Vocabulary of Music

This lesson about the vocabulary of music is part of a complete B2 level English course.

Vocabulary of Instruments

There are a lot of different instruments that we can use to make music! Some music is played with just one instrument, like the piano. Other music may be performed with various instruments, like a concerto played by an orchestra or a rock song played by a band. This is a list of useful vocabulary of instruments with descriptions and examples.

Acoustic guitarA guitar with a hollow body that produces sound through the vibration of its strings.“Tears in Heaven” by Eric Clapton
Bass guitarA guitar with a longer neck and thicker strings used to play lower-pitched notes that provide the rhythmic and harmonic foundation of a band.“Another One Bites the Dust” by Queen
CelloA large, bowed string instrument with four strings tuned in perfect fifths.“Suite No. 1 in G Major” by Johann Sebastian Bach
ClarinetA woodwind instrument with a single reed that produces sound when air is blown over it.“Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin
Drum kitA collection of drums and cymbals played with sticks or hands to create rhythms and beats.“In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins
Electric guitarA guitar with a solid body that uses pickups to convert the vibration of its strings into an electrical signal.“Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin
FluteA woodwind instrument with a high-pitched sound produced by blowing air across a mouthpiece.“The Magic Flute” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
PianoA keyboard instrument with a row of keys that produce sound by striking strings with hammers inside the instrument.“Für Elise” by Ludwig van Beethoven
SaxophoneA woodwind instrument with a curved metal body and a single reed that produces a smooth, mellow tone.“Careless Whisper” by George Michael
TrumpetA brass instrument with a flared bell and three valves that produce a bright, piercing sound.“Take the ‘A’ Train” by Duke Ellington
ViolinA small, bowed string instrument with four strings tuned in perfect fifths that produces a bright, high-pitched sound.“The Four Seasons” by Antonio Vivaldi

When we talk about music we can use a lot of different verbs. here are some examples of useful verbs related to music with example sentences for each.

ArrangeTo adapt or arrange a musical work for a specific instrumentation or ensemble.She arranged the song for a cappella group.
ComposeTo create or write a musical work.He composed a beautiful piece of music for the piano.
ConductTo direct a musical performance or ensemble.He conducts the orchestra with great skill.
DanceTo move rhythmically to music.They are dancing to the rhythm of the music.
HarmonizeTo sing or play musical parts that complement or support the main melody.The choir harmonized perfectly during the performance.
ImproviseTo create or perform music spontaneously, without preparation or planning.The jazz musicians improvised a solo during the performance.
JamTo play or improvise music informally with other musicians.The musicians got together to jam on some new material.
ListenTo give attention with the ear; to pay attention to sounds.I like to listen to classical music while I study.
PerformTo play or present music in front of an audience.The band is going to perform at the concert tonight.
PlayTo create music using an instrument.She can play the guitar very well.
PracticeTo repeat a musical passage or piece in order to improve or master it.We need to practice our parts before the next rehearsal.
RecordTo capture a musical performance or work onto a medium such as a CD, tape, or digital file.The band is going to record their new album in the studio.
SingTo produce musical sounds with the voice.He loves to sing along to his favorite songs in the car.
SyncopateTo displace the regular accent of a beat to a weak or offbeat.The drummer syncopated the rhythm during the song.
TransposeTo change the key or pitch of a musical work.The song was transposed into a lower key for the singer.

Vocabulary of Music

Here is some useful vocabulary that you can use to describe aspects of music in English. Not all of them are relevant to all types of music, but you can use them in combination to explain what music sounds like, how it is structured or how it is played.

ArpeggioA broken chord where the notes are played one after the other instead of simultaneously.
BPMA unit of measurement used to describe the tempo of a piece of music.
ChordA group of three or more notes that are played simultaneously.
CounterpointThe combination of two or more melodic lines in a way that creates a harmonic relationship.
CrescendoA gradual increase in volume or intensity.
DecrescendoA gradual decrease in volume or intensity.
DynamicsThe volume or intensity of a piece of music.
FormThe structure of a piece of music, usually indicated by a series of letters or by descriptive terms.
GenreA category or style of music, often defined by shared characteristics such as instrumentation, rhythm, or subject matter.
HarmonyThe combination of simultaneously sounding musical notes to produce chords and chord progressions.
InstrumentationThe selection and arrangement of instruments used in a piece of music.
KeyThe set of notes or scale that a piece of music is based on.
LegatoA type of articulation where notes are played in a smooth, connected manner.
MelodyA sequence of musical notes that are played in a specific order to create a memorable tune.
MeterThe organization of rhythm into regular groupings of beats, usually indicated by a time signature.
ModulationThe process of changing from one key to another in a piece of music.
MonophonicA musical texture in which a single melody is played without any accompaniment.
PitchThe perceived highness or lowness of a sound.
PolyphonicA musical texture in which two or more melodies are played simultaneously.
RhythmThe pattern of musical beats and accents that create the tempo of a piece of music.
StaccatoA type of articulation where notes are played in a short, detached manner.
SyncopationA rhythmic pattern in which emphasis is placed on an offbeat or weak beat.
TempoThe speed at which a piece of music is played.
TextureThe way in which different musical parts are combined to create the overall sound of a piece of music.
Time signatureA notation used in sheet music to indicate the meter of a piece of music.
TimbreThe characteristic sound quality of an instrument or voice.

Vocabulary: Genres of Music

We often put music in different categories, or genres. This helps us to find music that is similar to what we already like. Some music is difficult to put in one genre or another. Other music uses combinations of elements of different genres. This is not an exhaustive list, and there may be variations, or sub-genres within each genre. Some people really love some genres and hate others! This vocabulary will help you to describe music.

RockA genre of music characterized by its use of electric guitars, bass guitar, drums, and vocals.The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC
PopA genre of music that emphasizes catchy melodies, danceable rhythms, and lyrics about love and relationships.Madonna, Michael Jackson, Katy Perry
Hip-hopA genre of music that originated in African American and Latino communities in the Bronx in the 1970s, characterized by spoken or chanted lyrics over a beat.Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar
CountryA genre of music that originated in the southern United States, characterized by its use of acoustic and electric guitars, fiddles, banjos, and lyrics about rural life.Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson
JazzA genre of music that originated in African American communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, characterized by improvisation, syncopated rhythms, and a wide range of instruments.Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington
BluesA genre of music that originated in African American communities in the southern United States, characterized by its use of the twelve-bar blues form and lyrics about hardship and struggle.B.B. King, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters
ClassicalA genre of music that originated in Western Europe in the 18th century, characterized by its use of orchestral instruments, complex harmonies, and a focus on structure and form.Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johann Sebastian Bach
Electronic/DanceA genre of music characterized by its use of electronic instruments and a focus on rhythm and melody.Daft Punk, The Chemical Brothers, Calvin Harris
ReggaeA genre of music that originated in Jamaica in the 1960s, characterized by its use of the “skank” rhythm, off-beat accents, and lyrics about social justice and spirituality.Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Toots and the Maytals
MetalA genre of music characterized by its heavy use of distortion, fast tempos, and aggressive vocals.Metallica, Black Sabbath, Iron Maiden

Vocabulary. Useful adjectives to describe music

When we talk about music, we often want to describe how it makes us feel. Here are some examples of useful adjectives for describing music. This isn’t a complete list, there are plenty more to find. Each adjective has a description and an example song.

AmbientCalm and atmospheric, often with emphasis on textures and soundscapes.“Deep Blue Day” by Brian Eno
CheerfulLively and upbeat, often conveying joy and optimism.“Walking on Sunshine” by Katrina and the Waves
DarkBrooding and mysterious, often with a sense of danger or foreboding.“The Dark Side of the Moon” by Pink Floyd
EnergeticFast-paced and lively, conveying a sense of excitement and vigor.“Thunderstruck” by AC/DC
EpicGrand and expansive, often with a sense of heroic accomplishment.“O Fortuna” by Carl Orff
EtherealDelicate and otherworldly, often with a dreamlike quality.“Teardrop” by Massive Attack
HeavyIntense and forceful, often with a focus on distorted guitars and powerful drums.“Enter Sandman” by Metallica
MelancholicReflective and sorrowful, conveying a sense of loss or sadness.“Everybody Hurts” by R.E.M.
MovingStirring and emotionally impactful, often bringing tears or goosebumps.“Adagio for Strings” by Samuel Barber
RelaxingSoothing and calming, often used for meditation or background music.“Weightless” by Marconi Union
SadMournful and gloomy, often expressing heartbreak or despair.“Nothing Compares 2 U” by Sinead O’Connor
EuphoricBlissful and ecstatic, often conveying a sense of euphoria or transcendence.“Strobe” by Deadmau5
UpbeatLively and cheerful, often with a focus on a catchy melody and rhythm.“Happy” by Pharrel Williams

Types of Instruments

When we talk about instruments we often group them together into one of our types; brass, percussion, strings and woodwind.

GroupExample Instruments
BrassTrumpet, Trombone, French Horn, Tuba, Euphonium
PercussionDrums, Cymbals, Xylophone, Maracas, Timpani
StringsViolin, Viola, Cello, Double Bass, Harp
WoodwindsClarinet, Flute, Oboe, Bassoon, Saxophone, Piccolo, Bass Clarinet

Live Music

Here are some useful words for talking about live music.

BackstageThe area behind the stage where performers can relax, prepare for their performance or meet with other performers.
Box OfficeThe place where you can buy tickets or pay to enter a musical venue.
CrowdThe people who attend a live performance or event.
EncoreAn additional performance or set of songs played by a performer or band after they have finished their main set.
HeadlinerThe main act or performer who is given the most prominence and usually performs last at a concert or show.
LineupThe list of performers or bands scheduled to perform at an event.
SetlistA list of songs or pieces of music that a performer or band plans to play during a concert or show.
Sold outWhen all tickets for a performance or event have been sold and no more are available.
StageA raised platform where performers or speakers stand when giving a performance or speech.
Standing room onlyAn area in a concert venue where there are no seats, and people stand to watch the performance.
VenueA place where a concert, show or other live event is held.