Whilst you need to have a broad music vocabulary so that you can answer questions on any aspect of the topic, it’s a good idea to pay particular attention to words and phrases related to your favourite genre of music. There are just so many different types and styles of music that it would be a poor use of your study time to try and learn vocabulary for them all.
Most of us enjoy listening to music, or even performing ourselves, which makes music questions fairly easy to answer, especially if it’s about your favourite band, singer or song.
The subject of music could come up in any part of the IELTS exam and this list of music vocabulary is equally relevant for Writing, Speaking, Reading and Listening questions.
This page contains over 130 common words and phrases, together with an explanation for each one and a sample sentence to show it in context. This will help you to learn how to use it correctly.
Don’t try to learn them all. Look at my suggestions below as to the best way to use the list.
IELTS Speaking Vocabulary: Music
music genre: a distinc type of music. Famous music genres include:
classical music: music that is thought to be a part of a long, formal tradition.
| My dad is fond of classical music. He listens to Mozart and Beethoven every day.
pop music: a genre of popular music.
| One of the most famous pop-singers in the history are Michael Jackson and Madonna.
rock music: music that is based around amplified instruments, especially the electric guitar and electric bass, and is characterized by driving rhythms.
| My favourite music genre is rock. I adore such rock bands as Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Beatles.
catchy tune: a tune or a song that’s easy to remember and that you enjoy singing.
| I heard a catchy song the other day and now it’s stuck in my head.
elevator music: music that is played in places like supermaket or family restaurant. Almost always is very repetitive and annoying.
| Yesterday I heard a very annoying elevetor music in the local supermarket.
live music: music performance in front of an audience.
| I prefer listening to a live music than to a recording. It’s much more emotional and energetic.
music to one’s ears: something (often information) very pleasant and enjoyable to someone.
| When my teacher told me that I got the highest mark in the class for the assignment, it was like music to my ears.
opera: a kind of performance in which actors sing during their play with music performed by an orchestra.
| I often listen to classical music and go to opera.
ringtone: sound that a cell phone makes when someone is calling.
| I set my favourite song as a ringtone on my cell phone.
rock band: musicians that play rock music.
| Last week I was on my favourite rock band’s concert.
tone deaf: not able to discern the notes properly.
| Alhough I’m tone deaf, I’d like to learn to sing properly in the furture.
tuneful: pleasant and melodious music or sound.
| I heard a tuneful choir of birds yesterday morning.
to face the music: to have to accept the unpleasant consequences of your actions.
| If you commit a crime, eventually, you’ll have to face the music.
to ring a bell: to sound familiar.
| I think I heard this song somewhere. It definitely rings a bell.
to sound like a broken record: to repeat yourself again and again.
| Little children often sound like a broken record and it annoys most people.
to strike (hit) a false note: to do something wrong.
| I realised that I hit a false note on the exam when I received a 0 mark afterwards.
IELTS Speaking Sample: Music
1) What types of music do you like to listen to?
It depends on what mood I’m in but generally, I like easy listening although I am a massive fan of country music and play this genre more than any other.
2) Are there any kinds of music that you dislike?
I’m not really into jazz. It’s just not my taste in music, especially when the musicians improvise. It sounds like they are all playing different tunes and there’s no harmony.
3) Do you ever go to music gigs?
I love listening to live music and go to local gigs at least once a month. I only go to concerts by top bands once in a blue moon as I live a long way from the big music venues.
4) Have you ever been in a music group or a band?
I was a vocalist in my church music group for several years and also sang in the choir when I was in school.
5) Does your country have a traditional type of music or dance?
Folk music and Morris dancing are both traditional in the UK. The music for this type of dancing is often played on the fiddle and accordion, with a drum to give the dancers a good rhythm and beat.
Describe your favourite music group or band.
You should say:
- what group or band is it
- what type of music they play
- how long you have been listening to their songs
and explain why you like this music group or band.
I like many different groups but the one that comes top of my list has to be Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
I first heard their music way back in 1980. I had a boyfriend who had one of their albums and I was a fan from the first track I heard. I’ve been listening to them ever since. The song that really hooked me was “The River”. It’s still one of my favourite songs of all time. It has a slow, haunting melody and beautiful lyrics.
In those days, very few people in my country had heard of Bruce Springsteen but all these years later his band are often on tour here and they play sellout concerts around the world. His nickname is “The Boss” which shows how much people respect him and his great music.
Although the E Street Band are essentially a rock band, there are strong influences of folk, rock and roll, blues and country in their music which helps then appeal to a wide audience.
I was once given two tickets to one of the band’s concerts at Cardiff Arms Park rugby stadium; a great venue. They were a Christmas present and I took my sister along with me. It’s the only time I’ve seen them at a live gig but it’s an event I shall never forget. What a wonderful experience. We sang along to all the songs.
The highlight of the show was when they performed “The River. At the end, the band stopped playing and Bruce led the audience in singing the chorus over and over again. It was amazing and a very special moment. I actually found it quite moving as that was the song that had started me as a fan all those years ago and there I was singing it with him. There was silence when it finally ended and then the applause started and went on for what seemed like forever.
It’s hard to put in words why I like Bruce Springsteen and his band so much. I think it’s because their lyrics are so real while most of the songs have a strong melody that stirs your soul. That’s the best way I can put it.
1) Is it important to listen to music with other people?
I think that listening to music can be both a social experience and a personal one. Young people in particular like chilling out with friends while listening to their favourite tracks. There’s also something special about attending a live gig with your mates and singing along to the familiar tunes with all the other fans.
I’ve only ever been to a couple of music festivals but what I remember as much as the bands and the fantastic music was the atmosphere of the events and that was created by all the people who were there.
On the other hand, you can enjoy music just as much when listening on your own. The fact that everywhere you look there are people walking around wearing earphones or headphone seems to be proof of this. So, in conclusion, I would say that while it’s nice to share music with others, it’s not especially important.
2) Why do you think older and younger generations prefer different types of music?
That’s something I’ve never really thought about but I suppose it’s because they grew up listening to different types of music as styles change over time.
Speaking for myself, there are many talented new bands and singers that I enjoy listening to. I often buy their albums and download them onto my MP3 player, but there’s nothing quite like the music I loved when I was in my teens. Perhaps it’s as much to do with the memories it brings back as the music itself.
That’s how I see it and I guess that many other people probably feel the same.
3) Do you think that music should be a compulsory subject in schools?
I do believe that music should be taught in schools. This is for several reasons.
Firstly, it’s important to develop children’s creativity and music is a great way to do this. They should be encouraged to learn to play a musical instrument, but it’s valuable if they just enjoy learning and singing a few songs together.
Secondly, making music is an excellent way of teaching youngster how to work together in a fun way and most of them enjoy performing to their friends.
Finally, most schools put on concerts and other musical performances. Taking part in these gives children confidence and they are an important part of the curriculum.
While older children may drop the subject for exams, having school choirs and orchestras provides other opportunities for them to continue their interest in music.
Music Vocabulary: Key definitions
Set 1: Music genres
There are many different styles of music around the world. These are some of the mainstream genres but do add others to your own music vocabulary list if there are particular styles you like that aren’t included here.
music genre – a distinct type or style of music
– My favourite music genre is rap.
pop – popular music; music liked by a broad range of the population
– Pop songs are enjoyed by lots of different types of people because they have a good rhythm, a catchy melody, and are easy to remember and sing along to.
rock music – music that is based on amplified instruments, especially the electric guitar and electric bass, and characterized by a strong bass line and strong rhythms
– The Rolling Stones play some of the best rock music ever written.
heavy metal – a type of highly amplified harsh-sounding rock music with a strong beat, characteristically using violent or fantasy imagery
– I like some rock music but find heavy metal a bit too loud.
rap – a type of music in which the words are not sung but are spoken in a rapid, rhythmic way
– Whilst I’m not a great fan of rap music, I do think it’s amazing how they speak so fast and remember the words.
country music – a form of popular music originating in the rural southern US. It is a mixture of ballads and dance tunes played characteristically on fiddle, banjo, guitar, and pedal steel guitar.
– There’s a great country music venue in my town where everyone dresses up as cowboys when they go to gigs.
jazz – a style of music that is generally loud and rhythmic, where the musicians often make the music up as they go along
– Louis Armstrong is still a popular jazz musician many decades after his death.
reggae – a form of music with a distinct beat that originated in Jamaica and is still associated with the Caribbean
– Bob Marley was the first internationally known reggae musician.
blues – African-American music that expresses grief or sorrow about injustice and a longing for a better life
– Did you know that the blues is named after the expression ‘to feel blue’ which means to be sad or depressed?
traditional music – songs and tunes particular to a country or region which have been performed over a long period of time, usually several generations
– Traditional music is part of our culture and should be preserved.
folk – traditional music which included songs written a long time ago and new songs written in the old style
– We have some talented young folk musicians in my country who love performing songs from the old days and writing new folk songs for our generation.
classical music – a form of music developed in Europe mainly in the 18th and 19th centuries by musicians highly skilled in musical composition
– I find that classical music really stirs up the emotions and I particularly enjoy listening to Beethoven and Bach.
opera – a musical play, often very dramatic, in which most of the words are sung
– I’m not a fan of opera as I really don’t like the style of singing.
musical – a play or film that uses singing and dancing in the story but also includes a lot of spoken dialogue
– Although there are lots of great new musicals being written, I still love West Side Story the best.
instrumental music – music where you just hear instruments playing and there is no singing
– I’m not happy when they play instrumental music on my favourite radio station as I like to be able to sing along the lyrics.
easy listening – a type of music that is not complicated, is pleasant to listen and doesn’t need much of your attention
– When I get home in the evening I put on some easy listening to help me relax after a busy day.
background music – music that is playing while something else is happening
– My friend likes to have background music on while she’s studying but I need a quiet place to work.
Music Vocabulary Set 2: Musical instruments & playing music
If there are any traditional musical instruments popular in your country that you might want to talk about, add them to your own music vocabulary list.
instrument – something you play to make music
traditional instruments – a type of instrument that has been played for many generations or that was popular in the past, often unique to a country or region
– A sitar is a traditional Indian musical instrument.
to take up (a musical instrument)– to begin learning a musical instrument
– I’m going to take up the guitar.
to read music – to understand and follow written musical notes
– I’m so glad I learnt to read music when I had piano lessons as a child because it really helps me now that I sing in a choir.
to play by ear – to play without reading the musical notes
– Many talented musicians can’t even read music and only play by ear.
talented – to be naturally skilled at something
– I never got the hang of playing an instrument even though both my parents are talented musicians.
to be musical – have a skill in or a great liking for music
– My friend Sally is very musical and can play several different instruments.
self-discipline – the ability to make yourself do things you know you should do even when you do not want to
– You need a lot of self-discipline to learn the piano as you have to practise every day and play boring scales.
sense of accomplishment – to feel like you’ve achieved something you can be proud of
– Bernie felt a real sense of accomplishment at passing his Grade 2 flute exam.
vocals – a part of a piece of music that is sung
– My parents met in a band. Dad was a guitarist and Mum sang vocals.
Music Vocabulary Set 3: Musicians
musician – a person who plays a musical instrument, especially as a profession, or is musically talented
– It was Jai’s ambition to be a professional musician and play in a famous orchestra.
bass player – someone who plays the bass
conductor – the person who leads the orchestra
guitarist – someone who plays the guitar
keyboard player – someone who plays the keyboard
pianist – someone who plays the piano
drummer – someone who plays the drums
cellist – someone who plays the cello
violinist – someone who plays the violin
vocalist – someone who sings
– Phil Collins was unusual in being both the drummer and lead vocalist in a band, the famous Genesis.
choir – a group of singers singing together
– Lulu really enjoyed singing in the choir, especially when they performed at concerts.
orchestra – a large group of musicians who play many different instruments together and are led by a conductor
– Jason was delighted when he was asked to play violin in the school orchestra.
band – a group of people who sing together and also play instruments
– I was so excited to be asked to play bass guitar in the new band.
group – a collection of people who sing together but do not necessarily play instruments
– All the groups performing in the contest were excellent and it was hard for the judges to pick the best.
composer – a person who writes music, especially as a professional occupation
– My favourite classical composer is Mozart.
Music Vocabulary Set 4: Live music
a performance – the act of entertaining other people by dancing, singing, acting or playing music
– The choir gave a wonderful performance at my sister’s wedding.
a gig – a performance of a band
– My new band is playing their first gig at the weekend.
a show – a performance, especially involving music
– I’m going to my kid’s school this evening to watch them perform in a show.
live music – music performed in front of an audience
– We have many clubs in my city and I often go along with friends to listen to live music.
- live show
- live performance
- live gig
music festival – an organized event, typically lasting several days, featuring performances by various musicians, singers and groups
– I try to go to at least one music festival each summer.
concert – a performance of music by one or more musicians or singers
– My orchestra is going to perform at a concert organized to raise money for charity.
stage – a raised platform on which musicians, actors or entertainers perform
– I felt nervous when I walked out on stage and saw the large audience waiting to hear me sing.
venue – the place where a public event such as a concert happens
– The disused warehouse was the perfect venue for a rock concert.
Music Vocabulary Set 5: Recorded music
recording / recorded music– music that has been stored on a record, CD, computer, etc., so that it can be heard again
– I have recordings of many of my favourite bands stored on my computer.
MP3 player – an electronic device that can store and play digital audio files
– I always carry my MP3 player with me so that I can listen to music whenever I want to.
headphones / earphones – an electronic device that fits over or in the ears for listening to music
– I wear earphones to listen to music on my MP3 player while I’m out jogging.
album – a collection of recordings issued as a single item on CD, record or another medium.
– I can’t wait for my favourite band’s new album to come out.
to download tracks – to obtain music from the internet
– I heard a great band at the gig last night and I’m going to download some of their tracks.
speakers – a piece of electrical equipment for playing recorded sound, through which the sound is played
– The jazz album I got for my birthday sounds amazing through my new speakers.
Music Vocabulary Set 6: Describing music & songs
a song – a usually short piece of music with words that are sung
– My favourite Ed Sheeran song is “Thinking Out Loud”.
lyrics – the words to a song
– Leonard Cohen wrote some of the best lyrics of all time and many artists still perform his songs today.
a melody – the main tune in a piece of music that is often played or sung more than once
– I had trouble picking up the melody of the new piece we started learning at choir rehearsal today and will practise it at home.
a tune – the musical part of a song, especially one that is pleasant and easy to remember
a catchy tune – a tune or a song that’s easy to remember and stays in your mind so that you find yourself humming or singing it
– I heard a really catchy tune of on my kid’s TV programme this morning and I’ve been humming it all day.
piece of music – a musical composition, especially but not necessarily an instrumental one
– My piano teacher has given me a new piece of music to learn before my next lesson.
taste in music – the music someone likes
– My boyfriend and I have the same taste in music and go to live gigs whenever we can.
rhythm – a regular, repeated pattern of sounds
– I love the rhythm of reggae music.
beat – a characteristic rhythm in some types of music
– Rap music has such a distinctive beat.
harmony – a pleasant musical sound made by different notes being played or sung at the same time
– One of the reason I enjoy country music so much is because many songs have lovely harmonies.
to be out of tune – to play or sing slightly wrong notes
– My dad likes to sing along the radio but is so out of tune that it sounds terrible.
to be in tune – to play or sing with the correct pitch
– Before the performance, the guitarist tightenend the strings of his guitar so that it was in tune.
to have a great voice – to sing well
– I think my friend should enter the singing competition as she has a great voice.
to be tone deaf – to be unable to distinguish the different notes in music
– I’d really like to able to sing but I’m tone deaf so I don’t think there’s much chance.
chorus – a regularly repeated line or group of lines in a song
– The choir sang lots of well-known songs and encourages the audience to sing along to the choruses.
upbeat – cheerful or lively
– If I’m feeling sad I put on some upbeat music and feel better almost at once.
nursery rhyme – a simple traditional song or poem for children
– I can still remember many of the nursery rhymes I learnt as a child.
lullaby – a quiet, gentle song sung to send a child to sleep
– If my baby wakes up in the night I just sing him a lullaby and he soon goes back to sleep.
sing to sleep – to make someone feel sleepy by sing them a gentle song
– My mum used to sing us to sleep when we were young.
Music Vocabulary Set 7: Music & the emotions
passionate – to feel strongly about something
– I’m passionate about playing the saxophone.
to cheer up – to cause to feel better
– Upbeat music always cheers me up if I’m feeling down.
relax / chill out– to become less tense or anxious
– After a stressful day at work, I lie in the bath listening to classical music as this helps me to chill out.
energise – to make someone feel energetic or eager
– Reggae music energises me so that’s what I Iisten to when I feel sluggish and need motivating.
Music Vocabulary Set 8: Other music vocabulary
rock band – a group of musicians that play rock music
– One of the great things about living in Manchester is that all the top rock bands perform here.
pop star – a famous singer or musician who performs pop music
– Many teenagers have the dream of being a pop star as they want to be rich and famous.
famous – known about and recognized by many people
– The Beatles are one of the most famous bands ever to have existed.
frontman– lead singer of a band
– Roger Daltrey has been the frontman of The Who for over 50 years.
fan – a person who admires, supports or follows a person, band or team
– I’ve always been an Elvis Presley fan even though he died before I was born.
huge following– to have a large number of fans
– Modern pop stars have a huge following which they communicate with on social media.
to go on tour – to go on a planned series of performances around a region or country
– I hope my favourite band go on tour again soon as they put on an amazing live show.
sellout – a performance or sports event for which no more tickets are available because it’s so popular
– The Bruno Mars concerts were a sellout at every venue on the tour.
record company – a business that makes and sells musical recordings
– Our band is getting well-known across the country and we’re hopeful of getting signed by a record company.
record label – a brand or trademark associated with the marketing of music recordings and music videos
– You know you’ve hit the big time if you get signed up with one of the big record labels such as Sony.
hit the big time – to become successful and/or famous
– After winning the TV talent show, Shelley hit the big time and was soon singing in huge venues around the world.
a hit– to be popular; a record that sells lots of copies
– “Happy” was a massive hit for Pharrell Williams.
the charts– a list of individual songs or musical performances ranked in order of number of sales or downloads over a specific period of time which indicates their popularity
– Ariana Grande’s new record is brilliant and I’m not surprised it’s made it to No.1 in the charts.
to sing along to – to join in singing
– My favourite songs in the charts are always the ones you can sing along to.
a sing-song – to sing informally, often with other people
– I have wonderful memories of my gran playing popular songs on the piano at family get-togethers and everyone joining in for a sing-song.
music-lover – someone who really enjoys listening to music
– I can’t say I’m a great music-lover although I do enjoy listening to the radio when I’m driving.
applause – approval or praise expressed by clapping the hands together
– The applause continued even after the band had left the stage.
- a round of applause – an outburst of clapping from an audience to show approval
– The audience gave the choir an enthusiastic round of applause as they came on to perform.
to be into / not into – to be interested in or involved with / to not be interested in
– I’m really into folk music but not into jazz at all.
to improvise – create and perform music, drama or verse spontaneously or without preparation
– I don’t enjoy listening to jazz when it’s improvised as it sounds like the musicians are all playing different tunes.
once in a blue moon – hardly ever
– I’m definitely a music-lover but only go to live gigs once in a blue moon.
IELTS Speaking Practice: Music
In the IELTS Speaking exam you may be asked questions about the music you listen to or instruments you play. Read the following IELTS-style questions and answers below and pay attention to the phrases in bold. Use the ‘Definitions’ section at the bottom of the page to check the meaning of any phrases you don’t understand.
Part 1-style questions
Examiner: What kind of music do you listen to?
Katherine: I’m a big fan of classical music … it doesn’t make me very popular with my children … their taste in music is completely different … they always want to listen to their favourite rock bands …
Examiner: Do you play any instruments?
Jamie: No I don’t … I’ve always wished I’d taken up a musical instrument … I’d love to be able to play the guitar … but I think I’m a bit tone-deaf so perhaps I’d find it hard …
Examiner: Have you got any hobbies or interests?
Marco: I’m really into live music … I go to a lot of music festivals … I think a live performance always sounds more exciting than a recorded version … as long as the performers can sing and play well of course
Part 2-style task
Describe a song you like to listen to. You should say
- what the piece of music is called
- how long you have liked it
- when you like to listen to it
and say why you like it so much.
Millie: Well … I’m a little older than most students and when I was young Abba the Swedish pop group was very famous … I don’t think it was cool to like them even though they had a huge following but I think now people have realised what wonderful songs they wrote … one piece of music, in particular, called ‘Slipping through my fingers’ … it wasn’t a massive hit but I love it … it’s a song for parents and it’s all about how quickly our children grow up … it’s a slow number and like a lot of their songs it’s a very catchy tune … the two women in Abba had great voices and it’s the kind of music you can also sing along to easily even if you don’t have a great voice … I listen to Abba when I feel like a sing-song … and I especially like to listen when I’m doing the housework … it stops me thinking about the hard work …
Part 3-style questions
Examiner: Is the Internet a good or bad thing for the music industry?
Thomas: On the one hand it’s good for marketing new musical talent or particular bands but it’s so easy to share and download tracks for free I think it is costing the industry a lot of money …
Examiner: Should music be treated as seriously as subjects like maths or sciences at school?
Carla: I think it should … I don’t think it should be taught in a boring way … I mean making children read music … but I do think they should be encouraged to play instruments and to play things by ear perhaps … to keep the lessons fun …
Examiner: Where do people usually enjoy listening to music?
Sally: In lots of ways or places … as background music when they are doing something else … at concerts when a band goes on tour … or in clubs or discos …
adoring fans: people who love a particular band or singer
background music: music that is played while something else is happening
a catchy tune: a song that is easy to remember and makes you want to sing it
classical music: music that is regarded as part of a long, formal tradition
to download tracks: to obtain music from the Internet
to have a great voice: to sing well
to go on tour: to go on a planned series of performances around a region or country
a huge following: a large number of fans
live music: music that is listened to while it is performed (not recorded)
live performance: (see live music)
a massive hit: a record that sells lots of copies
a music festival: music performances at a venue often over several days
musical talent: skilled at music
to be/sing out of tune: to not be in harmony/to sing the wrong notes
a piece of music: an item of music
to play by ear: to play without reading the musical notes
a pop group: a small group of people who play or sing pop music together
to read music: to understand and follow written musical notes
a rock band: a group of musicians that play rock music
to sing along to: to join in singing
a sing-song: to sing informally, often with other people
a slow number: a song with a slow tempo
to take up a musical instrument: to begin learning a musical instrument
taste in music: the music someone likes
to be tone deaf: to be unable to distinguish the different notes in music