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French Phrases: Music and musical instruments in French

This page gives the French name for various common instruments, arranged according to their orchestral family. At the bottom of the page, we also consider how to use the verb jouer with these instruments.

French names of musical instruments

Keyboard instruments

In French, these are instruments à clavier:

l'orguelɔʁgthe organ (usually masculine)
le pianolə pjanothe piano
le piano électriquelə pjano ɛlɛktʁikthe electric piano
le synthélə sæ̃tethe synth
l'accordéonlakɔʁdeõthe accordeon
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Stringed instruments

The French for stringed instruments is usually instruments à cordes. In an orchestra, you may also refer to the famille des cordes or famille du violon (string family):

le violonlə vjɔlõthe violin
l'altolaltothe viola
le violoncellelə vjɔlõsɛlthe cello
la contrebassela kõtʁəbasthe double bass
la harpela aʁpthe harp
la guitare (acoustique)la gitaʁthe (acoustic) guitar
la guitare électriquela gitaʁ ɛlɛktʁikthe electric guitar
la guitare bassela gitaʁ basthe bass guitar
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Note that speakers generally say la harpe (not l'harpe), and, for example, je joue de la harpe.

Wind instruments

Wind instruments (les instruments à vent) are sometimes split into woodwind (les instruments de bois, la famille des bois) and brass (les cuivres, la famille des cuivres). Here are the French names of common woodwind and brass instruments:

la clarinettela klaʁinɛtthe clarinet
la clarinette bassela klaʁinɛt basthe bass clarinette
la flûtela flytthe flute
le piccololə pikolothe piccolo
le hautboislə obwathe oboe
le bassonlə basõthe bassoon
le cors anglaislə cɔʁ ɑ̃glethe cors anglais, "English horn"
le trombonelə tʁõbɔnthe trombone
la trompettela tʁõpɛtthe trumpet
le tubalə tybathe tuba
le cors (d'harmonie)lə kɔʁ daʁmonithe (French) horn
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Note that speakers generally say le hautbois, and thus (jouer) du hautbois (not: (de) l'hautbois).

Percussion instruments

In French, these are instruments de percussion:

la batteriela batʁithe drums, the drumkit
la caisse clairela kɛs klɛʁthe snare drum
les tomsle tɔmthe tom-toms
les tam-tamsle tamtamthe tom-toms
le tom alto/basse-the high/low tom-tom
la caisse (de batterie)la kɛs (də batʁi)the drum
la grosse caissela gʁos kɛsthe bass drum
la caisse clairela kɛs klɛʁthe snare drum
les cymbalesle sæ̃balthe cymabls
la cymable suspenduela sæ̃bal syspɑ̃dythe ride cymbal
la cymable ridela sæ̃bal ʁajdthe ride cymabl
le charlestonlə ʃaʁləstɔnthe hi-hat
la cymable supérieure/inférieure-the upper/lower hi-hat
la pédalela pedalthe pedal
les baguettesle bagɛtthe drumsticks
le balilə balethe brush
le gonglə gõgthe gong
les castagnettesle kastanjɛtthe castanets
les grelotsle gʁəlothe sleighbells
le trianglelə tʁiɑ̃glthe triangle
le carillonlə kaʁijõthe tubular bells
le xylophonelə gzilɔfɔnthe xylophone
le glockenspiellə glɔkœnʃpilthe glock, glockenspiel
le marimbalə maʁimbathe marimba
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Grammar: jouer sur, jouer à or jouer de?

In French, the verb jouer is used to mean to play when referring to instruments1. However, the preposition to use depends on the circumstance:

  • if you're talking about the general activity of playing an instrument, particularly when it would sound odd in English to say play on, then use de:
    je joue du violon
    I play the violin
    il joue souvent de la trompette
    he often plays the trumpet
    tu sais jouer du hautbois?
    do you know how to play the oboe?
  • if you're talking about a specific instrument that you played on a particular occasion, French speakers tend to use sur: these are the cases where it's often possibly to say play on in English; if used with the definite article or a possessive determiner (son, ma, mon etc), it's often possible to use jouer à:
    j'ai joué sur la trompette de David
    I played (on) David's trumpet
    je ne peux pas jouer sur un piano désacordé
    I can't play (on) a piano that's out of tune
    sur or à must also be used (and most often, à appears to be used) if there's a direct object: i.e. you're referring to playing a particular piece, part etc (note that in these cases on is also necessary in English):
    il l'a joué au piano
    he played it on the piano
    un air joué au violon
    a tune played on the violin
  • if the verb jouer isn't actually mentioned, then the preposition à is usually used— note that in English, it's possible to omit the article in many such cases:
    "Au piano, David Kretz; à la trompette, George Steele"
    "On (the) piano, David Kretz; on (the) trumpet, George Steele"

1. In historical texts, you will sometimes see the verb toucher used, e.g. toucher le piano (cf Spanish tocar). However, this usage is now obsolete.

Page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright (c) Javamex UK 2014. All rights reserved.