They say music is a universal language, understood by everyone.
Isn’t that beautiful?
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about music vocabulary. To understand that, you’ll have to make an effort to learn it!
From different types of music to words that can describe a song, basic music vocabulary can be very useful—whether you’d like to try learning English with music or simply want to chat with a music-loving friend.
In this article, we’ll go through some music vocabulary in English: musical genres, musicians, vocabulary that you can use to discuss music and, of course, lots of examples!
There are many genres, or types of music, in the world. Here are a few of the most common ones, along with some of the musicians who made these genres famous.
What it is: A type of music made popular in the 1990s that is derived from rock and includes other musical influences like folk or punk.
Famous artists: Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Radiohead, Weezer, R.E.M.
What it is: A musical genre created by southern African-American people in the late 1800s, typically expressing hardships and oppression and using instruments like the guitar, harmonica and piano
Famous artists: B.B. King, Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, Bessie Smith, Freddie King
What it is: A variety of music that originated in the southern and western United States; it includes both slow melodies and dance beats and often incorporates the guitar, fiddle, drums and keyboard
Famous artists: Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Tim McGraw, Carrie Underwood, Garth Brooks
What it is: A type of popular music that uses only acoustic instruments and whose lyrics often involve storytelling; also the traditional music of a certain region (e.g., German folk music)
Famous artists: Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Simon & Garfunkel, Ani DiFranco
What it is: A loud, intense style of rock music developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States and the United Kingdom that uses a strong drum beat and electric guitars
Famous artists: Metallica, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Slipknot, Tool
What it is: A type of music developed in African-American communities in the early 20th century that usually includes piano and brass and woodwind instruments and a lot of improvisation
Famous artists: Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday
What it is: A general category of music that has widespread commercial popularity; short for “popular”
Famous artists: Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish, Coldplay, Michael Jackson, Justin Bieber
What it is: A style of music created in New York and popularized in the 1970s whose key features are rhythmic, rhyming speech and the use of slang
Famous artists: Jay-Z, Ice Cube, Kendrick Lamar, Snoop Dogg, Nicki Minaj
What it is: A musical style that originated in Jamaica in the 1960s that has a strong second and fourth beat and often expresses political and Rastafarian ideas
Famous artists: Bob Marley and the Wailers, Toots and the Maytals, Shaggy, Ken Boothe, Burning Spear
What it is: A loud, energetic type of popular music that was developed in the 1950s; aka rock ‘n’ roll.
Famous artists: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Ramones, Queen
15 terms to talk about music
Now that we’ve covered some genres, let’s look at a few adjectives, nouns and verbs that can help you in your musical discussions.
Meaning: Describing an instrument or music that doesn’t use electricity to modify its sound (e.g., electric guitar vs. acoustic guitar)
Example: “I love listening to acoustic versions of heavy metal songs.”
Meaning: Enjoyable and easy to remember
Example: “I tried not to like Justin Bieber, but his music is just so darned catchy!”
Meaning: Easygoing and relaxed
Example: “My favorite kind of music is reggae because it usually has a chill vibe.”
Meaning: Gloomy and depressing
Example: “I love Billie Eilish’s music but I can’t listen to it all the time because some of it feels so dark to me.”
Meaning: The speed at which music is played
Example: “When I’m working out, I need to listen to music with a really fast tempo to keep me energized.”
Meaning: The “pulse” of a song; the basic time measurement of music
Example: “This song always makes me want to dance—it’s got such an awesome beat!”
Meaning: An older song that’s recognized and loved by many people and that can bring up memories and emotions
Example: “I will never get sick of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ no matter how many times I hear it. It’s such a classic!”
Meaning: The process or result of two or more people working on a project together; a collaboration
Example: “In my opinion, ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X featuring Billy Ray Cyrus was a really good collab.”
Meaning: The repeated section of a song (often after every verse); typically the most memorable part
Example: “‘Thinking Out Loud’ by Ed Sheeran has one of the most romantic choruses I’ve ever heard.”
Meaning: The words of a song
Example: “Before the internet, we often had to guess the lyrics of a song—and we were often wrong.”
Meaning: To play music very loudly
Example: “I have to wake up for work at 5:30 in the morning and my neighbors won’t stop blasting their music.”
Meaning: To make a musical sound with your lips closed
Example: “There’s a guy in my office who hums the same tune all day long; it’s incredibly irritating!”
Meaning: To gather together informally to create music
Example: “Wow, you’re really awesome on the guitar! I play the drums. You should come to my place and jam with me sometime.”
14. Lip sync
Meaning: To move your lips at the same time as a recorded song is playing to make it look as though you’re singing the song
Example: “When I was in the fourth grade, I made up a dance and lip-synced to a Madonna song for a talent show.”
Meaning: To make a song or album available for the public to listen to or buy
Example: “I was excited that Drake had released a new album but I found it disappointing—it’s not his best.”
Chat about music with confidence
We hope these music vocabulary words will give you the boost you need to start expressing your musical opinions and knowledge. Review regularly, and it won’t be long before you can speak confidently about all things music!
Andrea is a Canadian freelance writer and editor specializing in English, e-learning, EdTech, and SaaS. She has a background as an ESL teacher in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. In her free time, Andrea loves hanging out with her husband and children, creating recipes in the kitchen, and reading fiction. She also loves camping and jumping into lakes whenever possible. Learn more about Andrea on LinkedIn or check out her website.