Learn French through music

It might be Trenet’s La Mer, or Edith Piaf ’s La vie en rose or Non, je ne regrette rien. Maybe it’s Serge Gainsbourg’s breathy, risqu� duet with Jane Birkin Je t’aime moi non plus originally recorded with Brigitte Bardot, or perhaps it is Vanessa Paradis’ Joe le taxi. There is usually at least a refrain that springs to mind when you think of French music...

Unfortunately, though, it often is just the odd line of a lone song that made it across the Channel that you can recall. We are not fortunate enough to have French songs played on our radio stations as often as our French counterparts enjoy English-language songs, rather, you have to go out in search of it. But it is certainly worth the effort.

Listening to French music is a great way to add variety to your language learning. It will help you to pick up new vocabulary as well as discover a different aspect of French culture. La chanson fran�aise has a long and illustrious history and delving into its archives will bring to light uplifting tunes, haunting melodies and, most importantly, lyrics to learn.

For the uninitiated, a good place to start is with the fou chantant or ‘singing madman’ that was Charles Trenet. La Mer was a worldwide hit and has just two verses to get to grips with, along with a nice slow tempo. Progress on to the more upbeat Y’a de la joie, a charming song, ideal for when you have built up your confidence as it is a bit of a tongue-twister to sing along to.


It is recommended that you have a transcript of the lyrics in front of you when listening to French music to get the most out of it linguistically. There are numerous websites that provide song words and often CDs will have them printed on the sleeve. Pay particular attention to the tenses that have been used and look up any new vocabulary as you go. As a little test, try and write the transcript yourself first and then compare it to the actual song words. This is a good way of highlighting tense confusion and will also help with your own pronunciation.

It is impossible to talk about la chanson fran�aise without mentioning �dith Piaf. Plucked from a street corner in the Pigalle district of Paris, her powerful voice landed her the role as headliner for a Champs-�lys�es cabaret and the rest is well-documented history. Her instantly recognisable throaty, rolled ‘rs’ maybe a little challenging for complete beginners but it certainly helps if you have the words in front of you and she is, after all, the founder of la chanson fran�aise. �ternelle Edith Piaf is a good chronological compilation of her greatest hits.

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For those with more contemporary tastes, Serge Gainsbourg’s considerable back catalogue offers plenty to get your teeth into. His partnership with British Jane Birkin produced some interesting works. Her barely-disguised accent is nice and easy to understand and the salaciously na�ve lyrics are equally comprehensible; Gainsbourg’s album Melody Nelson was written entirely with Birkin in mind and is a good place to start. A ‘best of ’ CD is also worth a listen—try Initials SG—just to experience the scope of his talent.

As a slight departure from the big stars of la chanson, Italian Carla Bruni’s album, Quelqu’un m’a dit is a recording of some beautifully evocative French songs and is perfect for language learning. Her crystal clear, almost spoken lyrics have a simple accompaniment and a wide range of vocabulary. Listen in particular to Le Toi du Moi which plays on opposites and synonyms. This is great for all levels.

With such an enormous choice on offer, it is a case of trying out different artists and seeing what you like and who you find easy to understand. There is quite a feeling of achievement as you manage to pick out more and more words and, as language learning goes, it is remarkably pain-free. Before you know it, you will be singing in French in the shower and you will be able to see how far you have come.