguish the different notes in music