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Explore the French Horn

The horn is a conical bore instrument much like the cornet and Saxhorns. This means the bore is tapered, steadily increasing in diameter along its length, unlike the trumpet and trombone which are considered cylindrical. Unlike most other valved brass instruments, which use piston valves, most modern horns use rotary valves, though earlier horns and horns used in Austria and France still use pistons. Each valve toggles a length of tubing, changing the length of the instrument and therefore the pitch. Each length of tubing is a separate part, and is moved to adjust the tuning of the instrument, making them tuning slides. A modern double horn contains a total of 21 ft (6.4 meters) of tubing, including all tuning slides.

More About the French Horn

Compared to the other brass instruments commonly found in the orchestra, the typical range of the horn is set an octave higher in its harmonic series, facilitated by its smallmouthpiece. In this range, the "partials" -- notes available in a given valve combination simply by changing the frequency of the lip buzz -- are closer together than on other brass instruments, making it very prone to playing wrong notes, even among professional players, due to not having just the proper lip tension. Its conical bore is largely responsible for its characteristic tone, often described as "mellow". The typical playing range of a horn differs from its written range by a fifth down, and extends from the B-natural below the bass clef (it is possible to play low B flat with embouchure tricks) to the F at the top of the treble clef. Although this is the standard range found in classical repertoire, some players can play many notes beyond this range, both lower and higher.

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Early horns were much simpler than modern horns. These early horns were brass tubes wound a few times and had a flared opening (the "bell"). 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 (or, more often, pairs of horns) often invoked the idea of the hunt, or, beginning in the later baroque, to determine the character of the key being played or to represent nobility, royalty, or divinity.

Early horns were commonly pitched in F, E, E flat, B flat, and C, and 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.

In orchestras before the invention of valves, horns sat with the horns in higher keys sitting on the outside, and those in lower keys on the inside. Thus, the 1st and 3rd horn would be the "1st horn" of their key, and the same would apply to the 2nd and 4th horns. For this reason, in modern music, 1st and 3rd horn parts are often similar, as are 2nd and 4th.

Starting in the early 19th century, hornists began to insert the right hand into the bell to change the length of the instrument, adjusting the tuning as much as a step. This offered more possibilities for playing notes not on the harmonic series being used for that piece. 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, it 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 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

Natural horn

The natural horn is the ancestor of the modern horn. Basically descended from hunting horns, it is controlled by mouthpiece tension, tuning crooks, and the use of the right hand moving in and out of the bell pulling the pitch up and down. Today it is played as an era instrument.

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, however limited by intervals and tone of having only one key in the horn is in, F or B-flat. The solution was the development of the double horn. Today, single horns are used mainly by "high" horn players (1st and 3rd horns) or by students, as they are sometimes cheaper and lighter than double horns. Also, single horns are sometimes used by performers of jazz.

Double Horn

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.

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 (also known as 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. Both models have their own strengths and weaknesses, and are a matter of personal choice among horn players. Kruspe wrap horns tend to be larger in the bell throat than the Geyer type.

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 prefer 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.

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.

Vienna horn

The Vienna horn is a special horn used primarily in Vienna, Austria. Instead of using rotary valves or piston valves, it uses thePumpenvalve. Much like the Natural horn, this horn uses a system of crooks to change key. And because of its longer bell flare, is known for the rich legato sound quality.

Marching Horn

The marching horn is a single horn in B flat, the same key as the B flat side of the double horn, or F alto. (Many marching bands however use derivative of the trumpet called the mellophone, which can only be played by a french horn player with an adapter to allow the french horn mouthpiece to fit in the mellophone's trumpet mouthpiece reciever) The tubing of the instrument has been reconfigured to have a foreward-facing bell and vertical piston valves. Although some consider it to have an inferior tone to concert horns, it is used in formation marching for several reasons. The most often mentioned reasons are lower weight, better projection, and a less cumbersome playing position, similar to that of a trumpet, or marching baritone.

Wagner tuba

The Wagner tuba is a rare brass instrument that is essentially a modified horn. Invented for Richard Wagner specifically for his work Der Ring des Nibelungen, it has since been written for by various composers. It uses a horn mouthpiece and is available in tenor B-flat and bass F.

The triple horn (with an additional F or E flat alto key) is slowly becoming more popular. It remains somewhat of a luxury item as it is both more expensive and heavier than more common double horns.

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 easier to manage 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.Telemannwrote much for the horn, and it features prominently in the work of Handel and in Bach's Brandenburg Concerti. 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, particularlyMozart, whose father Leopold and friend and patron Ignaz Leitgeb were both noted horn players, 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[1].

The development of the valve horn was exploited by romantic composers such as 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.Wagner exploited the horn to such an extent that a special variant, the Wagner tuba, was developed for his Der Ring des Nibelungen, and this was later exploited also by Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg and others.

English horn music had something of a renaissance in the mid 20th Century when Dennis Brain inspired works such as Britten'sSerenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and other works from contemporary composers such as Michael Tippett. Peter Maxwell Davies has been commissioned to write a horn piece to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Brain's death.

Much of the repertoire is not scored as featured parts for the orchestral players, especially the principal horn, who is usually the second-highest paid member of the orchestra after the leader, and 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.

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