How to Talk About Music in English

We all love music.

We all have our favourite songs that we love to listen to. Singers and bands that we really care about and return to their music again and again.

But how to talk about all of this music? How to express in English your admiration for your all-time favourite singers or bands?

For English students, this can be a real challenge.

So I have prepared this simple guide to help you talk about music. In the next few pages I will show you:

  • Basic vocabulary for music
  • Some common words and phrases when talking about music

Then I will cover

  • How to talk about the sound of music
  • How to express how it makes you feel

Finally, I introduce

  • How we listen to music from the past to the present

Then at the end, there is a big list of questions to help you practise talking about music with your friends or by yourself.

Are you ready? Let’s dive in.

 

Basic Vocabulary for Music

 

It’s probably a good idea to look at some basic vocabulary for music first.

We need to have a good understanding of the most basic words and phrases before moving on to more challenging vocabulary.

 

Note

Music is made up of a series of notes. A musical note is a sound that has a defined pitch.

Any song you hear needs musical notes. Without notes, there is no music at all.

Musical notes come in different pitches or sounds. The basic scale of music is made of seven notes — A, B, C, D, E, F and G. The basic C scale is C up to B — C, D, E, F, G, A and B.

I love the singer from Gravity 8. She can really reach all those high notes.

The guitarist in RoadRage is fantastic — he plays so fast all the notes sound like one.

 

Chord

A chord is made of a group of notes played together in a song.

Most chords are made up of three notes together, but there can be chords with two or four notes.

Chords have a sound that is very pleasing to the ear. All the notes played together — for example, on a piano or guitar — have a very pleasant sound that makes us think these notes belong together.

I love the piano chords at the beginning of the song Temptation — they sound so beautiful.

 

Harmony

Harmony is the arrangement of the notes and chords played together that has a very pleasing sound to the human ear.

We can also describe harmony as the sound of two or more voices singing together. The singers may all be singing different notes, but they all sound good together.

Have you heard the new song by Generation Z? In the chorus, they all sing together in great harmony.

 

Tune

This is a series of notes played together in a sequence that sounds good to our ears. We might also use the word melody, but tune is more common. All songs have a tune that we can sing along to and recognise.

In English, we might also describe a song as a tune.

I love this tune!

I can’t get that tune out of my head…

The radio has been playing this song all day.

I like the new tune by The Beats. It’s really great!

 

Rhythm

These are the common regular pulses or beats that we hear in the music. Rhythm is the sound that makes us nod our head, tap our feet or click our fingers.

Rhythm is the sound in music that people dance to.

All popular music has a strong sense of rhythm.

I love the rhythm to this song — it makes me want to dance.

I love the strong rhythm of the song Black Rain. It sounds like thunder.

 

Lyrics

Lyrics are the words to a song. There are usually two parts of the song’s lyrics — the verse and the chorus.

The chorus often has lyrics that are easy to remember and make us want to sing along with the singer or the band.

Most pop song lyrics are very simple — usually love songs or songs about friendship or positive elements in life.

But some song lyrics can be very complex or poetical.

I love the lyrics to this song — so powerful.

I love the lyrics to the songs of Meredith Jacobs. They all sound like poetry.

 

Chorus

This is the part of the song that is repeated again and again in the song. It makes us want to sing along.

It is easy for us to remember the words, and we feel engaged with the song when we hear it.

As soon as I hear the chorus to Wonderland, I have to start singing along with it.

The chorus to the new song by Dan White is really catchy. I know all the words and I’ve only heard it five times.

 

Common Words and Phrases to Talk about Music

 

Now we have a basic understanding of common words used in music, let’s look at some vocabulary people often use when talking about music.

 

Turn It Up!

Essentially, this means increase the volume or make it louder.

Imagine you are in your friend’s home and a song comes on that you love.

What would you say to your friend?

That’s right: Turn it up!

You want to hear this song louder because you really like it. You want to hear more of it.

You could also say:

Turn this one up (turn this song up)

Turn the music up (make the music louder/increase the volume)

 

This Song is So Catchy!

When we use the word catchy to describe a song, it means that the song’s lyrics are easy to remember. But also that the tune of the song sounds great and something that we want to sing along to.

If a song is catchy, it means that the song is very popular and any time you hear it you want to turn it up.

 

I Can’t Get This Tune Out Of My Head

This means you love the song so much that the tune is constantly playing inside your head. Or you are humming the tune as you walk down the street or take a shower.

You love this song so you want to play it on your music system or on your smartphone at least ten times a day.

 

I Love This One!

This one refers to the song or tune. You hear a song playing — could be on the radio, in a shopping mall, on your friend’s smartphone — and you love it, so you use this expression.

 

I Can’t Stand This Song…

And this is if you really dislike the song.

You hear this song playing, but you hate it. So you can say: I can’t stand this song!

 

This Band is So Cheesy…

Cheesy in English is used to describe things that we dislike or that we think are low quality. It can also refer to things that are cheap, unpleasant or corny.

So if you see a band on the TV that you think fit into this category, you can say: This band is so cheesy!

We might often describe bands that sing overly sentimental love songs or boy bands as cheesy. They are not to everyone’s taste.

 

This Band is Really Grungy…

Equally, we might describe a band as grungy. It means they are kind of dirty and unkempt. Their clothes are not fashionable and the singer is not even good-looking — he looks kind of ugly with greasy hair!

So we say: This band is really grungy!

 

Oh, This Song is a Classic!

Classic is used to describe things that are very old and have great value.

So you hear a song and you love it. The song could be old — or maybe just a very popular song from last year — and so you may regard it as a classic.

And that is when you say: This song is a classic — turn it up!

 

I Love This Track!

Years ago people listened to songs on vinyl records and CDs.

The songs were separated into tracks. So that is why people often refer to songs as tracks. This expression just means that you love the song.

 

This Song Gets on My Nerves…

If something gets on your nerves, it means it makes you feel very uncomfortable or irritable.

Maybe a song comes on the radio and you hate it. You hear it and it makes you angry because it is so unpleasant.

So you say: This song gets on my nerves!

 

How to Talk about How Music Sounds

 

There are many words we can use to describe the unique sounds of different types of music.

Let’s look at some of them.

 

Sound of Music

gentle

soft

strong

loud

rich

deep

distinct

melodious

resonant

raucous

brassy

piercing

mellow

smooth

thick

shrill

warm

natural

strident

harsh

clear

reedy

dark

flat

bright

thin

light

rounded

full

breathy

 

Exercise

Look up all the words in a dictionary and find the meaning to describe music. Be careful — many of these words have more than one meaning.

After you look the words up, try to make your own sentences to describe music you like. Try to describe music you don’t like too.

 

Tempo of Music

 

We can also describe the tempo of music. This is the speed or the rhythm of the music.

fast

slow

diminishing

rapid

double time

lively

brisk

stately

melancholic

quick

moderate

gradual

energetic

joyful

even

frantic

upbeat

steady

 

Exercise

Now look up these words to describe the rhythm or tempo of music. Again, take care of the correct meaning of these words — lively, moderate and frantic, for example, will have more than one meaning.

Make sure you find the correct meaning of each word as it is related to music.

When you find the correct meanings, try to write sentences of your own to describe the rhythm of music.

 

People Talking About Music

 

Look at the following extracts of people talking about songs or music they like.

The track starts with this really fast guitar. The high notes are piercing and loud. The guitarist picks out notes so fast it sounds frantic. It just introduces the song perfectly — full of energy.

 

I love the saxophone in this song. It has a really rich and resonant sound to it. It adds a great level of warmth to the whole song and at the end of the solo, it sounds mournful and melancholic.

 

This dance track has a clear and lively rhythm. As soon as I hear it, I feel part of it. There is a kind of sadness in the first verse, but when the singer gets to the chorus, the mood changes and it becomes more joyful and upbeat.

 

There is a rich and natural sound to the acoustic guitar in this tune. It has a soft sound, but it also has a very deep and warm feel to it. The rhythm is very gradual but builds into a steady, marching beat that becomes quite brisk towards the end of the song.

 

The piano and drums play at the same tempo. A great, crushing rhythm that sounds like thunder. Then the guitar comes in at double-speed and the rhythm picks up in rapid time. But the bass plays with a thick, smooth sound that sounds completely separate from the other musicians. It gives the song a really rounded, full atmosphere.

 

I love the gentle strings at the beginning of the song. They sound breathy and natural, like human voices. Then the piano plays a mellow melody, at times dark and mysterious, other times warm and light like air.

 

The track has a very distinct sound, but the singer’s voice is flat and reedy. At times her voice sounds shrill as she reaches for the higher notes. But the bass and drums work well together, playing in a slow and steady rhythm as one.

 

Read through all the extracts above. Highlight all the words that describe the sound or rhythm of the music.

 

Now You Try

Think of FIVE of your all-time favourite songs. They can be any songs you like.

Now describe them.

Use as much of the vocabulary from the previous exercise and use the extracts above to help you.

When you have finished writing a description of each song, read it out loud to yourself.

 

Describing the Effects of Music

 

Just as we can talk about the sound of music and how it sounds to our ears, we can also talk about the effect music has on our emotions or mood.

Let’s look at some words we can use to describe this.

calming

stimulating

invigorating

rejuvenating

soothing

exhilarating

inciting

uplifting

empowering

restoring

healing

enlightening

exciting

frightening

improving

focusing

relaxing

stirring

 

Exercise

Look up each of these words in your dictionary. Make sure you find the correct meaning of the word as related to music.

Some of the words have more than one meaning, such as calming, uplifting and healing.

When you have all the correct meanings written down in your notebook, write sentences of your own to describe the feeling of music.

 

People Talking About the Effects of Music

 

Let’s take a look at some extracts of people talking about the effect music has upon them.

 

If I am reading or studying, I like to listen to music that has a calming effect. So I often put on some ambient music. It has a very quiet, sometimes meditative feel about it and helps me to concentrate on what I am reading.

 

I am a big fan of Motown soul music. Sometimes it has a kind of gospel sound to it. If I am in a low mood I like to put on some Motown music — it can be very uplifting.

 

In the evening, after a hard day at work, I like to unwind by listening to some jazz music. I find it very relaxing and I can get lost in my thoughts as the soft tunes go through my mind.

 

If I had to choose my favourite kind of music, it would be heavy metal. The louder and faster the better. I just love the screaming guitars and loud drumming. It is very exciting.

 

I really like to listen to classical music. I sit down and just lose track of time. I find it very emotional and stirring.

 

Now You Try

Think about the kind of music you like. Choose FIVE songs or pieces of music that you love to listen to again and again.

Now write some sentences about how you feel when you hear these songs.

  • What emotions do you feel when you listen to this music?
  • Does it make it you feel excited? Or relaxed? Or some other feeling?

Write down all your sentences in your notebook. When you have finished, practice by saying all the sentences you wrote out loud.

 

How We Listen to Music

 

Over the years, there have been many different ways for people to listen to the music they like in the comfort of their home.

 

Records/Vinyl

These were most popular after the second world war. In the sixties and seventies, they were at their peak. Music fans would always buy their music on vinyl records.

They died out in the eighties but are now enjoying a renaissance.

To listen to records, people would have to buy a stereo system. These could be very expensive.

 

 

Music Cassette

Music cassettes took over from vinyl. People could listen to music cassettes on smaller, more portable machines. The Sony Walkman was popular at this time too. Music cassettes were popular in the eighties but then came…

 

Compact Disc/CD

The compact disc grew in the late eighties and by the nineties was the standard for all music fans.

People could listen to CDs via their stereo system. Or through a portable CD player.

 

Digital Download

With the advent of more sophisticated technology, it wasn’t long before people were downloading music off the internet for free. This caused great concern in the music industry, so they had to adapt.

 

Streaming Music

Now we have streaming platforms where we can listen to whatever music we want whenever we want. And usually via our smartphone. No need for expensive stereo equipment!

This is the way most people listen to music today.

There are streaming platforms in most countries. In western countries, these include Spotify and Soundcloud.

But many people listen to music via YouTube, as there are no fees to pay.

 

Now You Try

  • How do you listen to music?
  • Do you use a music streaming service? Or YouTube?
  • Or do you like to collect old vinyl records?

 

Questions about Music

 

Go through all of these questions about music.

Try to speak out loud your answers. If you can’t do that, then write your answers down, then speak them out loud.

What kind of music do you like?

Name your favourite band or singer. Why do you like them?

How often do you listen to music?

When do you normally listen to music?

How do you listen to music?

Where do you listen to music? Why in this place?

What different styles and genres of music do you like? Why do you like these styles of music?

What kind of music do you hate? Why?

What kind of music do you listen to if you want to relax?

What kind of music makes you feel excited? Why?

What kind of music do you like to dance to?

Do you prefer songs in your language or English? Why?

How would life be without music?

How does music make you feel?

If you were a song, what song would you be and why?

 

Conclusion

 

So that is it.

This is by no means a complete guide on how to talk about music, but I hope it gives you a good start.

Please go over all the vocabulary and make notes of the meanings of these words and phrases. Make sentences of your own and speak them out loud.

The more you make an effort, the more results you will see.

I hope it was useful.

And please —as always — leave a comment in the section below.

2 thoughts on “How to Talk About Music in English”

  1. This is a tough area to work with but you have provided a very comprehensive guide. I personally love to teach with music and pick songs that have certain vocabulary or structures I want to practice. The good thing is that since music is so catchy students will be practicing long after class while the music dances in their heads. This lesson takes music to a completely different level however, which is quite advanced. .

    1. David Buckley

      Many thanks, Leona! I appreciate your thoughts on this. Music is a strong part of everyone’s lives so it can be used highly effectively in many English classes. I hope that I am able to provide an introduction to the language we use when talking about music in this article.

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