Your kindergarten teacher used one to teach you the alphabet.
Fräulein Maria used one to teach the von Trapp children musical notes.
Schoolhouse Rock used one to show kids how a bill becomes a law.
Chemistry students use them to memorize the periodic table.
What are these powerhouses of learning and memory?
Tune into learning French through songs and you’ll be getting down with grammar, cranking up your vocabulary volume and hearing the harmonies of French words.
Ready to rock and roll? Cue the band!
Why Learning French with Music Is a Rocking Idea
Opportunities to learn French are everywhere you go when you listen to French music. Let’s explore the advantages of learning French through songs:
- Inexhaustible supply of songs in French. There are countless songs in existence, with oodles more being released all the time—avec beaucoup de chansons en français (with many songs in French). Not only do you have current songs to work with, you can go all the way back to the beginning of recorded music history to find songs and styles that appeal to you.
- Something for everyone. There’s different French vocal music to appeal to virtually any taste. Whether you like electronica, hip-hop or folk music, you can find French songs to suit your style.
- Portability and flexibility. You can take music with you everywhere and combine it with other activities throughout your day. Load it up on your smartphone and groove to it during your commute. Let it play as you do chores around the house. You can even enjoy your French tunes in a library or study hall—all you need is a good set of earphones.
- Plentiful learning resources. When you learn French through songs, you’ve got more than just MP3s or old LPs to work with. Music videos add another dimension to your melodic learning experience. Many videos offer onscreen lyrics to help you understand what you’re hearing.
You can find French music videos, and plenty of other interactive, curated content on FluentU. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons. Just load up a music video (or any other video) and you can follow along with subtitles or check the meaning of any word by hovering over it without ever leaving the page.
The Science Behind the Songs
Learning French with songs isn’t just a good idea. It’s been backed by science!
Grabbing your ear.
According to a study performed at the Stanford University School of Medicine, “music engages the areas of the brain involved with paying attention […] and updating […] memory.” So, not only will music capture your attention, it will stimulate the part of the brain that helps you make memories. And that means better retention of new information, such as the French you’re hearing.
Deciphering the music of language.
Our brains use the same tools to discern language and music. Specifically, the brain uses pitch, timing and timbre to make sense of the sounds of music and words.
In essence, listening to music puts your brain in gear to grasp the language sounds it hears. The musical elements of French songs—rhythm, pitch and melody—prepare your brain for language learning, making it easier to learn the words in the lyrics.
Gearing up for learning.
Music itself strengthens brain neuroplasticity, which means it makes your mind more flexible and ready to accept new information.
When you listen to music, your brain is stimulated. You’re paying better attention and finding patterns in the sounds you hear. Your brain is ready to record what you’re learning.
More than that, music stimulates your nervous system for learning, helping create organized mental structures for long-term storage of your new knowledge.
According to neurobiologists Nina Kraus and Bharath Chandrasekaran in their study, “Music training for the development of auditory skills,” music “is a resource that tones the brain for auditory fitness.” So forget about doing mental push-ups and push the Start button on your music player!
Songs don’t just teach you new French vocabulary. They teach you new words in both literal and metaphorical contexts, helping you grasp more shades of meaning. Songs teach recognition of antonyms, synonyms and other word patterns.
In a recent study published in the International Journal of Scientific & Technology Research, such word relationships were cited as especially important to language learning. These relationships don’t just teach you individual vocabulary words, they also help you understand how the words are used grammatically and how other words are used in relation to them.
Techniques for Tapping into French Tunes
Use a reliable lyrics source.
If you’re not picking up all the words to a new song just by listening, you’ll want to look at the written lyrics.
If the artist’s website doesn’t post the official lyrics, you can try some of the many online lyrics sites. French-language sites, such as Paroles-Musique, cater to native French speakers. This increases the chances that the French lyrics will be accurate.
Some sites, such as Lyrics Translate, offer both the English translation and the original French. If you’re just starting out in French, the side-by-side bilingual versions can be a boon to your comprehension of the song. Try to go line-by-line and see if you can identify the original French words that correspond to the English translation.
Bear in mind that these translations—although sometimes peer-reviewed—are often done by amateurs so they may not be 100% accurate. If something looks “off” to you, try translating the word or phrase yourself. In fact, depending on your experience in French, you might try translating all the lyrics yourself.
Involve several senses.
Once you’ve picked out some French songs to enjoy, don’t just listen. You want to be actively engaged with the music, which will make the brain even more flexible and ready to learn.
Involve your other senses: sing along, tap your toes, watch a video. If you are so inclined, dance!
Grab some grammar.
Listen up for the parts of speech used in the lyrics. Identify various verb tenses and moods. Be on the lookout for prepositions, pronouns and conjunctions.
Make a habit of trying to find examples in your French songs of whatever concepts you’re currently studying.
Open your ears to new words.
French songs give you a great opportunity to learn informal words that you might not find in a textbook. For instance, many songs use slang words.
And since songs are also similar to poetry, a lot of them employ metaphorical language. You might hear words you already know used in new ways.
Perk up for problematic pronunciations.
Wordplay abounds in song lyrics. Songwriters play with alliteration, assonance, rhyme and other literary devices to make their words more musical. As a listener, this gives you many chances to distinguish between similar sounds.
If there are certain sounds you struggle with in French, try to find them in songs. The repetition of the lyrics will reinforce the correct sounds in your mind.
Especially in ballads, single words are sometimes drawn out to cover several beats. This effectively slows words down so you can better grasp the proper pronunciation of each syllable.
6 Advanced Concepts Taught Through Songs
So now you know how music can stimulate your brain for language learning and how it can help you remember information. We’ve discussed several ways to get the most out of your French music experience.
Are you ready to put all this into action? Let’s look at a few sample songs and explore just some of what they can teach us.
All Tensed Up: Distinguishing the Passé composé (Past Perfect) from the Imparfait (Past Imperfect)
Song: “Mon amie la rose” (“My Friend, the Rose”)
A Françoise Hardy classic, “Mon amie la rose” blossoms with opportunities to dig into two of the most-used French past tenses.
Contrast the passé composé (past perfect) tense used here:
“Et mon amie la rose / Est morte ce matin” (“And my friend the rose / Died this morning”)
With the imparfait (past imperfect) tense used in this phrase:
“Oui j’étais la plus belle / Des fleurs de ton jardin” (“Yes, I was the most beautiful / Of the flowers in your garden.”)
Note the noun-verb agreement in the past perfect tense when être (to be) is used as the auxiliary verb. Since la rose (the rose) is feminine, the past participle of mourir (to die) has to take a feminine ending—the letter “e” at the end.
If un tournesol (a sunflower) had died instead, the phrase would read, “Et mon ami le tournesol / Est mort ce matin” (“And my friend the sunflower / Died this morning”).
In the Mood: Recognizing the Subjunctive and Conditional in French
Songs: “Tu vas me quitter” (“You Are Going to Leave Me”) and “Je pensais” (“I Was Thinking”)
The song “Tu vas me quitter,” performed by Hélène Ségara, shows both these moods working together. Le subjonctif (the subjunctive mood) rapidly follows the le conditionnel (conditional present mood) in the phrase “Mais il faudrait que tu comprennes” (“But it is necessary that you understand” or “But you have to understand”).
For more examples of the conditional, try “Je pensais” by Françoise Hardy. Although bracketed by the imperfect-tense title phrase “Je pensais” (“I was thinking”), much of the song lyrics are musings in the conditional mood:
Un jour, tu partirais
Et qu’une autre que moi
Saurait se faire aimer
(One day, you would leave me
And that someone else
Would know how to make you love them)
You often see the subjunctive and conditional side-by-side. In English, for example, the phrase “if I were you” is in the subjunctive mood. The phrase “I would learn French through songs” is in the conditional mood. You can combine the two in sentences: “If I were you, I would learn French through songs.”
Slang Set to Music: Learning Informal Vocabulary
Song: “Je me suis fait tout petit” (“I’ve Made Myself Small”)
A combination of informal, conversational speech and poetry, French songs are a great resource for learning nonstandard vocabulary.
In George Brassens’ “Je me suis fait tout petit,” you’ll find baby-talk words like menotte (hand) and quenotte (tooth). Since the song is about the singer’s relationship with her young daughter, the poupée (doll) in the song, it’s natural to find some words used by small children.
Brassens also uses comparisons to emphasize the child’s mercurial moods, as in “Elle a des dents de lait quand elle sourit” (“She has milk teeth when she smiles”), contrasted in the next line with “Et des dents de loup, quand elle est furie” (“And a wolf’s teeth, when she is furious”).
Addressing You & You, Too: Tutoyer (Informal Address) Versus Vouvoyer (Formal Address)
Song: “Je te dis vous” (“I Say [Formal] You to [Informal] You”)
Unlike English, French has more than one way to say “you”—an informal word for you (tu) and a formal word (vous). When you’re speaking directly to the “you” in question, this is known in French as tutoyer (informal, second-person address) and vouvoyer (formal, second-person address). French songs can help us explore this concept.
Even the title of “Je te dis vous” by Patricia Kaas is a study in informal versus formal address in French. The singer thinks of her would-be lover as tu (informal you)—but due to the chasm between his life of fame and luxury and her life of hardship, she addresses him formally as vous.
The song uses several metaphors to compare the life of the singer and the object of her unrequited affection. It expresses the singer’s intimate feeling for someone with whom she shares no actual intimacy.
Follow Your Nose: Distinguishing Between Nasalized Vowels
Song: “Y’a d’la joie” (“There Is Joy”)
In the amusing and poetic “Y’a d’la joie,” pioneering singer-songwriter Charles Trenet gives a great example of similar nasalized vowels in a row in the line “Il fait du bon pain, du pain si fin que j’ai faim” (“He makes good bread, bread so fine that I get hungry”).
In addition to giving you practice with French nasals, the song is rife with clever wordplay and charming images.
For instance, Trenet personifies the Eiffel Tower: “Comme une folle, elle saute la Seine à pieds joints” (“Like a crazy person, she makes a standing jump across the Seine River”).
The “standing jump” part of the metaphor may refer to the Tower’s base, which could be seen as a set of joined-together legs. And, since the Eiffel Tower is quite near the Seine, Trenet imagines that it will jump over to the river’s other bank.
Dynamic Duos: Understanding Synonyms and Word Pairings
Song: “Je ne sais pas où tu commences” (“I Don’t Know Where You Begin”)
With a creative use of possessives, Georges Moustaki’s “Je ne sais pas où tu commences” introduces listeners to paired words and concepts. As we discussed earlier, understanding words in relationship to other words is an essential part of language learning.
Through this song, you will learn that nuits blanches (sleepless nights) go with l’insomnie (insomnia). And that cicatrices (scars) come from being wounded (blessé).
No matter what songs are playing in your French jukebox, you can use the power of music to strengthen your grasp of grammar, explore metaphors and build your mastery of French vocabulary.
Just give these techniques a try, and you’ll be singing the praises of learning French through songs!
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