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An introduction to and short history of the orchestral brass instrument called the "French horn" or "horn",


The middle-range brass instrument in the Western orchestra or band is sometimes called the horn , sometimes the French horn . It is an aerophone with a conical bore, a fairly small mouthpiece, a widely flaring bell, and about 17 feet of metal tubing wrapped into a circular shape to make it easier to hold. It is a transposing instrument ; most horn music is written in F.

The instrument

The french horn

As in other brass instruments, the sound of a horn is produced by "buzzing" the lips against the mouthpiece. Players get higher or lower notes by changing the embouchure (the lips and facial muscles), but the three valves that open extra sections of tubing are also needed to get all the notes possible on the horn ( see below ). The left hand works the valves; the right hand is normally placed inside the bell of the instrument, where it can be used to help tune the instrument and make changes in its timbre .

The most common modern instrument is a "double horn", which has two parallel sets of tubing. One set makes it an F horn; the other a smaller, higher B flat horn. (See History, below for an explanation of how and why instruments come in different keys.) A fourth valve called the trigger is used to switch between the two sides of the instrument. But as a transposing instrument , the double horn is considered to be "in F"; music for the instrument is usually written in F, allowing individual players to choose whether to use the F or the B flat "side" of the instrument for any given note.

The range of the horn

The modern horn is a transposing instrument; music for horn is in F, written a perfect fifth higher than it sounds.

The mellophone is a brass instrument closely related to the French horn. It is only half the length of a normal horn, which has two useful effects. One is that it is lighter to carry around. The other is that, while playing in the same range as the French horn, it is playing lower in the harmonic series, where the harmonics are not so close together and it is not so easy to play the wrong harmonic. (See below .) Because of these advantages, the bell-front mellophone (which looks a bit like a rounded oversized trumpet) is commonly used by French horn players in marching bands.


Horns and other brass instruments are played by buzzing the lips against the mouthpiece. The very earliest instruments in this family were natural objects (such as animal horns or this conch shell) that could be played by buzzing the lips against a hole in one end of the object.

The very earliest horns were hollowed-out animal horns, or other natural objects that would resonate at a particular pitch when the player buzzed the lips against a hole in one end.

The modern instrument is descended from earlier brass instruments that were used for centuries in Europe for military and hunting purposes. These horns came in various different sizes and shapes. The orchestral horn is particularly descended from the French trompe de chasse ; hence the name "French horn". This hunting horn, in use in France in the seventeenth century, was a slender tube that was coiled into a large hoop that could easily be slung over a huntsman's shoulder. The tube was only about 7 feet long and was much more cylindrical than a modern horn. The eighteenth-century cor de chasse , the typical instrument in the orchestra of Bach's and Handel's time, was twice as long and coiled into a double hoop. This instrument had no valves and was originally played with the bell pointing up and out. It could therefore play only the notes of a single harmonic series . This severely limited the parts a single instrument could play; a horn that could play a harmonic series on an E flat fundamental, for example, could play some, but not all, of the notes in the key of E flat, could play even fewer notes in keys closely related to E flat, and could play no notes at all in keys not related to E flat.

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Source:  OpenStax, Understanding your french horn. OpenStax CNX. Apr 03, 2006 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col10219/1.4
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