10 Things You Should Know for the French Horn

by Allison Horky
The double French horn has four valves and eight slides.

The double French horn has four valves and eight slides.

Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images

The French horn, which actually has its origins in Germany, produces a unique, smooth sound when played due to its funnel mouthpiece and over 12 feet of tubing. The French horn, informally called a horn, is a standard instrument in bands and orchestras. The horn section is typically larger than other brass sections, such as the trumpet or trombone sections, due to its acute sound. The horn is played in the key of F and B-flat.

Natural Horn

The modern French horn descended from the natural horn, which had no valves. The horn could still be tuned to different keys by changing the length of the tubing. The thumb trigger on double horns performs this function now. The natural horn came after the hunting horn, which had a fixed length and no slides. The player could adjust the tones by using her right hand as a mute in the bell.

Instrument Construction

The French horn is between 12 and 13 feet of tubing when stretched out and is made of brass. It is the only left-handed instrument although it can be constructed with the valves on the the right-hand side. The French horn has a funnel mouthpiece, compared to U-shaped pieces seen on trumpets and trombones. It produces a lighter, smoother sound. The mouthpiece requires more precision in the embouchure and is harder to play accurately. The horn has a large bell that faces away from the audience. Modern horns have a removable bell that makes transportation easier. Horns typically have rotary valves, but early horns were developed with piston valves.

Single Horns

A single horn has three valves connected to three adjustable tubes. A single horn is lighter than a double horn because of having less tubing. Single horns can be in the key of F or B-flat. Playing higher notes on a horn in F is difficult due to the tones being close together and thus harder to clearly hear one note compared to another. The single B-flat horn allows the player more accuracy in the upper range but sacrifices clarity in the lower notes.

Double Horn

The double horn has two sets of tubing, one that plays in the key of F and one in B-flat. This solves the problem of having to pick a single horn in the key of F or B-flat. The double horn has a fourth valve by the thumb that, when depressed, changes the horn from F to B-flat. The two keys are also called "sides." Players typically use the B-flat side of the horn when above an A note on the staff. Changing from the F side to the B-flat side shortens the length of the horn overall, making it easier to reach higher notes with accuracy.

Photo Credits

  • Stockbyte/Stockbyte/Getty Images