Some of the earliest manuscripts with polyphony are from 10th century French cities like Chartres and Tours. A group of musicians from the Abbey of St. Martial in Limoges are especially important, as are 12th century Parisian composers like Leonin and Perotin, from whence came the earliest motets. Secular music in medieval France was dominated by troubadours, jongleurs and trouveres, who were poets and musicians known for creating forms like the ballade and lai. The most famous was Adam de la Halle.
In the 14th century, Philippe de Vitry invented an improved system of musical notation and is sometimes said to have invented the isorhythmic motet. The motet was perfected by Guillaume de Machaut.
With the advent of the Renaissance, the musical capital of the French moved from Paris to Burgundy. Guillaume Dufay and Gilles Binchois were especially influential, and popular forms were highly evolved motets and the cyclic mass. French musical domination of Europe ended during the Renaissance, and Flemish and Italian musicians became more important. French composers include Pierre Certon and Jean Mouton. The French chanson became popular during this time, and was imported to Italy as the canzona.
With the arrival of Calvinism, music was greatly simplified. The only form allowed was singing French translations of the Psalms. Starting the with the 17th century, Italian and German opera was the most influential form of music, though French opera composers like Balthasar de Beaujoyeaux, Jean Philippe Rameau and Jean Baptiste Lully made in distinctive national style characterised by ballet, spoken dialogue and a lack of Italian recitative arias.
The Baroque period saw a flourishing of harpsichord music. Influential composers included Jacques Champion de Chambonnières and François Couperin. A composer named Rameau wrote on musical theory, especially in the subject of harmony and he also introduced the clarinet into his orchestras.
During the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic wars, the Paris Conservatory was established and foreigners like Frederic Chopin flocked to France. The only major French composer of the time was Hector Berlioz.
In the late 1800s, pioneers like Georges Bizet, Jules Massenet, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy revitalised French music. The subsequent 20th century saw neo-classical music flourish in France, especially composers like Albert Roussel, Erik Satie and Les Six, a group of musicians who gathered around Satie. Later in the century, Olivier Messiaen and Pierre Boulez proved influential and incorporated non-native influences.