Horn (instrument)
French horn front.png
Brass instrument
Other names French horn de: Horn, Waldhorn
es: Trompa
fr: Cor d'Harmonie
it: Corno
Classification Aerophone
Hornbostel–Sachs classification 423.232
(Valved aerophone sounded by lip movement)
Playing range
Range frenchhorn.png
in F: sounds one fifth lower than written. However, in older music notes in the bass clef are written one octave lower (thus sounding one fourth higher than written).[1]
Related instruments
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Musical instruments
Brass instruments
String instruments

The horn is a brass instrument consisting of about 12–13 feet (3.7–4.0 m) of tubing wrapped into a coil with a flared bell. A musician who plays the horn is called a horn player (or less frequently, a hornist).

Descended from the natural horn, the instrument is often informally known as the French horn. However, this is technically incorrect since the instrument is not French in origin, but German. Therefore, the International Horn Society has recommended since 1971 that the instrument be simply called the horn.[2] French horn is still the most commonly used name for the instrument in the United States.

Horns have valves, operated with the left hand, to route the air into extra tubing to change the pitch. Most horns have lever-operated rotary valves, but some horns like the Vienna horn use piston valves (similar to trumpet valves). A horn without valves is known as a natural horn, changing pitch along the natural harmonics of the instrument (similar to a bugle), but with a wide range of notes due to the long tubing.

Three valves control the flow of air in the single horn, which is tuned to F or less commonly, B. The more common double horn has a fourth valve, usually operated by the thumb, which routes the air to one set of tubing tuned to F or the second set of tubing tuned to B. Triple horns with five valves are also made, tuned in F, B, and a descant E or F.


General characteristics

The horn is the second highest sounding instrument group in the brass family. Horns are mostly tuned in B or F, or a combination of those. In some traditions, novice players use a single horn in F, while others prefer the B horn. The F horn is used more commonly than the B horn, especially in school bands. Compared to the other brass instruments in the orchestra, it has a very different mouthpiece, but has the widest usable range - approximately five octaves, depending on the ability of the player. To produce different notes on the horn, one must do many things - the four most important are pressing the valves, holding the appropriate amount of lip tension, blowing air into the instrument, and placing the hand in the bell. More lip tension and faster air produces higher notes. Less lip tension and slower air produces lower notes. The right hand, usually cupped at a "three o-clock" position in the bell, can lower the pitch, depending on how far into the bell the player puts it, by as much as a semitone in the instrument's midrange. The horn plays in a higher portion of its overtone series compared to most brass instruments. Its conical bore (as opposed to the cylindrical bore of the trumpet or trombone) is largely responsible for its characteristic tone, often described as "mellow".

Today, music for the horn is typically written in F and sounds a perfect fifth lower than written. The limitations on the range of the instrument are primarily governed by the available valve combinations for the first four octaves of the overtone series and after that by the ability of the player to control the pitch through their air supply and embouchure. The typical written ranges for the horn start at either the F immediately below the bass clef or the C an octave below middle A.

The standard range starting from a low F is based on the characteristics of the single horn in F. However, there is a great deal of music written beyond this range on the assumption that players are using a double horn in F/B. This is the standard orchestral instrument and its valve combinations allow for the production of every chromatic tone from two octaves on either side of the horn's written middle-C (sounding F two octaves below the bass clef to F at the top of the treble clef). Although the upper range of the horn repertoire rarely exceeds high C (two octaves above the horn's middle C, sounding F at the top of the treble clef), skilled players can achieve yet higher pitches.

Also important to note is that many pieces from the Baroque to Romantic periods are written in keys other than F. This practice began in the early days of the horn before valves, when the composer would indicate the key the horn should be in (horn in D, horn in C, etc.) and the part would be notated as if it were in C. For a player with a valveless horn that is a help, showing where in the harmonic series a particular note is. A player with a modern instrument must provide the final transposition to the correct pitch. For example, a written C for horn in D must be transposed down a minor third and played as an A on F horn.


Horn with three Perinet valves
"How to shout and blow horns."—Facsimile of a miniature in a manuscript of the hunting manual of Gaston Phoebus (15th century)

Early horns were less complex than modern horns, consisting of brass tubes with a slightly flared opening (the bell) wound around a few times. These early "hunting" horns were originally played on a hunt, often while mounted, and the sound they produced was called a recheat. Change of pitch was effected entirely by the lips (the horn not being equipped with valves until the 19th century). Without valves, only the notes within the harmonic series are available. The horn was used, among other reasons, to call hounds on a hunt and created a sound most like a human voice, but carried much farther.

In orchestral settings, the horn (or, more often, pairs of horns) often invoked the idea of the hunt, or, beginning in the later baroque, determined the character of the key being played or represented nobility, royalty, or divinity.

Early horns were commonly pitched in B alto, A, A, G, F, E, E, D, C, and B basso. Since the only notes available were those on the harmonic series of one of those pitches, they had no ability to play in different keys. The remedy for this limitation was the use of crooks, i.e. sections of tubing of differing length that, when inserted, altered the length of the instrument, and thus its pitch.

Orchestral horns are traditionally grouped into "high" horn and "low" horn pairs. Players specialize to negotiate the unusually wide range required of the instrument. Formerly, in certain situations, composers called for two pairs of horns in two different keys. For example, a composer might call for two horns in C and two in E for a piece in c minor, in order to gain harmonics of the relative major unavailable on the C horns. Eventually, two pairs of horns became the standard, and from this tradition of two independent pairs, each with its own "high" and "low" horn, came the modern convention of writing the 1st and 3rd parts above 2nd and 4th.

In the mid-18th century, horn players began to insert the right hand into the bell to change the length of the instrument, adjusting the tuning up to the distance between two adjacent harmonics depending on how much of the opening was covered. This technique, known as hand-stopping, is generally credited to Anton Joseph Hampel around 1750, and was refined and carried to much of Europe by the influential Giovanni Punto. This offered more possibilities for playing notes not on the harmonic series. By the early classical period, the horn had become an instrument capable of much melodic playing. A notable example of this are the four Mozart Horn Concerti and Concert Rondo (K. 412, 417, 477, 495, 371), wherein melodic chromatic tones are used, owing to the growing prevalence of hand-stopping and other newly emerging techniques.

Around 1815 the use of pistons (later rotary valves) was introduced, initially to overcome problems associated with changing crooks during a performance. Valves' unreliability, musical taste, and players' distrust, among other reasons, slowed their adoption into mainstream. Many traditional conservatories and players refused to use them at first, claiming that the valveless horn, or "natural horn", was a better instrument. Some musicians, specializing in period instruments, still use a natural horn when playing in original performance styles, seeking to recapture the sound and tenor in which an older piece was written.

However, the use of valves opened up a great deal more flexibility in playing in different keys; in effect, the horn became an entirely different instrument, fully chromatic for the first time. Although, valves were originally used primarily as a means to play in different keys without crooks, not for harmonic playing. That is reflected in compositions for horns, which only began to include chromatic passages in the late 19th century. When valves were invented, generally, the French made smaller horns with piston valves and the Germans made larger horns with rotary valves. For more information on instrument valves see Brass Instrument Valves. It is the German horn that is erroneously referred to in the English language (and more commonly in the United States and Canada) as the French horn. There is not a clear consensus on the reason or reasons for this nomenclature, and, as there are conflicting proposals, more research is still necessary.

Types of Horns

Single horn

Single horns use a single set of tubes connected to the valves. This allows for simplicity of use and a much lighter weight. They are usually in the keys of F or B, although many F horns have longer slides to tune them to E, and almost all B horns have a valve to put them in the key of A. The problem with single horns is the inevitable choice between accuracy or tone - while the F horn has the "typical" horn sound, above third-space C accuracy is concern for the majority of players because, by its nature, one plays high in the horn's harmonic series where the overtones are closer together. This led to the development of the B horn, which, although easier to play accurately, has a less desirable sound in the mid and especially the low register where it is not able to play all of the notes. The solution has been the development of the double horn, which combines the two into one horn with a single lead pipe and bell. Both main types of single horns are still used today as student models because they are cheaper and lighter than double horns. In addition, the single B horns are sometimes used in solo and chamber performances and the single F survives orchestrally as the Vienna horn. Additionally, single F alto and B alto descants are used in the performance of some baroque horn concertos and F, B and F alto singles are occasionally used by jazz performers.

Dennis Brain's benchmark recordings of the Mozart Horn Concerti were made on a single B instrument by Gebr. Alexander, now on display at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

Double horn

The valves of a Conn 6D double horn. The 3 lever keys (above the large valves) can be depressed toward the large outer tube. The thumb key (near the left-most valve) moves inward toward the 3 finger keys.
Scheme of a double horn (view from underneath)

Despite the introduction of valves, the single F horn proved difficult for use in the highest range, where the partials grew closer and closer, making accuracy a great challenge. An early solution was simply to use a horn of higher pitch—usually B. The use of the F versus the B horn was a hotbed of debate between horn players of the late 19th century, until the German horn maker Ed. Kruspe produced a prototype of the "double horn" in 1897.

The double horn also combines two instruments into a single frame: the original horn in F, and a second, higher horn keyed in B. By using a fourth valve (usually operated by the thumb), the horn player can quickly switch from the deep, warm tones of the F horn to the higher, brighter tones of the B horn. The two sets of tones are commonly called "sides" of the horn. Using the fourth valve not only changes the basic length (and thus the harmonic series and pitch) of the instrument, it also causes the three main valves to use proportionate slide lengths.[3]

In the USA, the two most common styles ("wraps") of double horns are named Kruspe and Knopf, after the first instrument makers who developed and standardized them. The Kruspe wrap locates the B change valve above the first valve, near the thumb. The Knopf wrap has the change valve behind the third valve, near the little finger (although the valve's trigger is still played with the thumb). In effect, the air flows in a completely different direction on the other model. Kruspe wrap horns tend to be larger in the bell throat than the Knopf type. Typically, Kruspe models are constructed from nickel silver or German Silver, while Knopf type horns tend to be of yellow brass. Both models have their own strengths and weaknesses, and while the choice of instrument is very personal, an orchestral horn section is usually found to have either one or the other, owing to the differences in tone color, response, and projection of the two different styles.

In Europe the most popular horns are arguably those made by Gebr. Alexander, of Mainz (particularly the Alexander 103), and those made by Paxman in London. In Germany and the Benelux countries, the Alex. 103 is extremely popular. These horns do not fit strictly into the Kruspe or Knopf camps, but have features of both. Alexander prefers the traditional medium bell size, which they have produced for many years, whereas Paxman do offer their models in a range of bell throat sizes. In the United States, the Conn 8D, a mass produced instrument based on the Kruspe design, has been extremely popular in many areas (New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Philadelphia). Since roughly the early 1990s, however, for reasons ranging from changing tastes to a general dislike of Conn's newer 8Ds, orchestras have been moving away from the popular Conn 8D. Knopf model horns (by Geyer, Karl Hill, Keith Berg, Steve Lewis, Dan Rauch, and Ricco-Kuhn) are used in other areas (San Francisco, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Boston, Houston). The CF Schmidt double, with its unique piston change valve, is occasionally found in sections playing Geyer/Knopf model equipment.

Compensating double horn

The first design of double horn did not have a separate set of slides pitched in F. Rather, the main key of the horn was B (the preference of German horn players) and it could be played in F by directing air through the B slides, an F extension, and another set of tiny slides. This "compensated" for the longer length of the F slides, producing a horn now called the "compensating double". It was, and still is, widely used by European horn players because of its light weight and ease of playing, especially in the high register.

Triple horn

This relatively new design was created to afford the player even more security in the high register. It employs not only the F and B horns, but also a third, descant horn. This descant horn is usually pitched an octave above the F horn, though it can be alternatively pitched in E. It is activated through the use of a second thumb valve. The triple horn was met with considerable resistance when it first appeared. Horn players were reluctant to spend far more money for a triple horn than they would for a double horn, and a feeling that using a triple horn to help with the high register was "cheating" was rampant amongst prominent horn players. Also, the horns were much heavier than the average double horn. Players noted that their arms became fatigued much faster. Moreover, the combination of three different horns creates issues with sonority, because the piping shared among all three sides (that is, the lead pipe and bell) are mathematically disproportional to two or all three horn lengths. Horn makers have had to make concessions to "even out" the sound between all three, often to the loss of sound quality of each side or entire ranges of the instrument. However, advances in horn production are gradually eliminating these drawbacks, and the triple horn is gaining popularity. They are rarely available in anything lower than professional quality. Like double horns, triple horns can come in both full and compensating wraps. Today, they are found being played in many professional orchestras.

Other modifications

The horn, although not large, is awkward in its shape and does not lend itself well to transport, especially transport on commercial airlines. To compensate, horn makers can make the bell detachable. This allows for smaller and more manageable horn cases. The player can attach the bell when performing. This also allows for different bells to be used on the same horn, somewhat alleviating the need for multiple horns for different styles.

Related horns

Natural horn

A natural horn has no valves, but can be tuned to a different key by inserting different tubing, as during a rest period.

The natural horn is the ancestor of the modern horn. It is essentially descended from hunting horns, with its pitch controlled by air speed, aperture (opening of the lips through which air passes) and the use of the right hand moving in and out of the bell. Today it is played as a period instrument. The natural horn can only play from a single harmonic series at a time because there is only one length of tubing available to the horn player. It is however possible to alter the pitch by using a technique that involves partially muting the bell with the right hand, thus enabling the player to reach some notes that are not part of the instrument's natural harmonic series - of course this technique also affects the quality of the tone. The player has a choice of key through changing the length of tubing with crooks.

Vienna horn

Vienna horn

The Vienna horn is a special horn used primarily in Vienna, Austria. Instead of using rotary valves or piston valves, it uses the Pumpenvalve (or Vienna Valve), which is a double-piston operating inside the valve slides, and usually situated on the opposite side of the corpus from the player's left hand, and operated by a long pushrod. Unlike the modern horn, which has grown considerably larger internally (for a bigger, broader, and louder tone), and considerably heavier (with the addition of valves and tubing in the case of the double horn) the Vienna horn very closely mimics the size and weight of the natural horn, (although the valves do add some weight, they are lighter than rotary valves) even using crooks in the front of the horn, between the mouthpiece and the instrument. Although instead of the full range of keys, Vienna horn players usually use an F crook and it is looked down upon to use others, though switching to an A or B crook for higher pitched music does happen on occasion. Vienna horns are often used with funnel shaped mouthpieces similar to those used on the natural horn, with very little (if any) backbore and a very thin rim. The Viennese horn requires very specialized technique and can be quite challenging to play, even for accomplished players of modern horns. The Vienna horn has a warmer, softer sound than the modern horn. Its pumpen-valves facilitate a continuous transition between notes (glissando); conversely, a more precise operating of the valves is required to avoid notes that sound out of tune.


There are two instruments with the moniker "mellophone". The first is an instrument shaped somewhat like a horn in that it is wrapped in a circle. It has piston valves and is played with the right hand on the valves. Manufacturing sharply decreased in the middle of the twentieth century, and this mellophone (or mellophonium) is rarely seen today. Amati still makes circular mellophoniums.[4][5][6] The second instrument is used in modern brass bands and marching bands, and is more accurately called a "marching mellophone" or mellophone. A derivative of the F alto horn, it is keyed in F. It is shaped like a flugelhorn, with piston valves played with the right hand and a forward-pointing bell. These horns are generally considered better marching instruments than regular horns because their position is more stable on the mouth, they project better, and they weigh less. It is primarily used as the middle voice of drum and bugle corps. Though they are usually played with a V-cup cornet-like mouthpiece, their range overlaps the common playing range of the horn. This mouthpiece switch makes the mellophone louder, less mellow, and more brassy and brilliant, making it more appropriate for marching bands. Often now with the use of converters, traditional conical horn mouthpieces are used to achieve the more mellow sound of a horn to make the marching band sound more like a symphonic band.

As they are pitched in F or G and their range overlaps that of the horn, mellophones can be used in place of the horn in brass and marching band settings. However, mellophones are sometimes unpopular with horn players because the mouthpiece change can be difficult and requires a different embouchure. Mouthpiece adapters are available so that a horn mouthpiece can fit into the mellophone lead pipe, but this does not compensate for the many differences that a horn player must adapt to. The bore is generally cylindrical as opposed to the more conical horn; thus, the "feel" of the mellophone can be foreign to a horn player. Another unfamiliar aspect of the mellophone is that it is played with the right hand instead of the left. Intonation can also be an issue when playing the mellophone.

In orchestral concerts, regular concert horns are normally preferred to mellophones because of their tone, which blends better with woodwinds and strings, and their greater intonational subtlety—since the player can adjust the tuning by hand. For these reasons, mellophones are played more usually in marching bands and brass band ensembles, occasionally in jazz bands, and almost never in orchestral settings.

While horn players may be asked to play the mellophone, it is unlikely that the instrument was ever intended to be used as a substitute for the horn, mainly because of the fundamental differences described.[7] As an instrument it compromises between the ability to sound like a horn, while being used like a trumpet or flugelhorn; a tradeoff that sacrifices acoustic properties for ergonomics.

Marching horn

The marching horn is quite similar to the mellophone in shape and appearance, but is pitched in the key of B (the same as the B side of a regular double horn). It is also available in F alto (one octave above the F side of a regular double horn). The marching horn is also normally played with a horn mouthpiece (unlike the mellophone, which needs an adapter to fit the horn mouthpiece). These instruments are primarily used in marching bands. However, many college marching bands and drum corps use mellophones instead, which better balance the tone of the other brass instruments.

Wagner tuba

The Wagner tuba is a rare brass instrument that is essentially a horn modified to have a larger bell throat and a vertical bell. Despite its name, it is generally not considered part of the tuba family. Invented for Richard Wagner specifically for his work Der Ring des Nibelungen, it has since been written for by various other composers, including Bruckner, Stravinsky and Richard Strauss. It uses a horn mouthpiece and is available as a single tuba in B or F, or, more recently, as a double tuba similar to the double horn. Its common range is similar to that of the euphonium, but its possible range is the same as that of the horn, extending from low F, below the bass clef staff to high C above the treble staff when read in F. These low pedals are substantially easier to play on the Wagner tuba than on the horn.



The horn is most often used as an orchestral instrument, with its singular tone being employed by composers to achieve specific effects. Leopold Mozart, for example, used horns to signify the hunt, as in his Jagdsinfonie (hunting symphony). Once the technique of hand-stopping had been developed, allowing fully chromatic playing, composers began to write seriously for the horn. Telemann wrote much for the horn, and it features prominently in the work of Handel and in Bach's Brandenburg Concerto no. 1. Gustav Mahler made great use of the horn's uniquely haunting and distant sound in his symphonies, notably the famous Nachtmusik (serenade) section of his Symphony No. 7.

Many composers have written works that have become favorites in the horn repertoire. These includes Poulenc (Elegie) and Saint-Saëns (Morceau de Concert for horn and orchestra, op. 94 and Romance, op. 36). Others, particularly Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, whose friend Joseph Leutgeb was a noted horn player, wrote extensively for the instrument, including concerti and other solo works. Mozart's A Musical Joke satirizes the limitations of contemporary horn playing, including the risk of selecting the wrong crook by mistake. By the end of the 18th Century the horn was sufficiently established as a solo instrument that the horn player Giovanni Punto became an international celebrity, touring Europe and inspiring works by composers as significant as Beethoven.

The development of the valve horn was exploited by romantic composers such as Richard Strauss, Bruckner and Mahler. Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks contains one of the best known horn solos from this period, relying on the chromatic facility of the valved horn. Schumann's Konzertstuck for Four Horns and Orchestra is a notable three-movement work.

Horn music in Britain had a renaissance in the mid-20th century when Dennis Brain inspired works such as Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and other works from contemporary composers such as Michael Tippett, who stretches horn ensemble playing to its technical limits in his Sonata for Four Horns. Peter Maxwell Davies was commissioned by 50 amateur and professional UK horn players to write a horn piece to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Brain's death.

Much of the horn repertoire is scored as featured parts for the orchestral players, especially the principal horn. It is common for leading horn players to move from principal positions in the great orchestras to distinguished solo careers, a path followed by Brain and many since.

Due to the heroic quality of the horn's sound, it is often used in film music. However, Bernard Herrmann's score for On Dangerous Ground uses four horns (and anvils!) during a chase sequence to suggest a wild state of mind.

Chamber music

There is an abundance of chamber music repertoire for horn. It is a standard member of the wind quintet and brass quintet, and often appears in other configurations, such as Brahms' "Horn Trio" for violin, horn and piano. Also, the horn can be used by itself in a horn ensemble or "horn choir." The horn choir is especially practical because the extended range of the horn provides the composer or arranger with more possibilities, registerally, sonically, contrapuntally, etc.

Orchestral horns

A Horn section in an Orchestra

A classical orchestra usually contained two horns. Typically, the 1st horn played a high part and the 2nd horn played a low part. Composers from Beethoven onwards commonly used four horns. Here, the 1st and 2nd horns played as a pair (1st horn being high, 2nd horn being low), and the 3rd and 4th horns played as another pair (3rd horn being high, 4th horn being low). Music written for the modern horn follows a similar pattern with 1st and 3rd horns being high and 2nd and 4th horns being low.

This configuration serves multiple purposes. It is easier to play high when the player to your right is playing low, and it is easier to play low if a high player is to your left. Pairing makes it easier to write for horns, as the 3rd and 4th horns can take over from the 1st & 2nd horns, or play contrasting material. When music was first written, it was for the natural horn, which meant that the horns could only easily play certain notes. Because of this, the 1st and 2nd horns had to be in a different key from the 3rd and 4th horns so that more of the notes can be played. For example, if the piece is in C minor, the 1st and 2nd horns might be in C, the tonic major key, which could get most of the notes, and the 3rd and 4th horns might be in E, the relative major key, to fill in the gaps.

Most horn sections today also have an assistant[citation needed] who doubles the 1st horn part for selected passages, joining in loud parts, playing instead of the principal if there is a 1st horn solo approaching, or alternating with the principal if the part is tiring to play. Playing assistant is often underappreciated, but it is harder than it seems, and takes experience to do it well. Often the assistant is asked to play a passage after resting a long time. Also, he or she may be asked to enter in the middle of a passage, exactly matching the sound, articulation, and overall interpretation of the principal. The assistant is occasionally referred to as a "bumper".

Some pieces (like Rachmaninov's Isle of the Dead, Britten's Sinfonia da Requiem, Holst's The Planets and Richard Strauss' Don Quixote) have called for 6 horns, or as many as 20 horns, as found in Eine Alpinesinfonie, by Richard Strauss . Here the pairing remains the same, with the odd horns being high parts and the even horns being low parts.

In jazz

The horn has been rarely used in jazz music. Notable exponents, however, include composer/arranger Gil Evans who included the horn as an ensemble instrument from the 1940s, first in Claude Thornhill's groups, and later with the pioneering cool jazz nonet led by trumpeter Miles Davis, and in many other projects that sometimes also featured Davis. Notable improvising horn players in jazz include Julius Watkins, Willie Ruff, John Graas, David Amram, John Clark, Vincent Chancey, Mark Taylor, Giovanni Hoffer, Arkady Shilkloper, Adam Unsworth, and Tom Varner.

Notable horn players

People who are more notable for their other achievements, but also play the horn, include actors Ewan McGregor and David Ogden Stiers, comedian and television host Jon Stewart, The Who bassist and singer John Entwistle, and rapper and record producer B.o.B.


See also


  1. ^ Walter Piston, "Orchestration." W. W. Norton & Company, 1955. ISBN 0-393-09740-4
  2. ^ Meek, Harold (February 1971). "The Horn!". The Horn Call (International Horn Society) 1 (1): pp. 19–20. http://www.hornsociety.org/en/component/content/article/138--the-horn-call-index-part-1?start=1. Retrieved 2011-03-03. "Meek strongly advocates using the term 'horn' rather than 'French horn.'" [dead link]
  3. ^ Backus, John, The Acoustical Foundations of Music, 2nd ed., 1977, ISBN 0-393-09096-5
  4. ^ http://www.amati.cz/produkty/amati-mellophones/
  5. ^ http://www.interstatemusic.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/product_193582
  6. ^ http://www.interstatemusic.com/webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/product_193584
  7. ^ Monks, Greg (2006-01-06). "The History of the Mellophone". Al's Mellophone Page. http://www.alsmiddlebrasspages.com/mellophone/history.html. Retrieved 2008-07-29. 

External links

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