Music is supposed to be the universal language of humanity.
That might be true.
But you still need another language to talk about music itself.
And this is where the problem starts.
If you feel that a lack of knowledge in English is stopping you from having deep conversations about music, then do not worry. We have you covered.
We have already talked about the most common idioms you will find in songs. And we have a guide to help you improve your vocabulary with famous music. We also have helpful posts about how you can learn English with music. We’ve shown you how to use songs, music videos and the latest hits to improve your overall English skills.
In this blog post, we will teach you terms you will need to know to have a basic English conversation about music.
The Complete Guide to Talking About Music in English
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FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Most Common Genres of Music
Classical music has been around for centuries. It generally means music created in Europe in the 18th and 19th century or before.
Most classical music like concerto, symphony and fugue do not have any vocals. A key characteristic of classical music is that it is written down in the form of a musical notation.
Like the script of a play, it defines the pitch, rhythm and coordination of different instruments in a piece of music. This means that there is less scope of modification of a single piece of music, unlike the other genres mentioned here.
Example: “5th Symphony” by Beethoven
This category of music was created in the beginning of the 20th century. Its most striking feature is the use of brass instruments like the saxophone and improvisation (modifying the music while playing it).
Example: “Sunday” by Wild Bill Davison and Classic Jazz Collegium
This sort of music came out of New York City in the 1970s. Its main features include fast, rhyming lyrics (rapping) and repetitive, rhythmic music played along with the rap.
Example: “It Was a Good Day” by Ice Cube or “Mockingbird” by Eminem
Electronic music uses digital tools and electronic instruments to create songs and music. It is quite popular in our age and it has a distinct artificial sound to it. This genre is sometimes called EDM or “electronic dance music.”
Example: “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga
Rock music started in the 1950s in the USA. Its most distinct features include the use of electric guitar and the “rock band” culture where the band as a whole is more important than individual singers (unlike in pop music).
Example: “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin
This category also emerged in 1970s urban America and became world famous for its dance culture. Its characteristic reverb vocals and electric synthesizers are still used in many songs today.
Example: “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer
Fusion music is the mixing of two or more genres together to make a new style of music. Generally it refers to the mixing of so called “Western” music and the musical characteristics of other traditions like Indian classical or Chinese music.
In the example below, it mixes Indian classical music with pop music.
Example: “Norwegian Wood” by The Beatles
8. Pop Music
The full form of “pop music” is popular music and, as the name suggests, it is that category of music that produces the most sales. The common elements of all pop music is that it is simple both lyrically and musically, easy to sing and has some repetitive catchy elements.
Example: “Shape of You” by Ed Sheeran
Unlike all the other genres until now, this one emerged in the rural parts of the US. A normal guitar is its most recognizable sound along with a special focus on lyrics and vocal singing.
The focus in these songs is to convey a message clearly and tell a story. Its most distinctive features are the twang and the yodel, which are basically ways of singing influenced by accents you will find in the southern regions of the US.
Example: “Friends in Low Places” by Garth Brooks
“Feeling blue” means to feel sad and low, and this musical genre tries to convert that feeling into song.
It arose in late 19th century America in the African-American community and is best known for its repetitive lines and its brass instruments. It had a huge impact on jazz and country genres.
Example: “The Thrill is Gone” by B.B. King
Meaning: This genre was created in Jamaica by combining blues and calypso (a Jamaican form of music). It is known for its offbeat sound and its lyrics talk about social issues.
Example: “One Love” by Bob Marley
Meaning: Just like pop music, this does not really mean one style of music. Indie music is music not produced by the big companies that normally produce most popular and profitable songs. This allows indie bands to experiment a lot and create their own unique style of music.
Example: “I Love You Baby, I Love You Doll” by Parekh and Singh
English Terms You Can Use to Describe Music
The beat of a song is the regularly repeating sound in it. This beat often defines the speed and the rhythm in which the song is played. If you ever find yourself tapping your finger or your foot while listening to music, you are most probably following its beat.
A song with a faster beat is often seen as more energetic, happy or even angry. A slower beat gives the feeling of being calm, sad or peaceful.
Example: The beat of this song makes me feel so low.
Tempo is the speed in which a particular piece of music should be played. It defines the beat and is usually measured in “beats per minute” or BPM. As mentioned above, higher BPM usually gives the feeling of more energy and most pop songs have high BPM.
Example: I like to listen to slow-tempo songs when I need to relax.
A song or piece of music is called “upbeat” when it sounds happy and cheerful. Mostly, upbeat music also has happy lyrics and is designed to create such feelings in their audience.
Example: Listening to upbeat music in the morning helps me feel good throughout the day.
A musical note is a small bit of sound which has a certain pitch. A note is the building block of any song, with or without words. You can think of them like syllables for music.
Example: She is a great singer because she always sings the right notes.
A chord is a collection of three notes in a song. It might help to watch this video to know what it sounds like.
A chord can also mean feeling or emotion in general English.
Sometimes these two meanings are combined in the phrase “to strike a chord.” It is used when someone is able to make their audience feel sympathy or a particular emotion about a subject.
The chord progression in that song is totally out of this world. (The “chord” in this sentence is strictly musical.)
That song about love really struck a chord with me. (This is related to the phrase mentioned above.)
Meaning: Harmony in music is when two or more notes are heard together. In a more general sense, it is about whether a set of notes sound good together or not.
In many classical traditions, there are strict rules regarding chords used to create musical harmony.
Example: That singer’s sense of harmony is simply amazing.
In music, a tune is a series of musical notes which sounds pleasing or harmonious. “To tune” can also mean fixing the pitch of a musical instrument so that it sounds right. In informal English a “tune” is simply a piece of a song or music.
I simply cannot get that tune out of my head.
That musician took twenty minutes to tune his instruments in the concert.
Meaning: Rhythm is a pattern of musical sounds. Usually it is created by using repetition and predictable change in the notes of the song and the beat.
Example: The rhythm of disco music is perfect for dancing in parties.
In casual English, when we use the word groove in music we usually talk about the rhythm of a jazz or pop song. Groove can also mean other things.
It might refer to habits in our everyday lives. Or it can be used for a long, narrow cut in solid materials like rocks or wood. It is important to pay attention to the context so that you know the exact meaning of this word in a sentence.
Example: This new pop song uses old jazz grooves.
Lyrics are the words of a song. Usually each paragraph of lyrics is said to be a “verse” and is accompanied by specific chords and rhythms.
Example: I like to focus on the lyrics of a song since I care about what the song is trying to say.
This is the part of a song that is repeated over and over again. A chorus can also mean a large group of singers who perform with other instruments. This video is a good example.
The chorus of this song is unforgettable.
The chorus of that school is famous for making covers of pop songs.
A “track” is one of the several songs in a device. In the days when CDs, cassettes and DVDs were still being used to listen to music, a track referred to a specific song in that device. But now since digital files usually do not have any tracks, people use it as another word for any song.
Example: There is a great Madonna track in that CD.
An album is a collection of songs usually sold as a DVD or as digital files. Generally, one album is made by one singer and has a theme that connects all songs. Sometimes one album can have many artists and then it is called as a “collaboration.”
Example: Michael Jackson’s first album was my favorite one.
A small group of musicians who play songs in a certain genre of music. Typically, one band has one or two main vocalists who use their voice to sing and the other members play one type of instrument such as guitars, drums or piano. One band should have at least two members.
Example: All the new rock bands sound the same.
An orchestra is a group of musicians who only play instruments. Generally each orchestra has groups of musicians who play different types of instruments (like string instruments such as a guitar, violin, etc.).
The musicians in the orchestra are generally guided by a “conductor” who remembers the whole musical piece and makes sure that everyone is playing correctly. You will typically find orchestras play classical music.
Example: I love how orchestras can make you feel something by just using their instruments.
16. A cappella
This is a word with Italian roots. To sing “a cappella” is to sing without any instruments. The word literally means “in chapel style” since in old churches they sang without any instruments.
Example: The chorus sounds best a cappella.
A piece of music is called “ambient” when it creates a certain mood in people without distracting them. Usually ambient music has no or little lyrics and is usually slow and less noisy.
Example: I always need some ambient music to help me study for exams.
A classic is usually an old song that is still regarded as good music of the highest quality. Generally a “classic” is a piece of art which has survived the test of time. The word “classic” can also mean “typical” in certain contexts.
Classic jazz reminds me of the good old days of music.
This is classic Beatles.
This is a type of song that typically makes you feel proud or praises something. For instance, all national anthems praise their own nation. It symbolizes certain values that every member of a group identifies with.
Example: This song is an anthem of our times.
The full form of a DJ is “disc jockey.” A jockey is a person who handles something in a skillful way. And “disc” refers to circular vinyl records that were used to record music in the past.
The work of a DJ is to select, mix and play music ideal for dancing. A DJ can either work in a club or in radio stations.
Joe is the best DJ in the city.
Having a good DJ is necessary for a good party.
When a few musicians informally meet together and play music, it is called “jamming.” Usually the musicians experiment and improvise (modify) the songs they play to come up with something new.
The word became popular when jazz music became famous in early 20th century.
Example: I used to jam with the best musicians back when I was young.
The verb “rock” means to move gently from side to side or to shake. Rock music used this verb to define itself and it is characterized by its heavy beats and rhythms. Now rocking can means that someone is doing something extremely well, especially in music.
Example: That musician is rocking that guitar.
14 English Questions and Phrases About Music You Can Use
1. Can you turn up the music?
To “turn up the music” means to increase the volume of the song that is currently being played. This phrase is a part of informal English and is mostly used in parties or other casual events.
Can you turn up the music? This song is my favorite one.
The cars outside are so loud that I cannot hear the song. Can you turn up the music?
2. Dancing to the beat
The act of dancing according to the rhythm of the song is called “dancing to the beat.” It is usually used when a person matches the beats of the tune almost perfectly.
Example: Joe always impresses everyone when he starts dancing to the beat of a hip hop song.
3. That’s a catchy song!
When something is described as “catchy,” it means that it is very attractive. Generally a catchy song is a piece of music that instantly catches your attention and you cannot get it out of your mind once you hear it.
Example: I hate its lyrics but even I have to accept that it’s a catchy song.
4. Do you want to go to that gig/concert/show?
A “gig” is a musical event, usually featuring songs by a local musician. So asking whether someone wants to go to a gig is either inviting them or confirming that they are coming for the musical show. A concert can mean the same thing, but it can also apply to a big artist or band.
I cannot go for that gig today since I am not feeling very well.
Do you want to go to that show? I heard they will play songs they never played before.
5. It makes my ears bleed!
When someone dislikes a particular song too much, they say that it “makes their ears bleed.” It is a way of expressing that you hate the song so much that you feel your ears are being damaged.
Example: Please do not play rock music, it makes my ears bleed!
6. This cover is better than the original
When someone records a song made by another person in their own voice it is called a “cover.” Usually instead of copying the original artists, many singers change the song according to their own style. To say that a cover is better than the original is to say that you like this modified version better.
Example: I love the Beatles, but this cover is even better than the original song.
7. I love your playlist
When someone groups certain songs from various places according to a theme or purpose, that is called a playlist. Generally people share these lists with each other digitally. This phrase is used when you really like the selection of songs they have grouped in a playlist.
Example: I love the playlist you use for jogging. Can you please share it with me?
8. This is our song
Sometimes friends or lovers feel that both of them connect to a certain song. When a song in any way symbolizes their relationship, they say that the song is their song.
Example: I feel that this is our song because it summarizes all the memories we have with each other.
9. Dancing till we drop
When someone says they are going to dance till (until) they drop, they decide to dance with all the energy they have. Usually this phrase is used in parties and night clubs where everyone is supposed to enjoy the music.
Example: Last night we danced till we dropped and now I cannot even get out of bed.
10. I can’t get this song out of my head
When you keep repeating a song either silently or otherwise, you use this phrase to describe that experience. It is also used when you want to forget a particular song but simply cannot.
Example: I hate this singer but I can’t get this song out of my head.
11. This song has topped the charts
“Topping the chart” is used to describe a song when it has sold really well and is extremely popular. In the English music industry, there are regular charts that show how many times a song has been bought or played. The songs which are given the first rank in these charts are said to be “chart toppers.”
Example: Even though this musician’s last album didn’t do so well, her latest song has topped the charts.
12. I am so excited about karaoke night!
“Karaoke” is a Japanese word used to describe a favorite music-related pastime. It is like a game played in clubs and bars where a person is supposed to sing in a microphone and the background track is played along with lyrics on a screen. A karaoke night is typically when a group of friends go out together and sing karaoke.
Example: I never thought karaoke could be so much fun. I am so excited about the next Karaoke night!
So go on, get out and rock your English conversation skills with your fellow music lovers.
Dhritiman Ray is a writer of fiction, poetry and non-fiction. He specializes in topics like education, psychology and lifestyle. To know more click here.