Introducing the French Horn

David introduces the French horn, which is widely played in bands and orchestras, and is lower in pitch than the trumpet or cornet but higher than the trombone or tuba. It has a warm, mellow sound that blends well with other woodwind and brass instruments. It can provide quiet background harmonies, deep bass tuba notes and take the lead in a band or orchestra.

As David illustrates, the player uses the fingers of the left hand to press the valves whilst the right hand is placed in the bell to help soften the tone (making it sound less like a trombone) and to make smaller adjustments in pitch. You are not at a disadvantage if you are right handed!

Originally, the horn was just a metal tube bent into a round hoop with a mouthpiece at one end and a large bell at the other to make the sound louder. It was used by hunting parties in the 17th and 18th centuries as a means of passing signals to other hunters in the party (no mobile phones in those days). Unlike the modern horn, it didn’t have valves and could only play a limited number of notes. Horn players discovered that they could play many of these missing notes by covering up the opening in the bell, or ‘stopping’ the notes, but this created a muffled sound on some notes.

Composers started using the horn in orchestral music in the 18th century where it brought the lively spirit of the hunt into the music. The only problem was that the horn could only play in one key. If the orchestra was playing in a different key, the horn player had to add or take away a shorter piece of tubing (called a crook) in order to play in the same key as the orchestra. Here’s a picture of a “natural” horn with a set of different length crooks. Imagine having to quickly change the crook during a piece of music without missing a note!

Eventually, a clever instrument maker developed a valve that would enable the player to change crooks at the touch of a button, and the modern horn was born. The French Horn has three rotary valves, each of which extends the length of tubing to lower the pitch and allow a full range of notes to be played easily. Click here for more information on how valves work.

French Horns come in 2 main sizes: most horns are pitched in F, which is good for middle to low pitches, but a shorter instrument in Bb (B flat) is better for higher notes. Many modern instruments combine both horns into one double horn with a ‘change’ valve operated by the thumb. This arrangement provides a strong sound over a very wide range of notes. The French horn has one of the widest range of any of the brass instruments.

The French horn plays mostly in bands and orchestras but it is also a very effective instrument playing jazz music. Nearly every block-buster film makes extensive use of the horn – the Star Wars films would have been nothing without the horn! Here’s a few seconds of famous film composer John Williams conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in the main theme, but it’s worth watching the whole video for a brass masterclass!

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