10 Songs To Understand The Essence Of French Music

10 Songs To Understand The Essence Of French Music

Avatar of Alonso Martínez

By: Alonso Martínez

March 30, 2017

Music 10 Songs To Understand The Essence Of French Music
Avatar of Alonso Martínez

By: Alonso Martínez

March 30, 2017


The mark French culture has made in the world is, without a doubt, extraordinary. One of the main legacies this country has left  are the Enlightenment Principles, which led to its Revolution, hence Democracy. France created a nurturing cultural environment that allowed great artists to develop their crafts, like Molière or Victor Hugo, who wrote some of the most important literature classics. It's also the place where cinema was born. Music, of course, is not exempt from French influence. Important composers like Claude Debussy and Hector Berlioz, and singers like Edith Piaf prove that French music has become the embodiment of romance and elegance. Its sound possesses a timeless vibe that has captivated generations.

Songs to understand French music bow

French music has a varied and rich history and is as relevant as American and British music. Just like cinema, music reflects the huge cultural background of its country and narrates its stories. Probably part of its charm lies in the way their fascinating accent and language delivers incredibly romantic sounds.

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The next 10 songs are essential to understand the core of French music and its relevance through history:

"Chicago" – Quintette du Hot Club de France

Formed in 1934, this emblematic quintet became a jazz icon in Europe and America during the thirties and forties. "Chicago," now considered a classic, synthesizes the essence of the group and proves why French jazz was the best during those decades. Their music required no lyrics; their instruments were enough to tell stories that would inspire the rest of the world and define France's unique sound during the twentieth century. It became the music one would listen to in a joyful Parisian evening. Although the quintet dissolved quite quickly, their legacy still prevails in modern jazz musicians and fans. 


"La Mer" – Charles Trenet

La mer

Qu’on voit danser

le long des golfes clairs

A des reflets d’argent

La mer

Des reflets changeants

Sous la pluie.

Charles Trenet, one of the most renowned French musicians, created this classic. He refused to sing covers from other jazz musicians, so he produced and wrote his own songs. “La Mer” was his greatest hit and introduced that melancholic vibe that characterizes French music. Inspired by Hollywood's musical films, he endowed his songs with a fantasy vibe that would transport the listener to other realms.


"La Vie en Rose" – Édith Piaf

Il me dit des mots d’amour

Des mots de tous les jours

Et ça me fait quelque chose.

It’s probably the most popular French songs of all time. Written and interpreted by the legendary Édith Piaf, “La Vie en Rose” is the traditional love song par excellence. Through her unique voice and lyrics, she turned this song into an anthem of happiness and desire.  This piece also conveys that characteristic nostalgia of jazz music. Even though the song was released more than 60 years ago, it still sounds fresh and timeless.


"Tu T’laisses Aller" – Charles Aznavour

Ah! tu es belle à regarder

Tes bas tombant sur tes chaussures

Et ton vieux peignoir mal fermé

Et tes bigoudis qu’elle allure

Je me demande chaque jour

Comment as-tu fait pour me plaire

Comment ai-je pu te faire la cour ?

“You’ve Let Yourself Go” is the translation of this emblematic 1960's song that became number one on the French charts. This song acquired iconic status when it appeared in Jean-Luc Goddard’s movie Une femme est une femme. Aznavour incorporated theatrical themes into his songs, becoming a role model for all male pop singers of the time.


"Je t’aime… moi non plus" – Serge Gainsbourg & Jane Birkin

Je t’aime je t’aime

Oh oui je t’aime

Moi non plus

Oh mon amour

Comme la vague irrésolue

Je vais, je vais et je viens

Entre tes reins

Je vais et je viens

Entre tes reins

Et je me retiens.

Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin were every couple's relationship goals. Both shaped French sensuality during the second half of the twentieth century. “Je t’aime” acquired international success, as many of their songs represent their relationship. This tune is a highly sophisticated journey through the fantasies of love.


"Le Temps de l’amour" – Françoise Hardy

See’est le temps de l’amour,

le temps des copains et de l’aventure.

Quand le temps va et vient,

on ne pense à rien malgré ses blessures.

Car le temps de l’amour

see’est long et see’est court,

ça dure toujours, on s’en souvient.

Another classic song interpreted by one of the most relevant female French musicians from the sixties. This song belongs to Hardy’s album Tous les Garçons et les Filles which changed the music scene of France forever. She followed the pop Yé-Yé musical current, but did it in a different style. She talked about many themes that weren’t popular in that movement and mixed it with other genres, adding sophistication to pop music. She got international recognition and even influenced great musicians like Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger.


"Aline" – Christophe

Et j’ai crié, crié, Aline, pour qu’elle revienne

Et j’ai pleuré, pleuré, oh! j’avais trop de peine.

Contemporary to Françoise Hardy, Christophe became famous thanks to his hit “Aline,” another classical theme of the sixties. Influenced by Charles Aznavour, the young French musician created a sweet melody about the nostalgia he felt while visiting his grandma at the hospital. The name of the song alludes to an employee he met there. The rest is history.


"Laisse Tomber les Filles" – April March

Laisse tomber les filles

Laisse tomber les filles

Un jour see’est toi qu’on laissera

Laisse tomber les filles

Laisse tomber les filles

Un jour see’est toi qui pleureras.

As part of the second wave of French music that became popular during the nineties and 2000s, April March followed Françoise Hardy’s style and added her own personal rebellious stamp to her music. In her first official album, Paris in Paril, she only used her French pop influences to create even more heavy and daring songs. “Laisse Tomber les Filles” is a great example of this synergy. Her music became even more iconic after Quentin Tarantino used it in his movie Death Proof.


"Quelqu’un m’a dit" – Carla Bruni

On me dit que nos vies ne valent pas grand chose,

Elles passent en un instant comme fanent les roses.

On me dit que le temps qui glisse est un salaud que de nos chagrins il s’en fait des manteaux pourtant quelqu’un m’a dit….

Included in the soundtrack of (500) Days of Summer, this song proves that French pop music is still creating massive hits. Bruni’s sweet voice and her way with words is the result of decades of musical influence.


"Parole Parole" – Dalida & Alain Delon

Les souvenirs se fanent aussi quand on les oublient

Tu es comme le vent qui fait chanter les violons

Et emporte au loin le parfum des roses

Caramels, bonbons et chocolats

Par moments, je ne te comprends pas

Merci, pas pour moi mais.

Although it was originally written in Italian, its French version sung by Dalida, a legendary actress and multilingual singer, is considered one of the best duets of all times. Dalida’s sophisticated expressions, mixed with Alain Delon’s sensuous voice, result in a great musical offering. The song has become so emblematic that it’s one of the most covered French songs of all times.



The world is filled with elements of this iconic culture that has become the embodiment of love, romance, elegance, nostalgia, and passion. These songs make brokenhearted people find shelter and a moment of respite. It’s easy to get lost in its essence and let our emotions run free in this vie en rose.


Translated by María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards