Why you don’t need to know French to enjoy French music

Why do French songs add some sort of extra dimension, a sort of sensuality and exoticness which instantly comes across as you listen?

You’re immediately transported to the banks of the Seine the minute you hear an accordion, but when you hear a tune you know with words you don’t, it creates an immediate tension in the listener which is both intriguing and yet comfortable at the same time.

French music in English language movies is used to create mood and instantly delivers it without us noticing that we have been moved to feel something. ‘Les Yeux Overts’ from the movie French Kiss, for instance, is immediately recognizable as Dream a Little Dream. But the lush orchestration enhanced by a tinkling piano and a lead singer with just a hint of suggestion in her voice immediately gives you a sense of loss and hope at the same time.


I believe these songs work so well because we might not know exactly what they mean. We have to take the feelings they evoke and then work out for ourselves how to interpret them. Somehow, we immediately get it, even if we don’t understand the nuances.

Edith Piaf’s siren song ‘Non, Je ne regrette rien’ is possibly overused, but nevertheless, it is a call to arms for all strong women. It creates a sense of unity and of solidarity, even in Madagascar 3!

‘Parlez-moi d’Amour’ creates iconic moments between Rick and Ilsa during lovelorn Casablanca. It is hard to imagine the film ending any other way than it does, no spoilers here, you have to see it if you haven’t already. But though you know she’s singing about love, you get immediately that someone’s heading for a heartbreak.

‘Sous le Ciel de Paris’ in its original version even had the accordion accompaniment just in case you didn’t get the point that what’s happening is right there in Paris. And it is important, at least to the two concerned.

Perhaps you don’t immediately recognize ‘Les moulins de mon cœur’ but if you have seen either of the Thomas Crown Affair movies you have heard it – just in its English incarnation. Noel Harrison sung it in the original and Sting covered it in the remake. It is the ‘Windmills of Your Mind’ by Michel Legrand.

What is remarkable is that we all recognize the top-level feeling evoked by the music. Take the movie Something’s Gotta Give. French music is used throughout to convey loss, hope, romance and heartbreak throughout the film and just in case you didn’t get the message, the film moves to Paris for the final denouement.

On a final note, occasionally we like to make the sentiment obvious. Think Frank Sinatra for a moment. There’s a good chance that My Way popped into your head. You guessed it, it started life in French. ‘Comme d’habitude’ is the name of the song and no, it doesn’t quite have the same cachet.