“Bring your axe to the jam.”
“I need to woodshed the changes before the gig.”
“Can you blow over the bridge?”
“After the turnaround, play the head.”
“Let’s tag it.”
“Do we hit the shots after the break?”
“There were a lot of clams on that gig; it was basically a train wreck”
“The band folded on that over the bar figure”
Did you get all that? Would you need a translation? Do you call a music composition a piece, a tune, a number, a song, a ditty? Interestingly, some of this lingo is totally unique to the music field. While it is remarkable to consider the vastness of music terminology, many musical terms are widely used outside music. Other music jargon is exclusively used among musicians and music lovers. Apart from the traditional technical musical terminology, music has its own slang; its own set of not so technical terms.
Let’s look at some examples of the vernacular that working musicians use to communicate. Most of this language is used in modern styles such as folk, pop, and jazz more than it is in orchestral music styles. However, each genre has its own idiosyncratic terms. Some of it is logical and some is puzzling and metaphoric. Additionally, it is always amazing to learn how different places have different slang. Based on a few subject categories (and in no particular order) here is some language that is used by musicians all over the English-speaking world.
Terms that Refer to Playing Music
Gig: a job; a music job. It’s very common and used all the time outside music conversation. “That was a good gig.” It is used as a verb less often: “Are you going to gig with that group?”
Jam: to play music with others in a fun, informal, unstructured way. “Let’s jam next week”. Jam (sometimes) jam session, can also be a noun as in: “Are you going to the jam (jam session) next week?”
Session: a time or meeting allotted to playing music for a specific purpose. It can be a recording session, jam session, or even a practice session.
A Fill: a short musical phrase played (often improvised) by any instrument to add some texture or density to a spacious section of music. “I like her drum fills.”
Clams: musical mistakes, wrong notes. Musicians try not to play clams or hit clams.
Chops: virtuosic playing ability. It refers to the technical ability of a musician. “He has great chops.” “I need to work on my chops.”
Busk: means to play music outside for anyone passing by, but not a specific audience. So you see buskers on the busy street corner or in the subway. Hopefully, the passerby will stop, listen, and donate.
To sit in: to play music with another group as a guest. So, you might say, “I got to sit in with BB King.” Usually, you are asked to sit in or you ask to sit in. It’s like watching a basketball game at the local court and then getting asked to play.
Blow: jazz slang meaning to solo, or to take a solo.
To Hit: to play “What time do we hit the stage tonight?”
Shredding: a positive comment usually said about guitar players when they are playing great and fast solos. He was shredding on that tune.
Train wreck: if the music goes so badly that everyone stops playing, it is a train wreck.
Fold: like train wreck only it’s a verb. It’s like saying fail. “That tune folded last time we played it; it was a train wreck.”
Riff: a kind of short and usually specific musical phrase. Guitar riffs in rock and blues music are very common.
Noodling: this is just like doodling with your pencil. So it means playing random musical phrases that are not specifically or immediately linked to anything. Noodling often has a negative connotation because it can be considered as musical input that doesn’t add anything valuable or might be out of context.
Burning, smoking, killing: adjectives meaning that the music is excellent. “Wow, that band was smoking!” “The drummer was killing.”
Woodshed: the place where you practice
To Woodshed/Woodshedding: to practice usually with a lot of focus and effort
To Shed/Shedding: a shortened form of woodshedding
Axe: an instrument; any instrument
Cans: headphones; especially studio quality headphones
Kick: the bass drum
Talking about Form and Structure
The Head: the melody of the song or piece (less commonly called the theme)
The Bridge: a unique section in the middle part of a song that usually happens once (maybe twice) in the piece.
The Turnaround: The last phrase of a tune that resolves to the end and can lead you to the beginning again. In a blues form it’s the last four bars.
The Tag: a repetition of the last phrase of the piece. “Tag the last four bars.”
The Changes: the chord progression of a song.
Break: usually a short section (1 or 2 bars) where the band stops playing to leave empty space for one musician to perform solo. “There is a one-bar vocal break in the chorus.” “The chorus has a two –bar drum break.”
The ink: to play exactly what is written. “Let’s play the ink and see how it sounds.”
The pencil: to play the edits (after rehearsals) made to the written music. “Should I play the pencil or the ink?”
Chord chart: a written sketch of just chords symbols.
Lead sheet: written music that has only the chords, melody, and if applicable, the lyrics.
Score: this is written music that has almost everything written out in musical notation. It is very specific.
Referring to Rhythm
Feel: refers to the elements of style, attitude, tempo, dynamics, and rhythm that give the piece its character.
Groove: very close to feel but used more in rhythm section playing. It’s how all the instrumental parts fit together that make up the groove. “Play a 50’s rock groove on this tune.”
Pulse: the feeling of the beat in the music. It’s where you want to clap or tap your foot.
Shots or Hits: accented rhythmic figures (punctuations) played by one or more musicians or sections of the band.
Straight: playing music with an even feel as opposed to playing it with a swing or blues feel. So, eighth notes would sound like: da da da da (exactly the same length).
Swing: playing music with a phrasing that is based on 12/8. So, those same eighth notes would sound like: daaa da daaa da (based on a triplet subdivision)
Dragging: a negative term describing the music as slowing down when it should not
Rushing: opposite of dragging. The music is speeding up unintentionally.
Behind the beat: this term is neutral and means not to drag, but instead to play on the back edge of the beat. It is a stylistic thing to do to create a specific feeling to the music.
On top of the beat: the opposite of behind the beat. To play more aggressively on the front of the beat (not rushing but pushing)
Over the bar: describes a syncopated musical phrase that occurs over more than one bar.
Remember this just scratches the surface. Musicians are creative characters, so there is extensive colourful language they use for everything from money to people and places. If some of the above references didn’t make you chuckle, seek out the funny nicknames for certain instruments. If it fits your sense of humour, dive into some music jokes. Hopefully, this helped you learn something new and encouraged you to explore some more music jargon.
Do you have any music lingo that you wonder about or find interesting? Please share.