More Tips?
Receive the latest blogs, advice, lessons, theory and discussion

Riley Music Academy Music Cast: Glossary of modern musical terms

FREE 10 Step Guide to becoming a better musician

Enter your details on the homepage to receive your FREE 10 Step Guide


Glossary of modern musical terms

Every industry has jargon and it can be frustrating to people out of the loop.  This week I thought I would round up a few musical terms I hear on gigs and in rehearsals and hopefully shed some light on these quirky phrases.  Feel free to add any in the comments section at the bottom.  Some of them are hilarious!

2 Feel – Whilst in 4/4 the bass and drums play patterns which heavily emphasis beats 1 and 3 rather than all 4.
A Beast – similar to a Monster. A legendary player of outstanding ability.
A section – We’re talking about the form of the music here. The A Section is the first part of the piece. The same would apply for B section, C section etc
Axe – your instrument
Back Beat – Beats 2 and 4. Often used to encourage a shuffle or rock feel
Backings – Gestured with the hand on the back or shoulder. Horn section plays an improvised or arranged supporting line or rhythmical accents
Blow – Improvise or just play your instrument
Bridge – the joining section of the piece usually after the A section or between choruses.
Cadenza – Usually at the end of the piece; a virtuoso phrase or phrases played ad lib by one player. This is a traditional musical term but is used in modern situations
Cat – the coolest player
Chorus – the catchy main theme of the piece
Comp – Rhythm section players to accompany using improvised or arranged rhythmic patterns
Count it off – count the tune in. Usually 1 bar if slow, 2 if medium or fast.
Dep – ‘Deputy’. To stand in for another player on a gig or rehearsal
Dig – Affirmative/I agree/I like it
Double time - changing the rhythm to ‘twice as fast’ whilst keeping the same form and pulse.
Free – Improvise outside of the constraints or harmony and/or rhythm
From the top – Repeat back to the beginning of the piece
Gripper – A fan who just won’t let you go. It’s usually someone who plays the same instrument and asks a series of dull, technical questions.
Groove – easy to hear, tricky to describe. A sense that all is well and the bands rhythm is completely in sync.
Head – The main tune (gestured by placing hand on top of head)
Hip – a phrase which is harmonically clever but beautiful at the same time
Horn – A wind instrument
In the pocket – keeping solid time. Rhythmically synchronised
Jazzer - a jazz musician. Even the slightest whiff of extended chords and chromaticism can lead to this description
Killing it – 1) performing admirably 2) destroying the music with a bad performance!
Outro - an alternative term for coda (‘Tail’ in Italian) usually meaning a section used to end the piece.
Playing out – 1) playing out of time 2) out of key – either of these can be a good thing if done well
Playing the changes – improvising in association with the chord changes.
Pre-chorus – a fairly modern term for the section erm…before the chorus! Obvious eh? This term is used more often since song forms have become more sophisticated.
Rhythm Section – Piano, Guitar, Bass, Drums – usually anything which isn’t a horn.
Rock out – play everything a lot heavier/louder.
Shed (short for woodshed) – To practice. Deriving from going into the woodshed at the bottom of the garden to make a lot of noise!
Straight 8′s – Play even quavers (eighth notes). So not swung, as used for rock, latin or some funk rhythmic patterns
Straighty - a slightly derogatory term for a non jazzer
Tacet – Do not play. This is the traditional musical term. Jazz musicians would say ‘lay out’
The Edge – 1) The beginning of the sheet music 2) Clumsy guitarist from U2
Trade 4′s – Sometimes gestured by folding 4 fingers up. Each player takes 4 bars improvisation and passes it on.
Vamp – A repetitive phrase or chord(s) played for an indefinite length of time. Often used as an introduction or during dialogue in musical theatre.
Verse – usually the preamble or story part of the piece.
Wet/Dry – terms used for the amount of reverb. Usually to describe the added digital reverb effect on a microphone

Here are a few symbols used when notating music:

∆ Major 
- Minor
0 Diminished
ø Half Diminished 
+ Augmented

I hope this helps and if you want more clarification then please post a question below.


I’d also love to hear the terms you’ve heard? – post below


13 Comments Add a Comment
  1. Bernard Perkins
    November 12, 2015

    Hi Jay,
    THanks for this very useful and explains some terms I’d heard but not understood.
    You could add “Noodling” 1) Improvising in a random and wandering manner. (i’m sure there is something funny to say about that. 2) It also means to catch a catfish with your bare hands, maybe there’s a connection.


    • Jay
      November 12, 2015

      Ahh…Noodling. Of course. I knew I’d forget some great words! I am yet to catch a catfish with my bare hands – I can’t say its on my list! I think I ate one once but I seem to remember not liking it. I wouldn’t do well in the depths of Louisiana

  2. Mark
    November 12, 2015

    Thanks for the glossary Jay.

    Another term I’ve often come across is Segue – Italian for ‘follows’. It means continue without a pause to the next section or piece. Not to be confused with Segway – a futuristic, self-balancing, two-wheeled mode of transport ideal for harmonica players!

    • Jay
      November 14, 2015

      ha! Good one

  3. Mark Larson
    November 12, 2015

    One of the best is ‘stroll’. I got this from Mark Levine who explains that it is what you do when you’re hopelessly out of your depth. In other words – to stop playing! Used wisely ‘stroll’ can add a layer of credibility when things have gone wrong as in “yeah, I decided to stroll after that first chorus on Giant Steps”.

    • Jay
      November 14, 2015

      I’ll definitely be using that! Thanks Mark

  4. John
    November 12, 2015

    Very good, Thanks Jay. There are a few that I was not aware of. So ” Rock on!”

    • Jay
      November 14, 2015

      Glad you enjoyed them

  5. Christine
    November 13, 2015

    I’m a straighty and proud

    Trying to convert though !

    • Jay
      November 14, 2015

      All that hard work undone eh?!

  6. Jay
    November 14, 2015

    A great one from Clare here: ‘Jazzhole’ – A term used by Rock musicians to describe a player who uses too many notes.

  7. Roger Hughes
    December 3, 2015

    A few from my son when running his own band.

    Commando – to play without support (ie solo). (I won’t explain where it comes from, you can guess that one for yourselves).

    Needle It – to play crisp, sharp.

    Splints – quiet background support to someone soloing.

    CPR – Drums to really emphasis the third beat on 4/4

    Jog the wards – each to improvise in strict turn.

    (Yes he’s at Medical school and the entire band is made up of trainee medics and dentists!).

    And when we play together, he throws in the usual “Cool” or “Trick” to indicate something he likes. That’s Cool Daddio” means he likes what I’m playing and “Get with the 21st Century Pops!” means he thinks the piece is old fashioned and usually earns him a clip round the back of his head. Me thinks he’s winding me up deliberately, does anyone else suffer such indignity when playing with one of their own children?

    • Jay
      December 3, 2015

      Those are hilarious! Thank him for them. Brilliant

Leave a Reply