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Horn (instrument)

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Horn (French horn)
French horn front.png
Other names de: Horn, es: Trompa, fr: Cor, it: Corno
Playing range
Range frenchhorn.png
in F: sounds one fifth lower
Related instruments
  • Natural horn
  • Vienna horn
  • Wagner tuba
  • Cornet
  • Flügelhorn
  • Mellophone
  • Baritone horn
  • Alto horn
  • Saxhorn
  • List of horn players
More articles
  • List of horn makers
  • List of horn techniques
  • List of compositions for horn

The horn (informally known also as the French horn) is a brass instrument descended from the natural horn that consists of about 12 feet of tubing (for a single horn in the key of F), wrapped into a compact, coiled form with a flared bell.

Most horns have finger-operated valves (a horn without valves is known as a natural horn, and some horns such as the vienna horn use piston valves). A single horn, which will usually be tuned to either F or B flat, has three valves; the more common double horn has two sets of tubing (generally F and B flat) and a fourth valve, operated by the thumb, which routes the air flow to one or other set. Triple horns, with five valves, are also made.

A musician who plays the horn is called a horn player or hornist (less frequently used term). ( The International Horn Society has recommended since 1971 that the instrument itself be properly referred to solely as the horn.)

General characteristics

The single horn is usually pitched in the key of F, although smaller instruments (for children) may be pitched in B flat. Compared to the other brass instruments in the orchestra, it has a very different mouthpiece, but has the widest range-- approximately four octaves (depending on the ability of the player). To produce different notes on the horn, one must do many things--the three most important are pressing the valves, producing the appropriate amount of lip tension, and blowing air into the instrument. More lip tension and faster air produces higher notes. Less lip tension and slower air produces lower notes. The horn plays in a higher portion of its overtone series than most brass instruments. Its conical bore is largely responsible for its characteristic tone, often described as "mellow".

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-sharp immediately below the bass clef or the C an octave below middle C.

The standard range starting from a low F-sharp 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-flat. 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 register of the horn is usually written only up to a high C, two octaves above the horn's middle C (sounding F at the top of the treble clef), higher pitches can be produced beyond this depending on a player's ability.

Also important to note is that many pieces from Baroque to Romantic periods are written in keys other than F, with the player providing the final transposition to the correct pitch. 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 example, a written C for horn in D would be transposed down a minor third and played as an A on F horn. This tradition was only recently abandoned, being used as late as Wagner and Richard Strauss, albeit only for short passages (the majority of the piece being written for horn in F).


Horn with three Perinet valves
"How to shout and blow Horns."--Facsimile of a miniature in the Manuscript of Phoebus (15th century)

Early horns were much simpler than modern horns. These early horns were brass tubes with a flared opening (the bell) wound around a few times. These early "hunting" horns were originally played on a hunt, often while mounted. Change of pitch was effected entirely by the lips (the horn not being equipped with valves until the 19th century). The horn was used 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-flat alto, A, A-flat, G, F, E, E-flat, D, C, and B-flat 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 would call for two pairs of horns in two different keys; for example, a composer might call for two horns in C and two in E-flat 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 comes the modern convention of writing the 1st and 3rd parts above 2nd and 4th.

In the mid-18th century, hornists 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 A. J. 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.

Around 1815 the use of pistons (later rotary valves) was introduced, initially to overcome problems associated with changing crooks during a performance. 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, the French made smaller horns with piston valves and the Germans made larger horns with rotary valves. It is the German horn that is referred to in America as the French horn. Many traditional conservatories and players refused to transition at first, claiming that the valveless horn, or " natural horn", was a better instrument. Some musicians 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.

Types of horns

The valves of a Conn 6D double horn

Natural horn

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 the 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. The player has a choice of key through changing the length of tubing with crooks.

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-flat, although many F horns have longer slides to tune them to E-flat, and almost all B-flat 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. This led to the development of the B-flat 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 Bb horns is sometimes used in solo and chamber performances and the single F survives orchestrally as the Vienna Horn. Additionally, single F alto and Bb alto descants are used in the performance of some baroque horn concertos and F, Bb 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 flat instrument by Gebr. Alexander, now on display at the Royal Academy of Music in London.

Double horn

A display of double horns made by Paxman

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-flat. The use of the F versus the B-flat horn were a hotbed of debate between horn players of the late nineteenth century, until the German horn maker Kruspe produced a prototype of the "double horn" in 1897.

The double horn combines two instruments into a single frame: the original horn in F, and a second, higher horn keyed in B-flat. By using a fourth valve (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-flat 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 pitch) of the instrument, it also causes the three main valves to use proportionate slide lengths.

In the words of Reginald Morley-Pegge, the invention of the double horn "revolutionized horn playing technique almost as much as did the invention of the valve." [Morley-Pegge, "Orchestral," 195]

In the USA, the two most common styles ("wraps") of double horns are named Kruspe and Geyer (based on an earlier maker by the name of Knopf), after the first instrument makers who developed and standardized them. The Kruspe wrap locates the B flat change valve above the first valve, near the thumb. The Geyer wrap has the change valve behind the third valve, near the pinky 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 Geyer type. Typically, Kruspe models are constructed from nickel silver or German Silver, while Geyer 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 colour, response, and projection of the two different styles.

In the UK and 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 Geyer camps, but have features from 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 popular in some areas (New York, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Philadelphia), while Geyer model horns (by Geyer, Karl Hill, Keith Berg, Steve Lewis, Dan Rauch, and Ricco-Kuhn) are used in other areas (such as San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Houston).

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-flat (the preference of German horn players) and it could be played in F by directing air through the B flat 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

The current trend in the equipment that professional horn players are using is a gravitation toward the 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-flat horns, but also a third, descant horn. This descant horn is usually pitched an octave above the F horn, though it can be pitched in E-flat alternatively. 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. As these drawbacks were eliminated, the triple horn gained popularity. Like double horns, triple horns can come in both full and compensating wraps. Today, they can be found playing in many professional orchestras. Europe seems to have more openly accepted the triple horn than the United States. Their popularity continues to grow, and their impact on the modern horn scene still remains to be calculated.

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 of 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 for most music, switching to an A or B-flat crook for higher pitched music (Beethoven 7th symphony, Bach, various Mozart and Haydn, etc). 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.

Marching Horn

The marching horn is quite similar to the mellophone in shape and appearance, but is pitched in the key of B-flat (the same as the B-flat 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, but in many colleges and drum corps they are being replaced with mellophones, which can better balance the tone of the trumpets and trombones.


The Mellophone is a single horn, usually in B-flat, but can also be pitched in G (drum corps version, pre 2000) or F alto. It is shaped more like a trumpet than a regular horn, with piston valves and a forward-pointing bell. These horns are generally considered better marching instruments than regular horns because their position is more stable, they project better, and they weigh less.

Sometimes, a derivative of the F alto horn, commonly used in brass bands, called a mellophone is used. The first Mellophones, pitched in E flat were shaped like a french horn, but had the chirality reversed to allow the trumpet player to cover Horn parts without making the difficult transition to playing with the left hand. Modern Mellophones are pitched in F alto, and, though they are usually played with a trumpet 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 (though not as much as a trumpet), making it more appropriate for marching bands. Sometimes, however, Mellophones are unpopular with Horn players because the mouthpiece change is difficult and requires a whole new technique. Another unpopular feature of the Mellophone is how it is played (with the right hand instead of the left, as with the French Horn), and is played with trumpet fingerings, which can confuse the horn player. Intonation is also a source of grief when playing the Mellophone.

In concerts, mellophones and marching horns have an inferior tone to regular concert horns, and are much more out of tune because the player cannot use their hand to improve tuning. For these reasons, marching horn is usually only played in marching bands and jazz bands, and not in concert settings.

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. Invented for Richard Wagner specifically for his work Der Ring des Nibelungen, it has since been written for by various other composers, including Bruckner and R. Strauss. It uses a horn mouthpiece and is available as a single tuba in B flat or F, or, more recently, as a double tuba similar to the double horn.

Other modifications

The horn, although not large, is awkward in its shape and does not lend itself well to transport. 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.


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 (night music) section of his Symphony No. 7.

Many composers have written just one or a few notable works which have become established as favourites in the horn repertoire; this includes Poulenc (Elegie) and Saint-Saëns (Concertpiece for horn and orchestra, op. 94 and Romance). Others, particularly 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 satirises 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 hornist 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 Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche (Till Eulenspiegel's merry pranks) contains one of the best known horn solos from this period.

Horn music in England had something of 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 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.

There is an abundance of chamber music repertoire for horn. It is a standard member of woodwind quintet instrumentation and often appears in other configurations, such as Brahms's "Horn Trio" for violin, horn and piano.

Notable horn players

  • Giovanni Punto, more famous than Beethoven, in his day, at least one international horn prize is named after him.
  • Dennis Brain ( Royal Philharmonic and Philharmonia Orchestras)
  • Barry Tuckwell ( London Symphony Orchestra), author of The French Horn in the Menuhin instruments series.
  • David Pyatt (youngest winner of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition)
  • Philip Farkas (former principal of the Chicago Symphony, author, and developer of the Holton Farkas horn)
  • Radovan Vlatković, one of the youngest winner of ARD music award, solo performer, former principal and soloist of Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, prof. at Mozarteum Academy in Salzburg.
  • Hermann Baumann, winner of the ARD Radio/Television Competition in Munich in 1964.
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