Horn (instrument)

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A natural horn, with central crook: a cor solo, Raoux, Paris, 1797

A horn is any of a family of musical instruments made of a tube, usually made of metal and often curved in various ways, with one narrow end into which the musician blows, and a wide end from which sound emerges. In horns, unlike other brass instruments such as the trumpet, the bore gradually increases in width through most of its length—that is to say, it is conical rather than cylindrical.[1]

Variations include:


An instrument for creating sound made from the horn of an animal
Pair of bronze lurer, excavated 1797
Cornicen (horn players) from Trajan's Column
French horn by Jean Baptiste Arban, with three Périnet valves

As the name indicates, humans originally used to blow on the actual horns of animals before starting to emulate them in metal. This original usage survives in the shofar, a ram's horn, which plays an important role in Jewish religious rituals.

Metal instruments modelled on animal horns survive from as early as the 10th century BC, in the form of lurer (a modern name devised by archaeologists). Nearly fifty of these curved bronze horns have been excavated from burial sites, mostly in Scandinavia, since the first was discovered in 1797. Many are in unison pairs, curved in opposite directions. Because their makers left no written histories, their use and manner of playing is unknown. The lur was likely known to the Etruscans, noted as bronze-workers from the 8th century BC, who in turn were credited by the Romans with the invention of their horns and trumpets, including long curved horns in the form of a letter C or G. Depictions of these instruments are found from the 5th century BC onward on Etruscan funerary monuments. The Etruscan name for them is unknown, but the Romans called them buccina and cornu. The latter name is the Latin word for "horn", and the source of the name of the musical instrument in many Romance languages: French cor, Italian corno, Provençal corn.[2]

Early metal horns were less complex than modern horns, consisting (by the late 17th century) of brass tubes wound into a hoop, with a slightly flared exit opening (the bell). 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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

Early horns were commonly pitched in B alto, A, A, G, F, E, E, D, C, and B basso.[citation needed] 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 which, when inserted, increased the length of the instrument, and thus lowered its pitch. The earliest surviving crooked horn was made by the German maker Michael Leichnamschneider and dates in 1721.[3]

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 both the first and third parts above the second and fourth.

In the mid-18th century, horn players began to insert the right hand into the bell to change the effective 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.

In 1818 rotary valves were introduced by Heinrich Stölzel and Friedrich Blümel (later, in 1839, piston valves were applied to the horn by François Périnet),[4] 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.[5]

The use of valves, however, 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. 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 narrower-bored horns with piston valves and the Germans made larger-bored horns with rotary valves.


The variety in horn history includes the natural horn, French horn, Vienna horn, mellophone, marching horn, and Wagner tuba.

Natural horn[edit]

A natural horn has no valves, but can be tuned to a different key by inserting different tubing, as during a rest period.
Main article: 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 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. A proficient player can indeed alter the pitch by 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. Beginning in the early 18th century, the player could change key by adding crooks to change the length of tubing.

French horn[edit]

Main article: French horn
Musical instruments
Brass instruments
String instruments

The French horn is the most common variation,[citation needed] and is often known simply as the "horn". The double horn in F/B♭ is the version most used by professional bands and orchestras. The main tubing on an F Horn is about 12–13 ft (3.7–4.0 m) long and that associated with the valves adds additional length to achieve up to about 17 ft (5.2 m) of tubing overall.[citation needed] A musician who plays the French horn is called a horn player (or less frequently, a hornist). Pitch is controlled through the adjustment of lip tension in the mouthpiece and the operation of valves by the left hand, which route the air into extra tubing.[6] Most horns have lever-operated rotary valves, but some, especially older horns, use piston valves (similar to a trumpet's) and the Vienna horn uses double-piston valves, or pumpenvalves. The backward-facing orientation of the bell relates to the perceived desirability to create a subdued sound, in concert situations, in contrast to the more-piercing quality of the trumpet. A horn without valves is known as a natural horn, changing pitch along the natural harmonics of the instrument (similar to a bugle). Pitch may also be controlled by the position of the hand in the bell, in effect reducing the bell's diameter. The pitch of any note can easily be raised or lowered by adjusting the hand position in the bell.[7]

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 another tuned to B. Triple horns with five valves are also made, tuned in F, B, and a descant E or F. Also common are descant doubles, which typically provide B and Alto F branches. This configuration provides a high-range horn while avoiding the additional complexity and weight of a triple.

A crucial element in playing the horn deals with the mouthpiece. Most of the time, the mouthpiece is placed in the exact center of the lips, but, because of differences in the formation of the lips and teeth of different players, some tend to play with the mouthpiece slightly off center.[8] Although the exact side-to-side placement of the mouthpiece varies for most horn players, the up-and-down placement of the mouthpiece is generally two-thirds on the upper lip and one-third on the lower lip.[8] Usually, in order to play higher octave notes, the pressure exerted on the lips from the mouthpiece is increased. But, although some pressure is needed, excessive pressure is not desirable. Playing with excessive pressure makes the playing of the horn sound forced and harsh as well as decreases endurance of the player by about half.[9]

Vienna horn[edit]

Vienna horn
Main article: 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.


Main article: Mellophone

Two instruments are called a mellophone. The first is an instrument shaped somewhat like a horn, in that it is formed in a circle. It has piston valves and is played with the right hand on the valves. Manufacturing of this instrument sharply decreased in the middle of the twentieth century, and this mellophone (or mellophonium) rarely appears today.

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 concert 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. Mellophones are, however, 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 designed to be played with the right hand instead of the left (although it can be played with the left). Intonation can also be an issue when playing the mellophone.

In orchestral or concert band settings, 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 or concert band settings.

While horn players may be asked to play the mellophone, it is unlikely that the instrument was ever intended as a substitute for the horn, mainly because of the fundamental differences described.[10] 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[edit]

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 so that the sound comes from a forward-facing bell, as dissipation of the sound from the backward-facing bell becomes a concern in open-air environments. Many college marching bands and drum corps, however, use mellophones instead, which, with many marching bands, better balance the tone of the other brass instruments; additionally, mellophones require less special training of trumpet players, who considerably outnumber horn players.[11]


Bass saxhorn in B-flat
Main article: Saxhorn

The saxhorns constitute a family of brass instruments with tapered bores. Pitched in eight alternating sizes in E-flat and B-flat, like saxophones, they were originally designed for army use and revolutionized military and brass bands in Europe and America. Developed during the 1840s and 50s, the saxhorn was first patented in Paris in 1845 by Adolphe Sax, though the validity of his patents was challenged by rival instrument makers during his lifetime. Throughout the mid-1850s, he continued to experiment with the instrument's valve pattern. Later makers, particularly in America, altered the sclae and designs sometimes to such an extent as to make it difficult to determine whether the larger sizes of the resulting instruments actually have descended from the saxhorn or the tuba. The tenor and baritone horns, amongst other sizes of instruments used in British brass bands, are members of the saxhorn family.[12]

Wagner tuba[edit]

Main article: 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. Wagner viewed the regular horn as a woodwind rather than a brass instrument, evidenced by his placing of the horn parts in his orchestral scores in the woodwind group and not in their usual place above the trumpets in the brass section.


  1. ^ Willi Apel, Harvard Dictionary of Music (1969), p. 874, noting that the trumpet is "cylindrical for about three-fourths its length", and identifying this as one of the characteristics that "distinguish it from the horn, which has a prevailingly conical bore".
  2. ^ Anthony Baines, Brass Instruments: Their History and Development (London: Faber and Faber, 1976): 58–60, 64–65. ISBN 0-684-15229-0; Sibyl Marcuse, "Cor", "Corn", "Corno","Cornu", Musical Instruments: A Comprehensive Dictionary, corrected edition (New York: W. W. Norton, 1975). ISBN 0-393-00758-8.
  3. ^ Renato Meucci and Gabriele Rocchetti, "Horn", The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edtion, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell (London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001): 2: "History to c1800", (iii) "Crooks and Hand Technique".
  4. ^ Harold L. Meek, Horn and Conductor: Reminiscences of a Practitioner with a Few Words of Advice, with a foreword by Alfred Mann (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1997): 32. ISBN 978-1-878822-83-3.
  5. ^ See, e.g., the performance of the "Quoniam tu solus sanctus" from Johann Sebastian Bach's Mass in B Minor as performed by solists an the choir and instrumentalists of the English Concert, conducted by Harry Bicket, at the 2012 BBC Proms in London. Note the bell-up playing position for the horn in the "Quoniam", which begins at 45:40: "Mass in B Minor". You Tube. 2012. Retrieved 2013-11-29. 
  6. ^ The background of the purpose in left-handed operation is murky, but may have arisen from the desirability to leave the right hand free to hold a weapon or the reins of a horse. Nonetheless, in view of the right-handed operation of most instruments, the horn offers left-handed players, including children who begin learning an instrument in the early years of school, a way to capitalize on their left-hand dominance, much as baseball favors left-handedness at pitcher and first base.
  7. ^ Whitener, Scott (1990) A Complete Guide to Brass pp. 40, 44
  8. ^ a b Farkas, Philip (1956) The Art of French Horn Playing p. 21
  9. ^ Farkas, Philip (1956) The Art of French Horn Playing p. 65
  10. ^ Monks, Greg (2006-01-06). "The History of the Mellophone". Al's Mellophone Page. Retrieved 2008-07-29. 
  11. ^ Mellophones, as indicated, use the same fingering as trumpets and are operated by the right hand.
  12. ^ Philip Bate, Trevor Herbert, and Arnold Myers, "Saxhorn". The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell (London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001).