21 common expressions that are based on music

17 September 2018, 17:41 | Updated: 5 February 2019, 14:00

Common expressions with musical origins
Common expressions with musical origins. Picture: Getty

By Maddy Shaw Roberts

Blowing your own trumpet, preaching to the choir… a surprising number of everyday phrases have their origins in music.

  1. Pull out all the stops

    Organ stops
    Organ stops. Picture: Getty

    ‘Pulling out all the stops’ – going all out, or giving your all – originally referred to organ stops, which are pulled out to turn on each set of sounds in a pipe organ. When they are all pulled out, the instrument can be played at its maximum volume.

  2. Preaching to the choir

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    ‘Preaching to the choir’ means pointlessly trying to convince someone of an opinion they already agree with. It comes from the action of trying to convince people to come to church, who already regularly attend.

  3. Blowing your own trumpet

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    ‘Blowing your own trumpet’ or ‘tooting your own horn’ (meaning ‘to brag’) could come from the medieval period, when heralds would announce the arrival of a VIP with a fanfare. Of course, if you weren't a VIP you would have to… blow your own trumpet.

  4. Like a broken record

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    This expression is used to describe a person who repeatedly says the same thing. And it has its origins in the world of vinyl – when a record is scratched the needle of the record player gets stuck in the same spot and plays the same section of the song over and over.

  5. Music to my ears

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    If something is music to your ears, you’re pretty pleased about it – like the feeling you get when you hear anything by Bach.

  6. Change your tune

    Tuning fork
    Tuning fork. Picture: Getty

    Its origins are unclear, but ‘changing your tune’ is another way of saying that somebody has changed (or should change) their opinion on something.

  7. It strikes a chord

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    If something strikes a chord, you feel personally affected by it. Apparently, its meaning comes from the action of playing a note on the piano, causing the string itself and, crucially, others around it, to vibrate.

  8. Singing from the same hymn sheet

    Singing hymns
    Singing hymns. Picture: PA

    Two people singing from the same song sheet are, simply put, saying the same thing. It comes from church congregations, who all sing the same music.

  9. Don’t harp on about it

    ‘Harping on’ about something means you won’t stop talking about it. It’s actually a shortening of the phrase ‘harp on the same string’, first recorded in 1518, which means ‘to play the same note over and over’.

  10. All that jazz

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    No one's quite sure where this phrase comes from. But the word ‘jazz’ was sometimes used, in the early 20th century, to mean ‘meaningless talk’, so perhaps it's like saying 'and all that nonesense'.

  11. Playing second fiddle

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    Drawing on the pains of being a second violinist, ‘playing second fiddle’ means that you’re playing a supporting role to someone else.

  12. Beat the band

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    If you’re shouting to beat the band, you’re talking loudly so you can be heard over the music.

  13. All the bells and whistles

    Bells and whistles
    Bells and whistles. Picture: Getty

    This phrase describes the extra, non-essential trimmings that go with an item. The expression itself is thought to have come from the ornate theatre organs that were used in early cinemas.

  14. March to the beat of your own drum

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    Picture someone marching in a parade, but out of sync with the rest of the group. That's what this phrase refers to. If you march to the beat of your own drum, you like doing your own thing.

  15. Fit as a fiddle

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    ‘Fiddle’ is still recognised as a colloquial name for the violin – but the meaning of ‘fit’ has changed. When the phrase was coined, it was used to mean ‘suitable’ or ‘fit for use’. Now, it just means that you’re in good health.

  16. The same old song and dance

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    It’s another way of saying ‘nothing out of the ordinary’ or ‘the same as always’ – but with a musical twist.

  17. It’s not my forte

    Forte. Picture: IMSLP

    In music, forte literally means ‘loud’ or ‘strong’. So if something isn’t your forte, it’s probably not your greatest strength.

  18. Play it by ear

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    Figuratively, playing something by ear means to act spontaneously. Literally, it refers to a musician playing a piece of music without looking at the sheet music.

  19. It rings a bell

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    Bells are usually sounded to remind us to do things, like the timer on your oven (your cake's about to burn) or a school bell (to go to your next lesson). If something ‘rings a bell’, it therefore causes you to remember something.

  20. It ain’t over until the fat lady sings

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    It’s a phrase used to warn against assuming the outcome of an event which is still in progress – and it comes from the stereotypical image of overweight sopranos in opera. Experts disagree over who first said the phrase, and where it comes from - but it could have been inspired by Richard Wagner's Ring cycle. At the very end of the four-part epic, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde closes the monumental work with a dramatic aria.

  21. Strike the right note

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    To hit, or strike, the right note means to do something in exactly the right way. Its origins, although unknown, are generally assumed to be musical.

    You can also strike the wrong note, meaning to do something in completely the wrong way.

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