Occitan music

Occitan music

By Dr. Jean-Jacques Castéret
Centre international de recherche et de ressource occitanes [CIRDOC] – Institut occitan de cultura

The notion of “traditional Occitan music” came into its own in the 1970s and 1980s, spurred on by a young generation of revivalist musicians, and refers to the linguistic area that stretches from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and from the Alps to the Pyrenees in France, the Val d’Aran in Spain and a dozen valleys in Piedmont in Italy. With no present or past political unity, this area serves as a link and a framework of thought for musicians across the different dialectal and cultural areas that make it up, and the variety of instrumentarium and repertoires. Today, this notion can be used to refer to both inherited living practices and the whole range of artistic creations based on this heritage, collected from the 1820s onwards, transcribed into written collections, then during institutional sound collections from the 1910s onwards, followed by sound collections carried out by musicians from the 1960s onwards.


In Occitan-speaking regions, certain instruments have become territorial emblems over the centuries: bagpipes (Boha in Gascony, Chabreta in Limousin, Cabreta in Auvergne, Bodega in Montagne Noire), hurdy-gurdies throughout Occitan, with the exception of the western Pyrenees; instrumental pairs of three-hole flutes and drone drums in Provence and the Gascon-Pyrenean region; fifes alone or paired with drums from Provence to northern Gascony. The violin has also been the king of dance instruments since it first appeared, with cultural areas such as Limousin and Gascony generating clearly marked stylistic characteristics. The violin has also been the king of dance instruments since it first appeared, with cultural areas such as Limousin and Gascony producing clearly marked stylistic characteristics. The diatonic accordion, alone or combined with other instruments, also became widespread from the end of the 19th century.


Dance repertoires have also been emblematised. The bourrée is readily associated with Limousin and Auvergne, extending to the neighbouring French- and Occitan-speaking regions, including Périgord, Haut-Agenais, Haut-Quercy, Gévaudan and Rouergue in the south. In Gascogne ariégeoise, the same term takes on a different choreographic reality. The rondeau is found in central Gascony, while the branle, its cousin, is found in the Pyrenees, particularly in the Ossau valley in Béarn, where it has a long and unbroken tradition. Béarn is also characterised by the tradition of Sauts, which it shares with its neighbour Northern Basque Country. The farandole is the standard dance in Provence, and the courenta in the Occitan valleys of Italy, but all these regions have also adopted other dances in their own style. The contredanses, for example, gave rise to the congos in central Gascony from the 18th century onwards. The same goes for the various ballroom dances that appeared in Europe from the 19th century onwards: mazurka, scottish, polka, waltz…

Ritual musics

The instrumental repertoire can also include ritual music: street music (passe-rue) for conscripts, weddings, votive festivals and carnivals. For example: ripataulèras music for the fat oxen drive in Bazadais (Gascony) and the “rigaudon d’honneur” when the animal is killed; oboe music from Languedoc accompanying nautical jousts in maritime Languedoc; in Provence, tunes for Galoubet and tambourines or fifes and drums accompanying festive rituals, or reed fifes alone for celebrations linked to bullfighting (Abrivadas).

Vocal repertoires

Vocal practice itself takes the form of dance songs, lyrical songs or street songs. The musical supports are always “timbres”, i.e. anonymous, all-purpose melodies common to Western Europe. The texts are in Occitan and French, and some are bilingual, as in the pastourelles. Some are anonymous strophic works, written over time and space, with an impersonal style made up of clichés and standard formulas or enumerations. There are also works by anonymous or non-anonymous songwriters who recount past events in the style of a local newspaper. Finally, particularly in the Gascony Pyrenees, there are works by literati in the gallant style of the eighteenth century. The noëls in French or Occitan illustrated by Pierre Godolin from Toulouse, Henri d’Andichon from Béarn and Nicolas Saboly from Provence also fall into one of these last two categories.

Vocal forms

While solo singing is a general practice, sometimes highly ornamented as in the sources from the Bearn Pyrenees, dances are sung collectively and monodically, while leash dances adopt a responsorial form. Multipart singing is also a strongly rooted social reality in Pyrenean Gascony and in the Alps (Nice region and Italian valleys). It is a human and musical construction, generally in two or three parts, combining parallel behavior and drones. It belongs to a “melodic-linear” and numerus apertus (open number of singers) family that can be found in many parts of Europe, as well as in the ancient practice of the church faburden, documented from the fifteenth century onwards.

Online resources : living inheritage, sound archive, artistic creation

Multipart singing and artistic creation

Artists and groups

Some historics groups

Occitan field bibliography

  • CHARLES-DOMINIQUE Luc et DEFRANCE Yves (éds.), Ethnomusicologie du domaine français, de l’« ancienne civilisation paysanne» à la globalisation, Actes du Colloque international, Université Nice-Sophia-Antipolis, Paris, l’Harmattan, 2008.
  • CASTÉRET Jean-Jacques La polyphonie dans les Pyrénées Gasconnes : Tradition, évolution, résilience, Paris, Ethnomusicologie et anthropologie musicale de l’espace français,L’Harmattan, 2013, 367 p.
  • CASTÉRET Jean-Jacques « Occitan polyphony » ; « Traditional Occitan music »  in HORN David & PRATO Paolo, Bloomsbury encyclopedia of Popular music of the world, Volume XI Genres, John Sheperd – Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd., 2017.
  • GUILCHER Jean-Michel, Danse traditionnelle et anciens milieux ruraux français. Tradition, histoire, société, Paris, Ethnomusicologie et anthropologie musicale de l’espace français,L’Harmattan, 2010.
  • MONTBEL Éric, Les cornemuses à miroirs du Limousin (xviie–xxesiècles). Essai d’anthropologie musicale historique, Paris : L’Harmattan, 2013


  • RICROS André (dir.), La Cabrette, Histoire et technique d’une cornemuse, AMTA, 2017