Ten Facts You Should Know About the (French) Horn

By Jacy Burroughs

1.  Why is it called the French horn? There is some confusion over the correct name of this instrument.   Most non-English speaking countries do not use the nationalistic adjective. Even in France it is simply called cor.  In 1971, the International Horn Society recommended that “horn” be the recognized name for the instrument in the English language. Unfortunately, this hasn’t caught on, especially in the United States. From my experience as a horn player, the instrument is referred to as the French horn throughout primary and secondary education. It was not until college that I learned “horn” was the more accepted term among professionals. The “French” adjective is very misleading because the instrument isn’t even French, which leads me to my second fact.

2.  Well, if the horn isn’t French, where did it come from? The modern day horn is descended from hunting horns. Hunting horns were used in both France and Germany during the sixteenth century.   It is unclear when exactly the first hunting horns were used in a musical setting, but it is likely French composer Jean-Baptiste Lully used them in a ballet in 1664. While the French may have been the first to introduce the hunting horn to the orchestra, it was the Germans that developed playing technique and modernized the instrument. Heinrich Stölzel invented the first horn with valves in 1814.

3. Why do horn players put their hand in the bell? The placement of the hand in the bell dates back to the eighteenth century and the use of “hand stopping.” Because the first orchestral horns did not have valves, they were only capable of playing the notes that existed in the overtone series. To solve the problem of range on the horn, A.J. Hampel (another German) invented a technique called hand stopping. When horn players used their hands to partially or fully close the bell, the pitch was altered in such a way that diatonic scales could be produced over a wider range. Now that horns have valves, horn players have the ability to play chromatically throughout their whole range without hand stopping. However, some modern composers still call for stopped horn, an effect used to create a nasally timbre. Modern horns are actually built a quarter-tone sharp so that when the hand is inserted into the bell, the pitch is corrected.

Natural horn with crooks for playing in different keys.

4.  Why do horn players have to transpose so much? As with placing the hand in the bell, transposing dates back to the natural horn. Because the natural horn (pictured above) did not have valves, it was only capable of playing in one key. This created problems for the musicians because they would need several instruments in different keys. As a solution to this problem, horn makers invented crooks, which were tubes of varying lengths that could be inserted into the horn to change the key of the instrument. That’s why orchestral parts by composers from the eighteenth and large part of the nineteenth centuries will call for “Horn in E-flat,” “Horn in A,” etc. The modern horn is built in the key of F. Instead of using transposed parts, horn players are often expected to be able to transpose to the proper key from the original parts.

5.  Why is the third horn part often higher than the second horn part? Throughout the Classical period, it was very standard to have two horns in symphonic music. However, horns primarily played a supporting, harmonic role, providing the tonic and dominant triads, as in most of the horn parts in Haydn’s and Mozart’s symphonies. During the hand-horn period (when hand stopping was in use), distinct roles for first and second horn arose. The first horn, known as cor alto, primarily played in the upper part of the register, whereas the second horn, known as cor basse, specialized in playing the low register and had better development of hand technique due to the greater distance between partials in the overtone series. When Beethoven added a third horn to his Eroica Symphony in 1803, he wrote the part higher than the second horn, although still lower than the first. This was the beginning of a tradition still in use today, in which first and third horns are considered “high horns” and second and fourth horns are considered “low horns.” Many modern composers have chosen to continue this tradition. However some composers, especially in the wind band genre, will write the second horn higher than the third horn.

The overtone series of the open horn (no valves depressed).

6.  Why are horn players known for cracking so many notes? Non-musicians are often impressed that brass instruments can play so many notes with only three valves. That is because brass instruments are built around the overtone (or harmonic) series. The overtone series is essentially all the notes that can be played on one fingering (illustrated above). The horn’s primary range is in the third octave of the overtone series, whereas the other brass instruments play mostly in the second octave of the overtone series. Because the harmonics are closer together in the third octave, it is a lot easier for the player to hit the wrong note. It is for this reason that the horn is often called the most difficult instrument to play. So next time you hear a horn player miss a note, cut her some slack.

7. Single, double, or triple?  The single horn has one set of tubing connected to the valves. It is often found in the keys of F or B-flat, but is mostly played in the key of F, especially in the United States. Single horns are great for young beginners because they are lighter and less expensive.

The double horn is the most common type of horn played. It has two sets of tubes connected to the three valves and a fourth valve, known as a trigger, which allows the player to shift between the key of F and key of B-flat. The double horn essentially combines the two types of single horns and helps fix problems in tone and pitch experienced on the single horn. The double horn also facilitates ease in the high register. Most players use the B-flat side of the horn (accessed by pressing the trigger) in the high register because it is a shorter set of tubing.

The triple horn was invented to create even more security in the high register. It employs the F and B-flat horns as well as a third, descant horn, in E-flat. Thus, it has three sets of tubing connected to the valves and two trigger valves, which access either the B-flat side or E-flat side of the horn. It is far more expensive than the double horn and is rarely available in less than professional models.

8.  Why do some horns have bells that detach? Because of the horn’s awkward shape, it is cumbersome to carry and transport. The detachable bell was designed to make it easier for horn players to travel with their instruments on commercial airlines. With the removable bell, horns can be carried in more compact cases that will fit into the overhead bin of an airplane. It does not cause any noticeable differences in the sound of the horn. Instrument makers can cut the bell of a horn to make it detachable.

Vienna horn

Vienna horn

9.   So you want to be in the Vienna Philharmonic? In that case, you will have to play a unique type of horn known as the Vienna horn. Instead of using rotary valves (as on the modern horn) or piston valves (as on the trumpet), Vienna horns use a Pumpenvalve, a type of double-piston valve. While the modern horn has a bigger bore than its predecessors to allow for bigger and louder tone, the Vienna horn resembles the natural horn in size and weight. Unlike the double horn, it is only pitched in F; the players do not have the advantage that switching between the F and B-flat sides of the horn provides. It is known for its warm, soft sound.

10. What is the standard number of horns in a symphony? When the horn first became a standard instrument in the orchestra, composers would often write two horn parts, a high horn part and a low horn part. Beethoven was the first to expand beyond two horns in a symphonic work. In his Third Symphony, he wrote for three horns and in his Ninth Symphony he added a fourth horn. Many composers followed Beethoven’s example and four horn parts became standard. In the second half of the nineteenth century, as the orchestra continued to grow in size and popularity, composers like Wagner, Mahler and Richard Strauss began to write four to eight horn parts regularly. Strauss’ Alpine Symphony calls for a total of 20 horns! Eight horns play on stage throughout the work and 12 horns play from off stage. However, it is still most common to have four horn parts in orchestral or band works but is not unusual to see a fifth horn player on stage. While normally one player is on a part, a fifth player is often used as an assistant to the principal horn. Principal horn players play the first horn parts, which are the highest and feature the most solos. The additional player is used to give the principal a break, often before important solos.

Bonus: How do I get started? Now that you know and love the horn, it’s time to start practicing! Visit sheetmusicplus.com for the best in horn sheet music.

Horn players, please feel free to chime in with pertinent information or fun facts about the horn!


Jacy Burroughs is the Assistant E-Commerce Marketing Manager for Sheet Music Plus. She has degrees in horn performance from the University of the Pacific Conservatory of Music and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.  She is a freelance horn player in the Bay Area. 

13 Responses to “Ten Facts You Should Know About the (French) Horn”

  1. 1 HollowWinds MusicStudio April 19, 2014 at 6:55 am

    I always knew the horn was a difficult instrument to play but now I understand better why this is so.

  2. 2 Tee Robsonovich May 27, 2015 at 7:07 pm

    I like calling it French Horn to distinguish it from any generic kind of horn, like the hunting horn.

  3. 4 charlietuba June 5, 2015 at 10:41 am

    Why is the horn left-handed, as in the valves are fingered with the left hand? Most brass instruments are fingered with the right hand with the three main valves operated by the index, middle and ring fingers.

    • 5 Sheet Music Plus June 5, 2015 at 11:25 am

      That’s a great question. The answer is: tradition. Not sure why it was built that way originally – probably had something to do with how hunting horns were carried. A hunter would have carried his gun with his dominant hand, which in most cases would have been the right hand, so the horn was probably held with the left. Then, when valves were added, it remained that way.

  4. 6 charlietuba June 5, 2015 at 10:43 am

    Drop a horn mouthpiece into a tuba mouthpiece (yes, it fits) and you will be able to play crazy high notes.

  5. 8 Roger Kaza June 10, 2015 at 6:22 am

    Good stuff! Thanks for clarifying all this! Just a couple points…it’s called the “French horn” in English because they were calling it that as far back as 1680. Morley-Pegge’s monumental scholarly work, The French Horn, argues for an actual French origin to this lower-keyed, large-looped horn which eventually became the Waldhorn a few years later in Vienna. Also, both Haydn and Mozart (and others) wrote for four horns before Beethoven.

  6. 9 Chuck Guerrero February 25, 2016 at 1:49 pm

    The Vienna horn actually uses crooks just as natural horns did. They mostly use either the F crook or the Bb crook.

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