Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Ten facts about the French horn

Although there are several different bell-shaped brass instruments, from trumpets to tubas, it’s the French horn that people are talking about when they mention “the horn.” Known for its deep yet high-ranging sound, the French horn is an indispensable part of any orchestra or concert band.

  1. Before the double horn was invented, the “single horn” was primarily used in orchestras and bands. The most popular was the German horn, which emerged in the late nineteenth century and included a slide-crook, which was used to tune the horn. It was also noticeable for its much larger bell-horn, which made it much wider than any subsequent incarnation of the French horn.
  2. Although the horn is an ancient instrument, the French horn wasn’t introduced until the seventeenth century. It made its first known debut in the comedy-ballet La Princesse d’Elide in Paris in 1664.
  3. It’s not actually one piece. Like most instruments, the French horn comes in pieces because of its awkward shape. Even when the horn is made in one piece, it’s fairly easy to cut the horn off into a “screw bell” to make it easier to transport.
  4. Although the horn has never since in popularity, it’s been reshaped several times over the centuries. Crooks, which are pieces of tubing inserted at the mouthpiece, were added in the eighteenth century so that horn players could avoid transposing as they played, which can be tedious.
  5. Musicians don’t just place their hands in French horns to hold them in position. It actually affects the pitch of certain notes, meaning the musician uses more than breathing techniques and lip tension to stay in-tune.
  6. The most common type of French horn, usually employed in orchestras and bands, is actually called a “double horn.” This type of horn employs a fourth valve, which is used to play different notes through a separate set of tubes. This is what gives the French horn the widest range of notes out of any brass instrument.
  7. Although a brass instrument, the French horn does not actually figure into most brass bands.
  8. The horn is often called the most difficult instrument to play. Although it can hit such a wide range of notes, it’s incredibly easy for a musician to crack notes or play flat, making it an even more impressive feat to truly master the French horn.
  9. When uncoiled, the horn is 12 to 13 feet long. That’s a lot of tubing!
  10. Not all French horns have been used for music purposes. Once called a “hunting horn,” it’s that same instrument you see red-coated European aristocrats carrying on horseback in period dramas.

The above are only ten facts from the extensive entry in Grove Music Online. Did we leave out any fun facts about the French horn?

Featured image: French Horn. Photo by Wolfgang Lonien. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Recent Comments

  1. Rich Rohrich

    In Jewish culture, the horn locally known as shofar was made from the horn of a ram, and was used to announce events such as Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *