As anyone who’s ever struggled to learn a foreign language knows, one of the biggest barriers to fluency is learning those idiomatic phrases that native speakers effortlessly slip into their everyday speech, leaving your cut and dry, literal declarations feeling clunky and boring by comparison. One of the best things you can do to start feeling more comfortable with your speaking skills is to make an effort to pay attention and familiarize yourself with some of the more popular idiomatic phrases in a language. In American English, as with any other language, there are hundreds of phrases that we sprinkle throughout our speech without giving it a second thought. Being a musician myself, I decided to share with you a collection of music-based idioms.
“To play something by ear”
What does it mean? To improvise, make something up as you go, or rely on your intuition
How do you use it? “I’m not sure what we’re going to do tonight; I think we’ll just play it by ear.”
Where does it come from? This phrase comes from the idea of playing music “by ear,” that is, without written music in front of you- the implication being that you are either figuring the music out as you go along, or perhaps relying on intuition to guide you.
“To march to the beat of your own drum/march to the beat of a different drummer”
What does it mean? To do things your own way, not follow the crowd
How do you use it? “Sure, underwater basket weaving is kind of a strange hobby, but my brother always has marched to the beat of his own drum.”
Where does it come from? This phrase has been around since the 1850s, when Thoreau wrote in his famous Walden, “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”[i] This phrase is probably based on the context of a military parade, in which everyone was meant to be walking in time with the drumbeat- if one soldier heard “a different drum,” though, he would walk differently or choose his own path, unlike the rest of the crowd.
“To play second fiddle”
What does it mean? To always be put into the inferior position, overlooked for someone else
How do you use it? “I’m getting really tired of playing second fiddle to my coworker all the time, just because she got her degree from an Ivy League university.”
Where does it come from? This comes from an orchestral context, in which the violin section has a first chair violinist who gets most of the attention, flashy musical parts, etcetera- the one stuck playing second violin (or second fiddle) probably works just as hard, but never gets to be in charge and doesn’t tend to get the same fame as the first violinist.
“To sound like a broken record”
What does it mean? To keep repeating yourself
How do you use it? “I know I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but we really are going to have to clean the house one of these days!”
Where does it come from? This phrase has been around since the 1940s, and refers to a record with a scratch on it, which keeps skipping and therefore playing the same snippet of sound over and over again.
“Fit as a fiddle”
What does it mean? In great health
How do you use it? “My grandfather may be coming up on his 90th birthday, but he’s still as fit as a fiddle!”
Where does it come from? This kind of goofy-sounding phrase dates all the way back to the 17th century, when violins (also known as fiddles) were a very popular instrument- beautiful as the music can be, a violin requires quite a bit of maintenance and attention, so people who played them regularly did their best to keep them in very good condition- thus, someone who is as “fit as a fiddle” is someone who’s in excellent all-around physical health.[ii]
“It’s music to my ears”
What does it mean? It’s great news, wonderful to hear
How do you use it? “I just heard that we will be getting funding for our project after all- it’s music to my ears; I was sure we wouldn’t receive the money we asked for!”
Where does it come from? This one is simply a reference to how pleasant it is to listen to music, rather than hear other, possibly discordant, noise
“Face the music”
What does it mean? Face up to consequences or an unpleasant situation
How do you use it? “I know he’s been getting away with showing up late to work every day so far, but sooner or later, he’s going to have to face the music.”
Where does it come from? Dating back to the 1800s, no one’s entirely sure about the origins of this phrase, but there are a few different theories floating around. One of them claims that it refers to a certain kind of church in the United Kingdom in which the choir would sing from the West gallery, and therefore the parishioners would have to turn around to “face the music” during the service- music which, according to various sources, was either critical of the upper classes (most of the members of the congregation,) or, quite simply, was not very good, and therefore not very nice to listen to.[iii] Another one refers to a military context, in which soldiers who had been dishonorably discharged would have to walk past the rest of his fellow soldiers on the way out, accompanied by the sound of a drum.[iv] An even darker theory would have us believe that the “music” the phrase refers to was originally the sound of gunfire and cannon shots, and that soldiers would be instructed to “face the music,” that is, carry on in the face of fire, rather than fleeing the battle.[v]
“It strikes a chord”
What does it mean? It resonates with me, or elicits a strong emotional reaction
How do you use it? “Her speech on child hunger yesterday really struck a chord with me, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.
Where does it come from? This phrase has been around since the early 1800s, and stems from the idea that if you “strike a chord” on a stringed instrument, that is, you play a set of notes that traditionally go well together, it will be more pleasant to listen to. A more scientific explanation could also be related to the idea of a “resonant frequency,” in which a particular note or set of notes will set off an exaggerated reaction.
I hope you’ve enjoyed having a chance to learn about some popular American idiomatic phrases. Next time you’re practicing your English, try integrating one or two of them if the situation presents itself! I promise it will be fun, and it will be sure to make you sound more comfortable in the language.