The Popular/Commercial Music Ensemble Cheat Sheet

The Popular/Commercial Music Ensemble Cheat Sheet

Popular Music Terms to Know

By NAfME Member Stephen Holley 

Welcome to the third article in our series on commercial/popular music education (PME). I encourage you read the first two installments on the “why” and the “how” of PME to better understand why the topic why is not only educationally viable, but also vital to a diverse music curriculum and culture.

As commercial/popular music ensembles continue to grow in popularity and acceptance in the academic world, one of the areas I’m often asked about is terminology and its similarity to traditional and jazz vocabulary. As you can imagine, it can be uncomfortable for a director with limited jazz knowledge to run a jazz band. In the same manner, it can be equally daunting for a director with limited knowledge of popular styles to effectively manage a rehearsal in these styles. It can also be frustrating for your students who, more often than not, are already well versed in these genres!

Popular Music Cheat Sheet
Photo Courtesy of Stephen Holley

Some of the terminology we use in commercial music education is very similar to what we already use in a traditional and/or jazz setting. That said, there are several terms which have been developed over the years by musicians—formally educated and not—to describe certain elements of a song. Several terms, e.g. comp, break, lay back, pop, kick, etc. are established jazz vocabulary. Given that several of the earliest R&B musicians came from a jazz background, it makes sense there is a similarity in the vocabulary. While this list is not exhaustive, it does contain a majority of terms I used on an almost daily basis:

  • Break – 1) where the entire band stops within the form, typically for a solo, or 2) a drum break, similar to a breakdown Ex. The Funky Drummer.
  • Bubble – typically played by the guitar; a muted, staccato countermelody that “bubbles” underneath the surface of a tune. The keyboard can sometimes fill this role, too. Ex. School Boy Crush.
  • Chank – when the guitarist plays along with the snare on beats 2 and 4, giving tonality to the snare. Can also be played on all four beats, Ex. Steve Cropper.
  • Comp – (short for accompanying or to complement) when the keyboard or guitarist plays rhythmic figures following the chord progression.
  • Football/Diamond – refers to how a rhythmic whole note appears on a chart. Ex. keyboard player, can you play a football (pad) over the bridge changes?

  • Four to (on) the floor – typically, when the drummer plays the kick on all four downbeats—sometimes called a “Stevie” beat.
  • Groove – the overall feel of the song.
  • Hook – most memorable part of a song; it’s what “hooks” the listener.
  • Horn stab – when the horns play a short, tight, punctuated line. Typically two or fewer notes. Ex. 1 2 3 4 1 2 .
  • Intro, verse, prechorus, chorus, bridge, breakdown, out (or outro) – various sections of a song. Bridge is a section that is typically different from the rest of song, e.g. new chords/melody/lyric. Prechorus is a section between the verse and the chorus. Breakdown is when a number of instruments “drop out,” typically leaving only drums or drums/bass.
Popular Music
Photo Courtesy of Stephen Holley
  • Kick – 1) another name for the bass drum or 2) rhythmic “hit” by the horns, or rhythm section, usually on the “e,” “and,” or “a” of a beat. Ex. 1 2 3 4 “a” Also called a hit. Earth, Wind and Fire.
  • Kick pattern – typically a one- or two-bar pattern established by the drummer.
  • Lay back – one or more musicians play behind the beat, giving a “laid back” feel to song. Ex. the blues.
  • Lay out – when a member(s) of the band doesn’t play for a section. See “lift.”
  • Lick – typically a unison line between several instruments in the band, Ex. Sir Duke.
  • Lift – when the energy “lifts” in part of the song. Ex. when a guitar lays out on the first verse, but plays during the second verse it can give the song a lift.
  • Lock – when the musicians are in solid time with each other—most often refers to the bass and drums.
  • On Top – one or more members play on the front side of the beat, giving a sense of forward movement. Ex. bebop, salsa, etc.

  • Overplay – no need for a definition, just don’t let your students do it . . .
  • Pad – when keys or guitar plays a chord the full duration of the chord change, i.e., playing a C chord for a full bar as a whole note. See football/diamond.
  • Pocket – area between the musicians playing on the front side of the beat and the backside of the beat. OK for them to play in slightly different areas. Ex. in soul music, the drummer will often play on the beat with the hihat and behind the beat with the snare.
  • Pop – typically when horns or vocalists are playing with a tight, consistent, feel. Think Tower of Power horns.
  • Pump – when the bass player plays quarter or 8th notes to provide a solid foundation.
  • Push – when a chord is played on the “and” of the beat Ex. 1 2 3 4 “and”.
Popular Music
Photo Courtesy of Stephen Holley
  • Rub – 1) when two or more musicians play out of time if creates an unwanted, rhythmic variation, or 2) when two or more notes create a dissonance; sometimes, this is a good thing re: creating tension.
  • Stack – when horns and/or vocalists create harmonies using two or more notes, also called a voicing. Ex. vocalists sing a harmony utilizing the 3rd, 5th, and root of the chord, bottom to top.
  • Tic tac – when the guitarist plays along with the bass line. Originated in Nashville in the 1950s in an effort to provide articulation to the bass. Ex. Booker T and the MGs and The Meters
  • Vamp – when the band repeats a section (typically 1-2 bars) until cued to move on to the next section.
  • Trash can – an ending where the band plays the final chord and holds the chord (fermata).

As I mentioned, keep in mind these are VERY abbreviated definitions (the Wikipedia article on “groove” is almost 2000 words long!) and are meant as an introduction and reference to commercial/popular music terminology. In the same manner it takes to learn the Italian, French, German, and English terms we use everyday (raise your hand if you know the difference between pizz and arco—no cheating!), it will take time to learn, understand, and feel comfortable using these terms.


In our next article, I’ll discuss the role of each instrument in a popular/commercial setting. How do you “talk the talk” with your young musicians, help them to develop vocabulary on their instrument, and support the individual musician as they develop and grow.

If you have any questions, or have suggestions for topics, feel free to contact me at I look forward to continuing the conversation!


About the author:

GRAMMY® nominated music educator and NAfME member Steve Holley serves as the Producer for the Commercial Music Program at the Kent Denver School outside Denver, CO. The R&B, soul, salsa, and jazz bands in the CMP have been recognized by DownBeat Magazine’s Student Music Awards over a dozen times, have performed hundreds of gigs throughout the US, and have performed abroad at the Festival del Tambor, Montreux Jazz, and Porretta Soul Festivals in Cuba, Switzerland, Italy, respectively. In addition, the bands endorse JodyJazz Mouthpieces, D’Addario strings and reeds, Evans drums heads, ProMark sticks, and Westone Hearing Protection.

Steve holds a BM in Jazz/Classical performance, a MM in Jazz/Classical performance, and an MM in Musicology from the University of Memphis. In addition to being an educator, arranger, performer, and musical entrepreneur, Steve is a sought-after clinician with performances and master classes given at the Jazz Education Network, Association for Popular Music Education, and several state MEA conferences. Most recently, Steve has written several articles for In Tune MonthlyTeaching Music, and multiple blogs and newsletters for NAfME and JEN.

You can follow the Kent Denver Commercial Music Program on FacebookTwitter, and on Snapchat and Instagram @KentDenverMusic.

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