Music Vocabulary

Class discussion #3: music vocab

What makes a song unique?

This article contains some basic musical terms and explanations. Understanding these words will be valuable in this course (and in the rest of your life!) as you learn more about how to talk about music to others, using specific terms that are universally understood.

If you're a student in the HUM320 class: it's important that you (a) read this article, and (b) watch the accompanying video, where I go through this entire list of terms and provide even more detail behind each.

If you're NOT in my class and just stumbled upon this article while surfing the web, you may find it interesting for a general understanding of common musical terms. Either way, enjoy.

What will REALLY help class members most is when you start applying these terms to songs you know (like in the assignment at the end of this chapter).


Here's a quick list of words used in the music business and by people who deal with music on a regular basis. These terms exist apply to every song in every genre. You may know some of them well, and others you may have never heard before. Get comfortable with all these terms. Do NOT memorize the definition, instead be able to explain the term in your own words. It's important to know them all.

A song's METADATA are key "facts" about a song, like the title and artist of the song, who wrote the music and/or lyrics of the song, and the publishing company that owns the rights to the song.

TITLE: the song's name.

ARTIST: the performer or performing group of this version of the song

OPEN / INTRO: Number of seconds until the song's vocal begins. Also can refer to the type of opening or intro, as in what type of instrumentation is used during the intro.

CLOSE / OUTRO: How the song stops.  Every song ends in one of two ways: (1) "cold ending" means a definite final moment when the song ends, all the sounds stop at once, nothing else follows. Or, a (2) "fade ending" means the song keeps going but the volume keeps fading and fading, little by little, until it can't be heard at all. 

RUN TIME:  the song's length.  Thousands of popular songs generally have a run time of between two and a half minutes to four or five minutes.  For a song to run less than two and a half minutes or longer than five minutes is somewhat unusual.  Recording artists know that a song needs to be between this range to get lots of exposure on radio, TV and online media. 

COMPOSER: the writer or writers (sometimes called author or authors) of the song. Most songs are created by (a) a LYRICIST writing the words, and (b) a MUSICIAN writing the notes being sung and played.

Unbelievably, some lyricists don't know a note of music, they essentially are writing POEMS and someone else creates the music.  But either way, if you take virtually any song and remove the music and just write down the words in the song, you have a poem. In fact, 100% of songs with words are all poems set to music!  Not everyone realizes this.

So actually, songs with words are technically poems set to music! And you thought you hated poetry all these years! :)

ARRANGER: The person or people who create the "road map" of the song. That means in addition to the singer, deciding specifically what instruments will be playing the song, when those instruments play and what notes they play. The arranger's work is often all done before song is even recorded.

PRODUCER: The person acting as the executive manager of the song, advising the artists as the song is being practiced and recorded, and advising the engineer before and during the recording.

ENGINEER (also called RECORDING ENGINEER or STUDIO ENGINEER or SESSION ENGINEER): The person or people operating the recording equipment to create the final MIX (or MIXDOWN, which means the same thing as "mix") of the song as it is being recorded. The engineer moves the volume controls up and down to balance the mix of singers and instrument levels, directed very specifically by a producer. Sometimes the engineer provides a little input as to how the mix sounds, but more often that not, it's the producer of the song who has the finished version in their head. the Producer carefully works with the engineer (and the artist too, of course) in telling them precisely what they want the finished song to sound like, track by track. That's why all songs are almost always a team effort of artist and producer.

COMPONENTS of a song

Beyond the terms above which provide the basic musical "facts" behind a song, there are other musical terms which further help describe the individual aspects of a song.

THE 3 BASIC BUILDING BLOCKS OF ALL MUSIC: It's the same in every genre: MELODY, HARMONY, RHYTHM. All songs have their own unique mix of these three elements which give the song its individual identity. In fact, melody, harmony and rhythm are so important that we'll devote separate chapters examining each of these characteristics in detail. But for now, let's use these basic definitions of each:

MELODY: The notes of a song you sing along to are its melody. Usually the most memorable part of a song. Melody is so important to understand, it will have a separate chapter coming up shortly in this class.

HARMONY: musical elements which enhance the melody line. The notes that are NOT part of the melody are part of the harmony. Harmony gets its own chapter later during this class, too.

RHYTHM: the beats of a song you tap your foot to. Rhythm relates to the percussive aspects of a song. Like melody and harmony, rhythm gets its own chapter later in this course.

Besides a song's melody line, harmonic elements and rhythmic structure, however, there are also some additional terms anyone studying music should also be familiar with. These additional components help identify additional characteristics of a song:

VOCAL TYPE: who's doing the singing? Vocal types can be male vocal, female vocal, group vocal, or instrumental (no vocals).

LYRICS: the words of a song. A song's lyrics are essentially poems that are sung instead of read. Frequently successful contemporary songs, the lyrics are written completely independently from the music. Pay close attention to the next few terms, specifically "verse", "refrain / chorus", "pre-chorus", "bridge" and "breakdown", as we'll be dealing with song lyrics in the next chapter of this class.

VERSES: the part of the song that tells the story. The verses explain what is going in the song or develops the "plot", if the song has a plot. The vast majority of popular songs with lyrics contain either 2 or 3 verses. Another way to tell the verses is that the words change, but the melody may be the same or very similar, just song to different words in verse 2 compared to verse 1, for exampe. .

REFRAIN / CHORUS: contains the song's theme & usually its title. By far, a song's refrain (or chorus, which means the same thing) is the most important part of the song, and almost always repeated the most. The chorus occurs on average three to six times in a song. Sometimes, many more. In some songs, the final minute or so of the song simply repeats the chorus over and over, thus emphasizing its importance. This also helps makes a song familiar and one you can learn to sing along with quite quickly.

Some songs contain a PRE-CHORUS: a unique set of lyrics which always lead directly and immediately into the chorus. The pre-chorus helps build momentum and anticipation to the chorus of the song. NOT part of the verses and NOT part of the chorus, the Pre-Chorus is heard right before the chorus of a song.

BRIDGE An entirely different passage of a song that "bridges" or follows a few verses of a song and leads to the song's chorus. A song's bridge has a completely different melody and "feel" from the rest of the song, appearing only once (in the 2nd half of the song), and often leads back to the chorus. Some bridges contain lyrics, some are instrumental only. 

BREAKDOWN: A breakdown occurs often, in many songs of all genres. It's called a breakdown because it feels like the whole song is falling apart, or "breaking down"!

The breakdown of a song happens when almost all the instruments stop and you only hear one or two instruments (typically just drums or just a bass guitar) keeping the rhythm going, after a short while, the song provides lots of relief and impact by then returning to the chorus, which usually repeats a few times before the song ends.

If a song has a breakdown at all (only about 20% of songs have a breakdown, but enough to bring up the term in this lesson) it will always occur in the last third of a song, often just a minute or so before the song ends. If I find an online example today or over the weekend, I'll send it to you. But you may think of one within the songs of your own music collection, if you do, let me know.

RIFF: A riff is a memorable quick moment in a song played by an instrument (not sung) that is usualrepeated throughout the song, to help make the song familiar. Musicians often refer to a 'guitar riff' or 'drum riff' when they point to a specific point in the song that everyone knows, played by those instruments. If I find some examples of these, I'll send you links, but you may think of some in songs you know. If you do, let me know.

INSTRUMENTATION (or ORCHESTRATION) refers to the types of instruments used in a song, and often also is a reference to whether or not a song is "thickly" or "thinly" orchestrated. For example, a song with just one guitar strumming and a person singing is said to have "thin" instrumentation or "thinly" orchestrated, because there's not much there. The reverse of that would be a song that has "thick" orchestration or is "thickly" orchestrated, meaning that the song has a lot going on, many instruments and perhaps lots of electronic overdubbing to make it sound like even more instruments.

SUMMARY OF MUSIC VOCABULARY: Above are some of the most used terms when describing or talking about all music, from any genre. You'll need to know what these words mean. Some of these words will be on the midterm, but do NOT memorize the definitions above. It's better if you simply know what they mean in your own words.

The best news of all: no matter what genre of music you encounter for the rest of your life, these terms are universally used and apply to literally millions of songs in hundreds of genres worldwide, so it will be useful to get a working knowledge of all of them as they apply to the eight genres we are focusing on in this course.


1. Pick two popular songs that you know, from two different genres. For each song, email me the basic metadata about the song, as explained above, as much as you can find. If you can, find a YouTube video or audio of the song, so you can include in your email a link to the two songs. But if you're picking a major hit song from a well-known artist, I probably know the song, so don't worry if you can't find a link to the song itself, just provide the song title and the artist.

Also include this info:

2. Write one short paragraph DESCRIBING any aspect of the two songs you selected, in your own words, using a few (not all!) of the vocabulary words in each description as you try to describe the song. Include this in your email to me.

TIP: Pick popular songs that millions of people know, not obscure songs that only fans of that artist know. Stick with mass-appeal, top performers from the genres you select.

NOTE ON SONG CONTENT: do NOT submit ANY song that has obscene, profane or objectionable lyrics. If you do, I can't accept that song and will ask you to submit another. There are plenty of songs that can be played on the radio without any objectionable content, so pick from them, ok? If you're not sure, pick another song instead.

Let me know if you have questions or need more explanation. Have fun describing the songs you select!


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Comments 5 comments

midnightbliss profile image

midnightbliss 8 years ago from Hermosa Beach

nice hub, thanks for the information about musical terms.

Fred 7 years ago

Good, but a bit vague, was hoping for more specific definitions

pinkhawk profile image

pinkhawk 7 years ago from Pearl of the Orient very informative and really cool...thank you for sharing Sir! Now i have more detailed ideas...

archana 6 years ago

for breakdown factor --- song can be mission impossible take a look around -limp bizkit

Rene Erickson 5 years ago

Thank for you hub

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