“It’s raining cats and dogs.”
Do you know what that means?
If you want to improve your English, you can start by learning more idioms.
Idioms are very important and very common, and they’ll help make your English sound more natural.
“But,” you may be thinking, “what’s an idiom?”
If you’re wondering that, don’t worry! Idioms are one of those things that you probably use all the time, but just don’t realize what they’re called.
An idiom (also called an “idiomatic expression”) is a common saying that means something specific.
“It’s raining cats and dogs” is an idiom that means it’s raining really hard. Obviously, cats and dogs aren’t actually falling from the clouds, but it’s just a fun phrase that’s really common.
Another one is “music to my ears.” If you say something is “music to your ears,” it means that you’re happy to hear it. For example, if you tell me that I got a great score on an important test, I might say, “That’s music to my ears!” I don’t mean that your words actually sound like music, just that I’m happy to hear them.
One other thing about idioms: They’re usually fixed, which means that if you change any of the words in the phrase, it won’t make sense. So for example, if you say “it’s raining trucks and beer,” you’ll probably just confuse people.
Today we’ll look at 20 really common and useful idioms that you can find in English songs. Hearing how the idioms are used in English-language music will help you remember them. You can also easily add the songs to your English listening practice.
For each idiom, we’ll see how and why it’s used in the song, and I’ll also give an extra example of the idiom.
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Music to Your Ears: 20 Common English Idioms Found in Great Songs
1. go crazy
I wanted to start with this song, because I really like Prince and I was sad that he died earlier this year. But even though he’s gone, his music will live on, and so will this really common idiom.
To go crazy can mean to go insane (not have control of your mind). But in this song, “go crazy” can also mean to be wild or to have a good, fun time. Another similar phrase is “go nuts” or “get nuts,” which is also used in this song.
Example: I’ve been working here at my desk for three hours without a break. If I don’t go outside to get some fresh air soon, I think I’ll go crazy!
2. give up
“Give up” is a phrasal verb that means to surrender, or stop trying. It’s actually a common phrase in a lot of songs. In this particular song, Raphael Saadiq is using it to say he’ll never give up on his relationship.
If you want to hear more songs with this idiom, I recommend “Don’t Give Up” by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. There are also two great songs called “Never Gonna Give You Up”: one by The Black Keys and the other, much more famous one by Rick Astley.
Example: Sheila has failed two Japanese exams, but she’ll keep on trying until she passes it. She said she’s not going to give up.
3. basket case
The meaning of “basket case” is very similar to our first one, “go crazy.” But the biggest difference is that “go crazy” is an action, and “basket case” is a noun that you can use to talk about a person. Another difference is that “go crazy” isn’t very strong, but if you call someone a basket case, they may be offended or angry with you. It’s the kind of phrase that you can use in a joking way about yourself or with friends or family, but probably not with people you don’t know.
This song is about a guy who thinks he’s going crazy. The idiom “basket case” is actually only in the title, not in the lyrics. One other good phrase that he uses is “crack up,” which is another idiom that means to go crazy.
Example: I was a real basket case when I arrived home after my long trip. I had been flying for over 30 hours, and two of the planes were delayed.
4. mixed up
The phrase “mixed up” means that someone or something is confused or confusing, or just not normal. The verb “mix” by itself is what you use when you stir or combine things. So you can also think of something “mixed up” being in a different order than normal.
In this song, Sophie Ellis-Bextor sings about how she’s confused because she’s going through a difficult time. But she also says that if you think life is tough (difficult), you need to remember that you’re also tough (strong).
There are two other really common idioms in this song: She mentions right at the beginning that she’s “messed up,” which is the same as “mixed up.” And—you guessed it—she also mentions that she’s going crazy!
Example: We were trying to drive to the swimming pool, but we got our directions mixed up. Fortunately, we asked a woman on the side of the road, and she told us how to get to the pool.
5. in your (wildest) dreams
Dreams are things you see or imagine when you’re sleeping, so they’re not real. In the same way, if you say that something will happen “in your dreams,” it means that you don’t think it really will happen, or that you think it’s impossible.
In this Taylor Swift song, she tells a man to say some things, even if they’re only in his wildest dreams. Here “wildest” means “craziest” or “most impossible.” In other words, she wants him to say those things, even if he doesn’t think those things will ever happen. As a quick note, there’s another version of this song by Ryan Adams that I think is pretty good. There’s also a completely unrelated (but good!) Iron Maiden song that’s also called “Wildest Dreams.”
Example: I would like for Taylor Swift and Iron Maiden to sing together at my birthday party, but I don’t think that will actually happen, even in my wildest dreams.
6. poker face
Do you ever play poker? If so, imagine what kind of face you would make if you got the perfect cards, and what kind of face you would make if you got terrible cards. If it’s obvious from your expression what cards you have, then you don’t have a good poker face.
If you say that someone has a “poker face,” it means it’s difficult to read their emotions through their face. You can also use this expression outside of cards, if you want to say that it’s difficult to know what someone is thinking.
In the song “Poker Face,” Lady Gaga says a man can’t read her poker face, so she may be difficult for him to understand.
Example: I asked Vivianna what she thought of my new haircut, but she just said it looked “nice.” But she usually has a poker face and I can never tell what she’s really thinking.
7. make up your mind
The phrase “make up your mind” means to make a decision. You can also change the word “your” for other possessive adjectives like “your,” “her,” “his,” etc.
In this song from the movie “Once,” the singers use “when your mind’s made up.” This means that the person already made a decision, and they probably won’t change their mind. They say that there’s no point in talking when your mind’s made up.
Example: Xavier can’t make up his mind whether he wants chocolate or strawberry ice cream, but I already finished my ice cream cone five minutes ago!
8. time after time
If you say something happens time after time, you mean that it happens a lot. You can also say that it happens “time and again” or simply “again and again.”
This song uses the phrase to talk about a friend supporting another friend “time after time.” The friend will help the other friend “time after time,” or as many times as necessary.
Example: Time after time, I’ve told my grandma that she doesn’t need to cook meals for me, but she still does it. I’ve just accepted that she likes to cook and she wants to be nice, so I don’t argue anymore.
9. cruel to be kind
Believe it or not, the phrase “cruel to be kind” actually was first used in William Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet,” when Hamlet says “I must be cruel, only to be kind.” We still say a pretty close version of the phrase, “you have to be cruel to be kind,” and the meaning is the same. You say this when you need to do or say something that’s cruel (mean) or which hurts a person, but you’re actually doing it to help him or her. This is also called “tough love” sometimes.
In the Nick Lowe song, he’s singing about how a woman treats him badly, but she explains that she’s being mean because she loves him. Except it sounds like she doesn’t really feel bad about treating him like that, so maybe she’s just using this idiom as an excuse to be mean!
Example: We really need to talk to Kristina about her work clothes. She thinks they’re OK, but the bosses are saying she looks unprofessional and that they might need to fire her. I guess we’ve got to be cruel to be kind and tell her that her clothes actually are pretty terrible.
10. take your breath away
This phrase means that something is amazing or surprising. Just imagine that it really shocks you so much that you can’t breathe.
This song is basically a love song, and the singer is talking about how two people are so in love that they take each other’s breath away. At least that’s what I think. (The lyrics are actually about 80% random nonsense, but it’s still a really great song.)
Example: When Anna saw her new baby for the first time, the experience took her breath away. She couldn’t believe how emotional she felt.
11. you win some, you lose some
This is a phrase that you might say to someone who has just gone through a difficult experience. If you say “you win some, you lose some,” it’s a way to encourage someone and point out that you won’t always be successful, so you should move forward after you fail. Another similar idiom is “you can’t win ’em all.”
In this song, Robbie is talking about a relationship that ended, but he doesn’t seem too sad about it. He says that sometimes you win, and sometimes you lose.
Example: I was excited because I found $10 in the street, but later that day I got a parking ticket for $20. Oh well, you win some, you lose some.
12. opposites attract
People use this idiom to explain when two people who seem to be very different are still friends or together in a relationship.
The song and the 1990s video are a bit cheesy, but it does have a lot of examples of how two people (or I guess one person and a cat, if you watch the music video) can be extremely different but still be in love with each other.
Example: Jenny has been a vegetarian and a peace activist for years, so we were all surprised when she started dating Wayne, a beef farmer who was in the military. I guess opposites really do attract!
13. get down
Depending on the context, the phrasal verb “get down” can have several different meanings. But in this case, it means to dance or to just enjoy yourself at a party. So if you hear someone say “let’s get down,” it’s like saying “let’s party!”
This Kool and the Gang song is great, but it’s pretty simple. Basically, the singer is pushing someone to get out on the dance floor and to start dancing. Not surprisingly, it has a very similar message to the song “Get Down Tonight” by K.C. and the Sunshine Band.
Example: I think that every wedding DJ has a few special songs that he or she can play to start the party and make everyone get down.
14. get/pull yourself together
This is a phrase that means that a person needs to become more organized. It’s basically what you need to do when you’re mixed up, like in number 4 above. Just imagine that a person is made up of many different pieces, and those pieces are all over the place. Well, you need to pull or get those pieces together to be OK again.
A lot of the lyrics to this Robyn song are about her being confused and broken into different pieces:
“When nothing else fits, pick up the pieces and move on…”
“I’ve got to get my head back on…”
“There’s no denying the mess that I got us in…”
“Just can’t make sense of it all, it’s like my mind is gone…”
So yes, she does sound like she’s mixed up!
Example: Wow, you shouldn’t be calling your ex when you’re drunk. Give me your phone now, and I’ll give it back to you tomorrow after you get yourself together.
15. hold back
The phrase “hold back” means to stop yourself from doing something, or to be moderate. In other words, it means to try not do something at 100%.
I love all the songs here, but I think this may be my favorite song in this article. It’s a love song about how a guy can’t stop himself from expressing his love and passion.
Example: When the wedding DJ started playing “Get Down On It,” Betty couldn’t hold back. She simply had to get down and start dancing!
16. dream come true
Like with the phrase “in your dreams,” if you’re talking about dreams, you’re normally talking about fantasies or imaginary things. So if something is a “dream come true,” it means that it’s something that may have seemed impossible, but it somehow became real, and you think it’s perfect.
This song by Hall and Oates is about a guy who has found the girl of his dreams. As a bonus, in the lyrics he even says that his dreams have scattered (gotten mixed up), but that this girl helps pull them all together. See, I told you these were common idioms!
Example: It would be a real dream come true if I could work at home for five hours a week doing something I love, and somehow still earn $50,000 a month for doing it!
17. fight fire with fire
If you say “fight fire with fire,” it means that if someone is attacking you, you need to use the same tactics (strategies or ways) to fight back. If you don’t, you’ll probably be defeated (lose). There’s also a similar saying: “Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.”
In the case of this Metallica song, the lyrics are even hard for me to understand, but (I think) they’re talking about nuclear war. It’s a pessimistic (negative) song, since it seems to say that the world will be destroyed if we fight fire with fire.
Example: The politicians are all using negative advertisements against each other. They seem to think that they can fight fire with fire, but I think it just makes everyone trust politicians less.
18. what you see is what you get
Use this phrase when you want to say that you aren’t hiding anything or keeping anything secret. Basically, everything is visible (can be seen). This idiom is so common that it’s even used in computer programming, often shortened to “WYSIWYG.”
The Tina Turner song “What You Get Is What You See” is actually this idiom backwards, but it means the same thing. I think she may just have changed it because it rhymes better that way. In the song, she’s singing about how some guys try to pretend to be something they’re not, but she’s very open: With her, there’s nothing hidden, and she wants a guy who will accept that.
Example: If you want to buy a used car, I’d recommend Ted’s Auto Sales. The cars aren’t perfect, but Ted doesn’t try to pretend that they’re perfect. With him and his cars, what you see is what you get, and you can be sure that he’ll be honest with you.
19. work it out
The phrase “work it out” usually means to find the solution to a problem.
This song uses this idea a lot, and it says things like:
“If you ain’t happy with yourself you need to work it out…”
“I work it out when the situation seems unworkable…”
Example: I’m not sure how we’ll get from the airport to the hotel, but we can work it out tomorrow. There are still two days left until our trip.
20. too little, too late
This idiom may be more obvious than the other ones. It’s what you say when someone tries to help, but the things that person does are too small or don’t actually help because the situation has changed. It’s similar to the idea of “thanks for nothing.”
In this song, Pat Benatar sings about how she broke up with her boyfriend, but now he’s coming back to her and asking to get back together. But she says it’s “a little too little, it’s a little too late.” In other words, if he really wanted to get back together, he should have tried a lot harder, and he should have tried a lot earlier.
Example: The managers tried to save the failing company, but it was too little, too late. There were too many problems and the company had to close.
I think you’ll agree that with English idioms, it’s never too late to learn more of them. There are never too little to learn, either!
Even if you get a bit mixed up sometimes, just try to pull yourself together and never give up.
If you don’t hold back, you may even be able to make your (English learning) dreams come true!
Download: This blog post is available as a convenient and portable PDF that you can take anywhere. Click here to get a copy. (Download)
Ryan Sitzman teaches English and sometimes German in Costa Rica. He is passionate about learning, coffee, traveling, languages, writing, photography, books and movies, but not necessarily in that order. You can learn more or connect with him through his website Sitzman ABC.
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