Horn (instrument)

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The horn is a brass instrument that consists of tubing wrapped into a coiled form. The instrument was first developed in France in about 1650 from the cor de chasse or hunting horn, and has been known as the French horn since at least 1750, although this usage is uncommon among players of the instrument.

In other languages, the instrument is named Horn (Gr.), corno (plural corni) (It.), cor (Fr.), etc.

Compared to the other brass instruments commonly found in the orchestra, the typical range of the French horn is set an octave higher in its harmonic series, facilitated by its small, deep mouthpiece, giving it its characteristic "mellow" tone. The typical playing range of a French horn goes from the written F at the bottom of the staff in bass clef to the C above the staff in treble clef.



Missing image
"How to shout and blow Horns."--Fac-simile of a Miniature in the Manuscript of Phoebus (Fifteenth Century).

Early horns were much simpler than those in current use. These early horns were simply brass tubing wound a few times and flared into a larger opening at the end (called the bell of the horn). They evolved from the early hunting horns and, as such, were meant to be played while riding on a horse. The hornist would grip the horn on the piping near the mouthpiece and rest the body of the horn across his arm so that only one hand was needed to play and the other could be free to guide his steed. The only way to change the pitch was to use the natural harmonics of that particular length of tubing by changing the speed at which the lips vibrated against the mouthpiece.

Later, horns caught the interest of composers, and were used to invoke an outdoors feeling and the idea of the chase. Even in the time of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, however, the horn player (now a part of the early orchestra) still had a much simpler version of the horn; he carried with him a set of crooks, which were curved pieces of tube of different length which could be used to change the length of the horn by removing part of the tubing and inserting a different length piece. The player now held the horn with both hands, holding the tubing near the mouthpiece with one, and putting the other into the bell, which was either rested upon the right knee of the player or the entire horn was lifted into the air. Now the pitch played could be changed in several ways. First the player could change the harmonic series which the instrument as a whole had by removing and inserting different sized crooks into the instrument, changing the length of the horn itself. Less globally, given a particular crook, the vibration of the lips could be varied in speed, thus moving to a different pitch on the given harmonic series. Finally, now that the player had his hand in the bell, the hand became an extension on the length of the horn, and by closing and opening the space available for air to leave the bell, he could bend the pitch to interpolate between the elements of a harmonic series. This interpolation finally made the horn a true melodic instrument, not simply limited to a harmonic series, and some of the great composers started to write concerti for this new instrument. The Mozart Horn Concerti, for example, were written for this type of horn, called the natural horn in the modern literature.

Around 1815, the horn took on a new form, as valves were introduced, which allowed the player to switch between crooks without the effort of manually removing one from the horn and inserting a new one. At this same time, the standard horn came to be the horn on the F harmonic series, and there were then three valves added to it. Using these three valves, the player could play all the notes reachable in the horn's range.

Types of horns

A double horn
A double horn
Missing image
The valves of a double horn

Despite this improvement, the single F horn had a rather irksome flaw. As the player played higher and higher notes, the distinctions a player had to make with his or her embouchure from note to note became increasingly precise. An early solution was simply to use a horn of higher pitch -- usually B-flat. The relative merits of F versus B-flat 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 (commonly called "sides"). 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]

Specialized horns

While most modern instruments are of the F/B-flat double horn variety, various special-purpose instruments are available (usually at a very high price).

The most common is the descant horn, which is a single horn pitched in F alto, one octave higher than the traditional F horn. The descant is used largely for extended playing in the high register, such as in Bach's Brandenburg Concerti. Double horns in B-flat/High F (or High E-flat) are increasingly popular for works that only use the upper and upper-middle registers of the instrument.

Single horns in F or B-flat still see use, notably in operatic settings. Their lighter weight renders them much more suitable for the extended and strenuous playing required of Wagnerian operas.

The triple horn is the result of merging an F/B-flat double horn with an F-alto descant, adding a fifth valve to an already complex instrument. While the horn is suitable for work in nearly every register of horn literature, the added weight makes it tiresome to play, and for this reason it is not widely used.

The Viennese Horn is a horn traditionally played in the Vienna Philharmonic. It is a standard single horn with a dual piston mechanism for each valve. This page (http://iwk.mdw.ac.at/Forschung/english/wrinst/vhorn.htm) shows a bit more about the differences between this and the other horns listed above.

The Wagner tuba is an instrument generally played by the horn players of the orchestra which resembles a mix of a horn and a tuba.

The Alpenhorn is most famous from the Ricola commercials. It has been said that the horn soli section in Brahms' first symphony was inspired by this instrument.

The mellophone is, in appearance, very different from any of the above types of horn, but it is nevertheless used in place of the horn in marching bands. In fact marching band is the only connection between the horn and the mellophone. This instrument is harmonically much more similar to an elongated trumpet.

Horn techniques

Missing image
Typical playing range of a horn (notes sounding a perfect 5th lower than written)

Some of these techniques are not unique to the horn, but are applicable to most or all wind instruments.

Double/triple tonguing

Normal tonguing consists of interrupting the air stream by tapping the back of the front teeth with the tongue as said in the syllable 'da' or 'ta'. Double tonguing is alternating between the 'ta' sound and the 'ka' sound. Try saying the word kitty repeatedly to get the idea. Triple tonguing is most used for patterns of three and is made with the syllables 'ta-ka-ta' said repeatedly.

Stopped horn

This is the act of fully closing off the bell with the right hand or a special stopping mute. This results in a somewhat nasal sound. The usual notation is a '+' above the note followed by a 'o' above notes that are open. For longer stopped passages the word is just written out. Below is a list for different languages:

  • English: stopped ... open
  • German: gestopft ... offen
  • Italian: chiuso ... aperto
  • French: bouch駧 ... ouvert (not to be confused with cuivre which means brassy.)

Stopping a note does not raise the pitch by a half-step. Any time the hand is placed in the bell, the pitch lowers gradually until 1/2 step above the next lower partial (harmonic) when the bell is completely covered/closed (stopped). Hand horn technique developed in the classical period (Mozart's 4 Horn Concerti and Concert Rondo were written with this technique in mind, as was all the music Beethoven and Brahms wrote for the horn) makes use of covering the bell to various degrees, and thereby lower in the pitch accordingly.

For example: if one plays a middle C (F-horn, open) and then slowly covers the bell into stopped horn, you will bend the pitch down to a major 3rd to Ab (or 1/2 step above G, the next lower partial). However, if one plays a 3rd space C (F-horn, open) and repeats the process, the pitch will only bend down a half-step to a B-natural (or 1/2 step above Bb, the next lower partial).

Practically, it is too cumbersome to keep track of what partial you are playing and what the "1/2 step above the next lower partial" would be. As such, when playing stopped, horn players over blow one partial while playing stopped, play the partial above the note then intended, cover the bell completely and thereby arrive at 1/2 step above their intended pitch, and then compensate by fingering a half step below the written pitch. Thus most horn players are taught that stopped horn "raises the pitch 1/2 step".

This is crucial to understand this difference, between practical application of the player and the theory behind it, because several modern composers have incorrectly notated that the horn is to bend an open pitch upward to a stopped pitch. This is impossible. The horn pitch can only be bent downward into a stopped pitch.

In the middle register, try F-horn fingers when playing stopped horn. In the upper register, however, experimentation with traditionally flat fingerings on the B♭ horn (For example, 1st valve G) can yield more secure notes without sacrificing good intonation. Some B♭ horns have an a stopping valve that compensates for this, allowing the player to use normal fingerings with the stopping valve.

There is also an effect that is occasionally called for, usually in French music, called "echo horn", "hand mute" or "sons d'飨o" (see Dukas Sorcerer's Apprentice) which is like stopped horn, but different in that the bell is not closed as tightly. The player closes the hand enough so that the pitch drops 1/2 step, but, especially in the middle register, this is not closed as tightly as for stopped horn. Consequently, when playing echo horn, the player fingers one half step higher.

The difference between stopping and "echo horn" is a source of much confusion to younger players, especially ones whose hands are not big enough to close the bell all the way for stopped horn. Instead of stopping properly, they erroneously close the bell insufficiently and finger 1/2 step higher.

For more information on stopped horn see "Extended Techniques for the Horn" by Douglas Hill (ASIN: B00072T6B0) -- Professor of Horn at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, http://www.geocities.com/Vienna/3941/stopping.html also has more information about stopped horn and the physics behind it; for more information on hand horn see "A modern valve horn player's guide to the natural horn" by Paul Austin (ASIN: B0006PCD4A)

Muted horn

Some confusion arrives when a composer marks a passage muted but also puts '+'s above the notes. This is usually a typographical error or a lack of understanding the difference between stopped horn and muted horn by the composer. Muted horn is just the use of a mute in the horn. It is therefore impossible for a note to be stopped and muted simultaneously. For marking this in music the following are used:

  • English: muted ... open (or remove mute)
  • German: ged䭰ft (d䭰fer auf)... d䭰fer weg (d䭰fer ab)
  • Italian: con sordina ... senza sordina (or via la sordina)
  • French: avec sourdine ... enlevez la sourdine (or ? la sourdine)

Handhorn technique

Before the advent of the valve horn, a player would increase the number of playable notes beyond the normal harmonic series by changing the position of his hand in the bell. It is possible to use a combination of stopping, hand-muting (3/4 stopping), and half-stopping (to correct notes that would otherwise be out of tune) to play almost every note of a mid-range chromatic scale on one fingering. Most modern pieces for hand-horn tend to spend more time in the higher ranges, as there are more notes that can be played naturally (without altering hand position and maintaining pure tone) above the 8th note of any harmonic series.


Many older pieces for horn were written for a horn not keyed in F as is standard today. As a result a requirement for modern orchestra hornists is to be able to read music directly in these keys. This is most commonly done by transposing the music on the fly into F. A reliable way to transpose is to liken the written notes (which rarely deviate from written C,D,E, and G) to their counterparts in the scale the F horn will be playing in. Commonly seen transpositions include:

Some less common transpositions include:

It has been speculated that one of the reasons Brahms wrote for horn in the awkward key of B was to encourage the horns to use the natural horn; he did not like the sound of the new valved horns. One example showing this is when Brahms picked the second horn player, Wilhelm Kleinecke, in the Vienna Opera for a performance of the Horn Trio in E flat, op. 40 over the first horn, Richard Lewy, because Lewy only played the valved horn. (Here (http://www.osmun.com/reference/brahms/Title_Page.html) is an article about the Brahms Horn Trios.)

Sometimes it is ambiguous to know if a piece should be transposed up or down (i.e. B♭ alto versus B♭ basso when only B♭ is written). It is usually safe to assume that the most common and reasonable (i.e. it stays in the normal horn range) transposition is the intended transposition. From the history of the composer more can be decided. For example Verdi and other opera composers used many low and odd transpositions. For Haydn symphonies that have trumpets the lower transposition for the horns is usually correct otherwise the high transposition is usually correct. Much experience is needed to decided this in the end.

1 In older scores (many times German), B♭ alto and basso are written simply as "B."

2 E♭ horns were used extensively in military bands in the early 20th century, therefore band parts written for chromatic E♭ horns are common.

3 Brahms indicated the key of B♮ as "H."


Multiphonics is the act of producing more than one pitch simultaneously on the horn. To do this one note is produced as normal while another is sung. Doing this it is quite difficult to produce an aesthetically pleasing sound, but nonetheless can be done. Like other wind instrument techniques, it is not unique to the horn. One of its earliest uses however occurs in the Concertino for Horn and Orchestra by Carl Maria von Weber. Another kind of multiphonics can be achieved by simultanously playing two neighbouring notes of the harmonic series. A practical way of doing this is by placing the lower lip under and outside the mouthpiece, playing one note, and then gently, by increasing air pressure and adjusting one's lip-position, halfway slurring upwards to the next harmonic step. This might be frustrating at first, and the technicque is quite an unstable one to perform in real-time, especially when compared with similar practices with other brass instruments, esp. trombone. It is occasionally recommanded in contemporary music where, successfully performed, it might evoke an interesting effect.

Circular breathing

Information on this subject can be found at the article on circular breathing.

Tips and tricks

Quick valve water emptying
Every horn is different and every hornist must learn how to get the water out of their instrument. This trick however is nearly universal across all standard double horns. Hold the horn so the bell is up in the air. Press down the third valve and flip the first and second while rotating the horn back to the normal position. All the water in the valves is now in the third valve tubing.
Fake high C
On some horns a high c can pop out while pressing the first valve down halfway. This is not recommended for performance as the tone quality of this note suffers. A way to try it is to play a normal third space c on the f side and slowly press down the first valve. (discussion) (http://www.hornplayer.net/archive/a297.html)
Very quick water emptying
To empty out the entire horn of water in one fell swoop, push all of the valves, but the trigger, and give two enormous gusts of air. Then hit the trigger and repeat. Then take off the "spit slide" (that's the slide closest to the end of the tubing) and then turn the horn one half turn counter-clockwise.

Fingering chart

Missing image
The harmonics for each fingering on the horn. Notes are all notated for Horn in F.

Well-known horn players

See the List of Horn Players.

Pieces for horn

For a list of notable compositions featuring the horn, see List of compositions for horn.


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