Facts About The French Horn

My last post that shone a spotlight on an orchestral instrument focussed on the Trumpet, the highest pitched member of the brass family. You can read my post by clicking here:

Facts about the Trumpet

Following on from this post I wanted to move on to another member of the brass family, the French Horn.

A cartoon image of a golden French Horn, the bell facing to the right of the screen.

What is the French Horn and how do you play it?

  • When people talk about the horn, they will generally be talking about the French Horn. So if someone you know says they play the horn, then it is this instrument they are referring to.
  • The French horn is part of the brass family of instruments. A horn player will sit with the other brass players (trombonists, trumpeters, tuba players) when playing in an orchestra.
  • The French horn is made from a very long curled brass tube that ends in a wide bell. If you uncurled all of the tubing the horn would measure 12 to 13 feet for a single horn, and up to 22 feet for a double horn!
  • The French horn has the smallest mouthpiece of any of the brass instruments, and the mouthpiece is funnel shaped. This helps give the horn it’s distinctive, mellow sound.
  • The horn is a large instrument, so much so that some come with a detachable bell so that it is easier to transport.
  • Someone who plays the French horn would be called a horn player.
  • The French horn has the largest range of notes it can play of any of the brass instruments, at up to 4 octaves.
  • To play the horn, a horn player will need to blow air through the tubing. To do this players hold their mouth against the mouthpiece, purse their lips and blow down the tubing. Air will pass along the tubing, vibrating as it goes along to create a sound and that sound will escape from the bell at the other end of the instrument.
  • To change the note played horn players will press keys on the horn that open valves in the tubing and change the length of tubing the air travels through. As with all instruments, air that travels through a short tube will have a higher sound and air that travels through a longer tube will have a lower sound.
  • The horn player can also affect the note played using the volume, or amount of air they push through the tubing.
  • If you watch horn players in an orchestra, you may notice that they sometimes put their fist inside the bell of their instrument. Doing this also changes the sound that the horn makes, making it a sort of echo sound and changing the sound, and also pitch of the note produced. The reason for this is that placing your fist inside the bell, changes how air can escape from the tubing – it restricts how much air can escape – and this is what can affect the pitch of the note produced.
  • There are different French horns available to play, the single and the double French horn, with the single horn being easier to play when you are first starting out. The double horn is most commonly played.
Rondo from Mozart’s Horn Concerto No 4, performed by brass players of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra

History of the French Horn

  • The French horn is an instrument that has its roots in hunting. Based on early hunting horns, the first ones would have been made from hollowed out animal horns or bones. These early horns would have been used to warn people of nearby danger, or to announce that a feast was about to start.
  • Once the horn started being made out of metal, it continued to be used in hunts. The instrument itself would have been much simpler than modern horns, consisting of just metal tubing curled around a couple of times, and the pitch of this instrument would have been controlled entirely by how much air a player pushed through the tubing, by blowing more or less air into the mouthpiece, or changing the shape or pressure of their lips on the mouthpiece.
  • Although it is called the French horn, the modern version of this instrument is actually German in origin. German horn makers added rotary valves into the instrument making it much easier for horn players to play, as before this they had to keep changing the pipes in the horn mid-performance.
  • No one really knows why the French horn earned the title it did given that the modern instrument was invented by German instrument makers, though there are a number of theories as to the title’s origin, but the International Horn Society declared that the French Horn be known as Horn in the English language in 1971 to clarify the confusion in the terminology of the instrument’s name.
  • Obviously, given that I have titled this post Facts about the French Horn, that name still sticks.

Famous French horn players

  • There are a number of famous horn players, including Sarah Willis (featured in the video I have included above), Radek Baborak and Barry Tuckwell, all of whom hold or have held positions in some of the world’s best orchestras.
  • There are also some people, famous for other things, who are horn players as well, including:
    • Jon Stewart, one time host of The Daily Show on Comedy Central
    • Ewan McGregor, actor of Star Wars fame
    • Singer and actor Vanessa Williams.

French horn World Record

  • On 1 March 2019, 279 French horn players played together at the Carnaval du Cor (an annual horn festival, where musicians from 14 countries come together to play the horn) in Bavaria, Germany making this the Guiness World Record holding largest French horn ensemble.

If you have enjoyed reading my blog post, thank you. I am always looking for ideas for the blog, so would love to hear from you with suggestions for topics you would like me to cover in the future. Also, if you would be interested in supporting me to keep this blog running, buying the books to review here, and supplies to make the DIY instruments, for example, I would be absolutely delighted if you would consider buying me a coffee using the following link: Buy Me A Coffee Thank you!!

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