Alto horn

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"Althorn" redirects here. For the village in Essex, see Althorne.
Alto horn
Althorn (PSF).png
Brass instrument
Other names en: alto horn (American), tenor horn (British), de: Althorn, fr: saxhorn alto or pichotte, nl: althoorn, it: genis
Playing range
Alto horn range.svg
Transposing instrument in E: sounds one major sixth lower than written range shown above
Related instruments

The alto horn (US English; tenor horn in British English, Althorn in Germany; occasionally referred to as E horn) is a brass instrument usually pitched in E. It has a bore that is mostly conical, like the cornet and baritone horn, and normally uses a deep, cornet-like mouthpiece.

It is most commonly used in British brass bands, whereas the French horn tends to take the corresponding parts in concert bands and orchestras. However, the alto horn has occasionally been used as an alternative to the French horn in concert bands.


The alto horn is a valved brass instrument (in E flat) which has a predominantly conical bore like the baritone horn and cornet. It uses a deep funnel- or cup-shaped mouthpiece. The alto horn's conical bore and deep mouthpiece produce a mellow, rounded tone which is often used as a middle voice, supporting the melodies of the trumpets, cornets or flugelhorns, and filling the gap above the lower tenor and bass instruments (the trombone, baritone horn, euphonium and tuba). Its valves are typically, though not exclusively, piston valves.

The alto horn has been made and is made in various shapes: the most common in the United States and the UK, and in most other parts of the world, is a sort of mini-tuba shape, with the bell pointing upward, which may help the voice blend before reaching the audience. In contrast, the solo horn (found mainly in Europe) looks like (and indeed effectively is) an enlarged flugelhorn, with the bell pointing forward, projecting more toward the audience. Another older and lesser known variant has the bell facing backward (for military marching bands that preceded the soldiers, thus helping them hear better and keep better time in marching). Still another variant has a detachable bell easily rotated to point in the direction of the player's choice.

The standard bell-up horn comes in two basic shapes, one with the beginning of the bell looping over the top of the valves and the other looping below the valves.

These types are the most frequently encountered in the United States and UK. Only the standard upright instrument is seen in UK brass bands.

In Europe, Cerveny[1] have been manufacturing alto horns since 1852.[2] They currently offer models of the instrument looped like a classic horn and an oval model shaped like a Wagner tuba, all models having rotary valves as opposed to the more common piston valves.

Within a British brass band, the tenor horn section usually plays a unique part in the middle of the band, with the Solo Horn having frequent solo passages. However, it is less often featured as a solo instrument. The instrument's timbre, with little attack or resonance, as well as the parts it usually plays, makes the section difficult to hear individually, even in professional studio recordings. Despite this, the horn section contributes greatly to the rich mellow sound of a brass band. Tenor horns, especially those built in the middle of the 20th century, typically have very poor projection and power, so much so that they quickly became known as the "cinderella" of the brass band, hiding between the much more powerful cornets and trombones. This reputation played no small part in discouraging composers[citation needed] outside of the British brass band from writing for the tenor horn, and certainly had an adverse effect on the instrument's popularity outside the UK. In more recent years, however, there have been many attempts by various makers to create a tenor horn with much better power and projection while still retaining the instrument's characteristic "narrow-mellow" timbre. A few of these modern instruments have become especially popular within the UK; the Besson Sovereign and the Yamaha Maestro have dominated[citation needed] the tenor horn market over the last decade or so.

Today, different makes of alto horns have a wide range of bore sizes. Narrow bore instruments such as those made by the former Besson company tend to emphasise the tonal delicacy of older instruments, and play more like a French-styled flugelhorn, while larger bore instruments like those made by Courtois have a weight of sound much greater than traditional alto horns, playing much more like a conical-bored trumpet. Good, well-made instruments should however, regardless of bore size, retain a light, velvety and mellow tone quality.


The nominal range of the alto horn (expressed in concert pitch) is from the A an octave and a minor third below middle C to the E an octave and a minor third above middle C (A2 to E5 in scientific pitch notation). Experienced players can reach at least major third higher than this. Additionally, as alto horn is a whole-bore brass instrument, most players can play some pedal tones, the fundamentals (first partials) of (at least) the shorter tubing lengths.


Alto horn parts are written in the treble clef. The alto horn is an E transposing instrument written a major sixth above concert pitch: the alto horn notation for middle C represents the E below middle C in concert pitch (E3 in scientific pitch notation).


The instrument known today as the alto horn was developed in the 1840s by the Belgian instrument maker Adolphe Sax who, among other instrument design activities, designed two similar families of valved brass instruments, the saxhorn and the saxotromba. The surviving E alto instruments by Sax all have inner diameters[3] described in the saxotromba patent[citation needed]. In this patent the soprano voice (descant) is tuned in E and thence descending through B (contralto) to E (alto). The next family member below the alto saxotromba was described as a baritone in B. Ascending from baritone, logically the next E family member above it is a tenor. The inconsistency spread across multiple descriptions and patents over decades apparently is the source of confusion as regards the names tenor vs. alto horn.

The modern instrument has a larger diameter and now resembles Sax's specification of the saxhorn more than it does that of the saxotromba.

A great deal of interesting historical technical information on the saxhorn is found in the "Saxhorn" entry of Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. 4 (1909).

In the 1970s, King Musical Instruments produced a variation on the alto horn, called the "altonium". This instrument was keyed in F, and it utilized the same mouthpiece as the French horn.[4] From their 1971 catalog, King Instruments produced two models of the altonium: numbers 1147 and 1148. The 1147 was a straight model, and the 1148 was a bell forward model.[5]

In the US, the alto horn is colloquially known as the "peck horn", supposedly because these instruments were employed in band music to "peck away at" the upbeats.[2][6] This name is mentioned in The Music Man.


The alto horn is very rarely included in the symphony orchestra, where its place is taken by the French horn.

It is instead found in brass bands, concert bands, and is a fixture of British brass bands (under the name tenor horn), in all of which it often plays a role similar to that of the orchestral horn in the symphony orchestra. Solos for the tenor horn are very occasional, and are usually taken by the solo horns.

Paul Hindemith wrote a Sonata for Alto Horn and Piano.

Although Gustav Mahler instrumented his Seventh Symphony to include one "Tenorhorn in B", that instrument is more akin to the British/American Baritone horn.


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