While the word-for-word meaning of the title invites the assumption that the suite is a programmatic work, describing what is seen and felt in a visit to the tomb of Couperin, tombeau is actually a musical term popular in the 17th century and meaning "a piece written as a memorial". The specific Couperin (among a family noted as musicians for about two centuries) that Ravel intended to be evoked, along with the friends, would presumably be François Couperin "the Great" (1668–1733). However, Ravel stated that his intention was never to imitate or pay tribute to Couperin himself, but rather was to pay homage to the sensibilities of the Baroque French keyboard suite. This is reflected in the structure which imitates a Baroque dance suite. As a preparatory exercise, Ravel had transcribed a forlane (an Italian folk dance) from the fourth suite of Couperin's Concerts royaux, and this piece invokes Ravel's Forlane structurally. The other movements are similarly based on Baroque dances, with the Toccata taking the form of a perpetuum mobile reminiscent of Alessandro Scarlatti. Ravel also revives Baroque practices through his distinctive use of ornamentation and modal harmony. However, neoclassicism also shines through with Ravel's pointedly twentieth-century chromatic melody and piquant harmonies, particularly in the dissonant Forlane.
Despite the devastation Ravel felt both after the death of his mother in 1917 and of his friends in the First World War, Le tombeau de Couperin retains a light-hearted flavour. When criticised for composing a light-hearted, and sometimes reflective work rather than a sombre one, for such a sombre topic, Ravel replied: "The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence."