14 Traditional French Musical Instruments You Should Know

Written by Dan Farrant
Last updated

France is one of the most musically diverse nations in the world. In France, music is played in almost every village, town, and city. The country boasts talented street musicians on every corner. 

The French enjoy their music as much as they enjoy their food, so you’ll rarely see a restaurant without French music in the background. French songs and French food; an astonishing mix that’ll surely appeal to anyone! 

Stick around as we list some of the most popular and/or important French instruments in the country.

1. French Horn

The French Horn is a bell-shaped brass instrument with coiled tubing and a flared bell. It has the widest range of notes out of any brass instrument and is considered to be one of the hardest instruments to play and master. 

Since it can hit a wide variety of notes, it’s quite susceptible to crack or flat notes. Therefore, mastering the French horn is an impressive feat that only dedicated musicians can achieve. 

Although the horn has been around since the 12th century, the French horn made its debut in the late 17th century. 

At the time, French luthiers were the leading manufacturers of hunting horns, and were credited with developing the notable “hoop” of the instrument. For this reason, horns were often called by the French names, “Cor de Chasse” or “Trompe de Chasse.”

2. Harp

The Harp is among the oldest instruments known to mankind, with records dating back from 3000 B.C. 

Although its origin is yet to be determined, the harp underwent drastic changes during the impressionist movement in France in the late 19th century. These changes were so momentous that the harp was dubbed the “French harp” by most of the world. 

The first single-action pedal harp was invented by Jean-Henri Naderman, a famous harp maker, in 1720 in Paris.

It was an instant hit; so much so that Marie Antoinette and Empress Joséphine—the Queen of France and Emperor Napoleon I’s first wife consecutively—learned how to play the instrument. 

Several decades later, Sebastian Erard, a French instrument maker of German origin, created a patent for a double-action harp. Said patent was perfected by the French harp maker company, Camac, in 1996. 

3. French Bagpipes 

The term, “French Bagpipe” is a collective word that covers a wide range of piping instruments. 

Center-France bagpipes, also known as the Musette du Centre or Cornemuse du Centre in France, refers to a variety of instruments. This includes Chevrette, Chabretta, Chabreta, Bodega, and Boha

Compared to Scottish and German bagpipes, the tenor drone of French bagpipes is placed alongside the chanter than in the same bass drone stock. This makes them quite distinguishable amongst all other bagpipe instruments. 

Some other types of French bagpipes include the Musette Bechonnet and the Cabrette

4. Cello

The Cello is a large, bowed string instrument from the violin family. While it originated in northern Italy in 1550, the cello has had a significant impact on French music throughout the Baroque era up until the 20th century. 

Some of the most notable cello composers, including Martin Berteau, François Couperin, and Jean-Baptiste Barrière, hailed from France. 

Their works represented both Italian and authentic French characteristics and are now used as universal teaching materials in today’s century. 

Their cello compositions were so unique that they were performed extensively throughout the world. 

Claude Debussy, a classical French composer, is one of the greatest cello pioneers of the 20th century. 

The “Cello Sonata,” (in the video above) is considered to be the most unrefined and emotionally exposed piece he’s written. Its raw, heart-on-the-sleeve tune makes it among the best cello pieces known to mankind.

5. Vielle à Roue (Hurdy-Gurdy)

The Vielle à Roue, also known as the Vielle or the Hurdy-Gurdy, is a stringed instrument that’s operated by a crank.

It has three to six strings that vibrate whenever the player turns the wheel. The wheel functions much like the bow of the violin, and the single notes produce an almost indistinguishable violin sound. 

The vielle à roue is believed to have originated in either Europe or the Middle East before the 11th century A.D. 

It was largely ignored until the French Rococo brought the vielle à roue to the attention of the upper class. It was an instant hit among the nobility.

Soon, famous composers like Nicolas Chédeville wrote multiple pieces for the vielle à roue.

Although the instrument comes in 23 different forms, the six-stringed French vielle à roue is the most prominent. 

Unfortunately, the instrument isn’t well documented outside of France, so it’s rarely studied and played. Even so, France has developed a number of regional forms to keep the instrument alive.

Today, the vielle à roue is still played by professional traveling musicians.

6. Piano

The piano is one of the most frequently played instruments in France, with over 40% of students choosing to learn the instrument.

This isn’t much of a surprise, however; after all, some of the world’s famous and most influential piano composers are native to France. 

Claude Debussy, one of the greatest French composers of his time, was a virtuoso pianist. Although he was born from a poor family, his jaw-dropping talent at the piano sent him to the Paris Conservatory at the young age of 11, an incredible feat that was almost unheard of. 

Debussy’s instructors and classmates immediately recognized his talent, but frowned upon at his attempts at musical innovation. That didn’t dissuade him, however; Debussy clearly knew his worth.

After decades of work, his compositions had dominated Romantic music in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Other notable French pianists include Alfred Cortot, Erik Satie, Maurice Ravel, and Francis Poulenc.

7. Graïle

The Graïle, also known as the Occitan Graile, is an oboe-like, double-reed instrument that’s a member of the woodwind family. It’s commonly used as a solo instrument in traditional French orchestras and chamber ensembles. 

Native to Languedoc, France, the graïle consists of three wooden parts that are reinforced with metal strips.

The graïle is often played in folk songs, usually with the accompaniment of other local instruments such as the vielle à roue, the cabrette (French bagpipe), the violin, and the accordion. 

It’s also used in Occitan dances, where it’s repeated continuously with little variation. 

8. Orgue de Barbarie (Barrel Organ)

The Orgue de Barbarie, also known as the Barrel Organ in English, is a highly decorated mechanical instrument.

It follows the same basic principle of a traditional pipe organ, but instead of being played like a piano, the orgue de Barbarie is played by turning a crank. 

Compositions are encoded onto the wooden barrels, which are then played by an organ grinder. The organ grinder can either be a person or a trained animal. 

The orgue de Barbarie reached peak popularity in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Although rarely used in the streets of France today, it’s still considered one of the most popular traditional instruments in the country, especially as it preserves the old styles of musical ornamentation.

9. Accordion 

When you walk through the streets of France, you’ll likely hear the sweet melody of the Accordion echoing through the distance. 

The accordion colloquially referred to as a Squeezebox, is quite prominent in French music and pop culture. Although invented in Vienna in the 1820s by Cyril Demian, the accordion is the quintessential French icon.

It’s regularly played in French cafés, Parisian dance halls, and cabarets. 

Thanks to André Verchuren, the accordion became the sound of France by the 1950s. Because of this, he was nationally dubbed as the “King of the Accordion.” Similarly, the title “Queen of the Accordion,” was given to French accordionist Yvette Horner, who sold over 30 million records throughout her lifetime.

The accordion is linked to the “bal musette” tradition in France, which were popular dance venues in the late 19th century. They were typically held along the Seine or Marne rivers around Paris. 

As you may have guessed, these parties used the accordion as their main musical instrument. 

10. Galoubet 

The Galoubet, also known as the three-hole pipe or the Tabor Pipe, is a wind instrument played with one hand, leaving the other to play a bell, a tambourin à cordes, a triangle, or a similar type of percussive instrument. 

It’s quite popular in France, Great Britain, and the Iberian Peninsula, which remains in use to this day.

In France, some schools teach the students how to play the galoubet to keep the instrument alive. 

Maurice Guis, a French pianist and galoubet/tambourin player, frequently performed the instrument in Le Concert Champêtre and Les Musiciens De Provence concerts.

He’d also perform the galoubet/tambourin in weddings and dance performances.

11. Banjo

Believe it or not, the Banjo is quite popular in France. In fact, the phrase “joueur du banjo,” which translates directly to “play the banjo,” was popularized in the country. 

The banjo is a stringed instrument of the guitar family. It’s designed with a round open-backed soundbox and a thin membrane stretched over its frame.

The membrane is usually made of parchment, plastic, or, in higher-quality banjos, animal skin. 

In France, the banjo is often associated with folk and country music. However, it’s also used in various music genres like rock, hip-hop, and pop music. 

In Paris, nearly 100 musicians from across the world participate in a night-long get-together of Appalachian, old-time, and bluegrass music. These monthly gatherings are called the Sawmill Sessions

Some of the most frequently played instruments in these sessions include mandolins, guitars, and, of course, banjos. 

12. Fiddle 

The Fiddle, more commonly known as the Violin, is another instrument played with great enthusiasm in France. It’s often used for musical styles that lean towards folk music, like bluegrass, country, and cajun. 

Central France, although sparsely populated, is home to some of the richest fiddle traditions across the globe. In fact, some of the world’s most notable fiddle players in the late 19th and early 20th century originated from the area. 

Although the fiddle and the violin are used synonymously, the style of music played by the instrument determines the differences between the two. 

Moreover, fiddlers use steel strings to produce a somewhat brighter tone, compared to the deeper tones produced by the violin’s synthetic core strings. 

13. Guitar 

Whenever you listen to French music, you’ll likely hear the strumming of the Guitar

The first six-stringed guitar appeared in France at the end of the 18th century, where it became an immediate hit with musicians who resided in Paris. It quickly became a “fashion” instrument and conquered the majority of the French audience by the 19th century. 

French poets and artists played the guitar to further express their art. Even Napoleon the 1st, French Emperor and strategist, encouraged French artisans to learn the guitar. 

Needless to say, it’s among the most appreciated musical instruments in French history and became even more popular with the birth of gypsy jazz music with guitarists like Django Reinhardt making it very popular in France.

14. Harmonica 

The Harmonica, also known as the French Harp – not to be confused with the French harp listed above – is a wind instrument used in French classical music, jazz, and rock. 

The instrument was developed in Europe in the early part of the 19th century, but only became popular when it was introduced by Jesuit Jean Joseph Marie Amiot, a French Jesuit missionary in Qing China. 

The harmonica produces its sounds through the reeds’ vibrations in the instrument’s metal casing.

The chromatic harmonica utilizes a button-activated sliding bar to create a machino-tone. 

Both versions are played by blowing or sucking air into one side of the instrument. 

Jean-Jacques Milteau is one of the most notable French blues harmonica players in the country.

Although he isn’t quite as well-known abroad as he is in France, his playing has been praised by countless artists.

Summing Up Our List of Instruments From France 

Famous for its sweet-scented lavender fields, jaw-dropping architecture, and excellent cuisine, France is a country like no other.

But alongside its staggering history, France wouldn’t be complete without its music. 

The musical instruments above are recognized by both young and old French citizens, even if some are rarely used.

Traditional French music is as unique as the country’s regions, making them a real pleasure to hear while indulging in a glass of well-rounded red wine.

Photo of author

Dan Farrant, the founder of Hello Music Theory, has been teaching music for over 15 years, helping hundreds of thousands of students unlock the joy of music. He graduated from The Royal Academy of Music in 2012 and then launched Hello Music Theory in 2014. He plays the guitar, piano, bass guitar and double bass and loves teaching music theory.