List of Music Terms

This list of music vocabulary, with example sentences, includes many of the words you'll come across when reading or talking about music. Most of the words are related to popular music, but many can also be used when talking about other types of music like classical or traditional folk music. The list includes all the words defined in the EnglishClub music vocabulary section. The section covers popular music genres and has pages on the history of pop music, rock music, country music, soul music, dance music and hip hop.

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.

graffiti art (noun): street art that's drawn, painted or sprayed in public places - What do you think of Banksy's graffiti art?

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.

hillbilly (noun): an impolite word meaning a poor mountain farmer in the U.S.A. - In Nashville, old-time music was called hillbilly music.

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

rap (2) (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.

the South (noun): the southeastern part of the USA - Some of the best soul and hip hop artists are from the South.

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.

Contributor: Matt Errey. Matt is the author of several books including 1000 Phrasal Verbs in Context and Common English Idioms for learners, and Matt's ESL Games and Quizzes for teachers. He is also creator of WORD UP, the world's #1 EFL board game.