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The meaning and origin of the expression: Face the music

Face the music

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What's the meaning of the phrase 'Face the music'?

Face the music means accept the unpleasant consequences of one's actions.

What's the origin of the phrase 'Face the music'?

The phrase 'face the music' has an agreeable imagery. We feel that we can picture who was facing what and what music was playing at the time. Regrettably, the documentary records don't point to any clear source for the phrase and we are, as so often, at the mercy of plausible speculation. There was, of course, a definitive and unique origin for the expression 'face the music' and whoever coined it was quite certain of the circumstances and the music being referred to. Let's hope at least that one of the following suggestions is the correct one, even though there is no clear evidence to prove it.

A commonly repeated assertion is that 'face the music' originated from the tradition of disgraced officers being 'drummed out' of their regiment. A second popular theory is that it was actors who 'faced the music', that is, faced the orchestra pit, when they went on stage. A third theory, less likely but quite interesting none the less, was recounted with some confidence by a member of the choir at a choral concert I attended recently in Sheffield. It relates to the old UK practice of West Gallery singing. This was singing, literally from the west galleries of English churches, by the common peasantry who weren't allowed to sit in the higher status parts of the church. The theory was that the nobility were obliged to listen to the vernacular songs of the parishioners, often with lyrics that were critical of the ways of the gentry.

It may help to pinpoint the origin to know that the phrase appears to be mid 19th American in origin. The earliest citation I can find for the phrase is from The New Hampshire Statesman & State Journal, August 1834:

"Will the editor of the Courier explain this black affair. We want no equivocation - 'face the music' this time."

Almost all other early citations are American. Sadly, none of them give the slightest clue as to the source, or reason for, the music being faced.

See other phrases that were coined in the USA.

Gary Martin - the author of the website.

By Gary Martin

Gary Martin is a writer and researcher on the origins of phrases and the creator of the Phrase Finder website. Over the past 26 years more than 700 million of his pages have been downloaded by readers. He is one of the most popular and trusted sources of information on phrases and idioms.

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