50 Musical Terms Used in Nonmusical Senses

By Mark Nichol

Have you noticed how many terms for musical phenomena have been adopted into general discourse? Sometimes it’s difficult to determine whether the musical term was later associated with a general definition, or whether the general usage came first, but take note of these musically derived or related words:

1. Ad lib (from ad libitum): an improvisation
2. Baroque: elaborate, extravagant, and/or flamboyant
3. Beat: a brief measure or pause
4. Cadence: a sequence or measure of rhythm
5. Choir: a group of people sharing beliefs or values (“preaching to the choir”)
6. Chord: the target of a stimulus (“strike a chord”)
7. Chorus: a unified response (“a chorus of approval”)
8. Coda: a conclusion
9. Conductor: someone who organizes an enterprise or scheme
10. Crescendo: a high point
11. Cue: a signal to start or do something or cause it to happen
12. Downbeat: pessimistic
13. Duet: an action undertaken by a union of two people
14. Encore: an additional performance or achievement
15. Ensemble: a group in which no one person stands out
16. Falsetto: an unnaturally high voice
17. Fanfare: celebratory attention
18. Finale: a concluding performance or act
19. Gig: a job or assignment
20. Impromptu: spontaneous, improvised
21. Interlude: a planned interruption or intervening period
22. Leitmotif: a recurring overarching idea
23. Maestro: an accomplished person
24. Medley: a series or other collection of ingredients or actions
25. Opera: extended to “soap opera,” the slang term for domestic radio and later television dramas (so called because detergent manufacturers often sponsored these programs aimed at homemakers) and “horse opera,” another name for westerns (plural of opus)
26. Opus: a major work
27. Orchestrate: to organize strategically, with a possible connotation of conniving or conspiracy
28. Overtone: a suggestion or connotation
29. Overture: an invitation or act of persuasion
30. Pitch: the nature of a sound based on its frequency, or a degree of interest (“fever pitch”)
31. Prelude: a preliminary to a main action
32. Prologue: an introduction
33. Reprise: a repeated performance
34. Requiem: a composition in any medium to honor the dead or a failed effort
35. Resonance: an evocation of feeling or sense
36. Rhapsodic: any overwrought or elaborate creative effort or speech (“waxing rhapsodic”)
37. Riff: a verbal performance, especially as in a fast and furious routine by a stand-up comedian; also refers to a brief witticism or to a variation, synonymous with the informal noun take
38. Rock: to be very impressive or pleasing (“That rocks!”), to inspire excitement (“The band rocked the concert hall”), or to flaunt an ostentatious style of clothing or coiffure (“She rocked her new boots”)
39. Serenade: an effort to persuade
40. Solo: alone
41. Staccato: a suggestion of speed rather than simply detached sounds (“staccato bursts of gunfire”)
42. Suite: a collection or set
43. Tempo: speed or rate
44. Theme: subject or style
45. Timbre: the distinguishing quality of a voice
46. Tone: the quality of expression in writing or speaking as well, and the quality of a physical form
47. Unison: agreement or union
48. Upbeat: optimistic
49. Virtuoso: one particularly skilled in an endeavor
50. Waltz: to move in a bold, confident, or lively manner (“She triumphantly waltzed into the room”)

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5 Responses to “50 Musical Terms Used in Nonmusical Senses”

  • Leif G.S. Notae

    Love these lists, they always get the mind going and make me think of all the Castlevania titles. Yes, I think of video games first, it is an old habit.

    Thanks for sharing this list, Mark. I’ll have to keep this one handy when I tackle the next fiction piece!

  • Andrea

    Wow – a great list. Thanks!

  • Don Lee

    It’s worth noting that these definitions reflect popular usage. In some cases they stray from the original musical meaning, as I mentioned in this essay for DWT a couple of years ago: http://www.dailywritingtips.com/orchestrate-and-crescendo/

  • thebluebird11

    I had to sort of laugh at the definition(s) for “rock.” These are just the really trendy definitions; what about “rock the boat,” “rock on,” a rock in the sense of a large diamond, a rock in the sense of someone very strong and supportive? I was just reminded of how my daughter’s friend (who is 20 years old) said to me one day, “You rock that outfit better than I could!” I wasn’t quite sure if at my age that was a compliment LOL!

  • venqax

    bluebird: I don’t think any of those definitions of “rock”– except prbably “rock on”– come from the musical term. That was the subject here.

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