The French horn is part of the brass family of instruments and has an elaborate design that consists of coiled tubing that ends with a large bell. It is also known as the double horn and made its debut during a Parisian ballet in 1664.
Controversially known as the “French horn”, the instrument’s origins are not actually confirmed so is commonly referred to simply as the Horn among professionals.
Seen as one of the most difficult instruments to play and the hardest brass instrument, the French horn is not an easy instrument to master.
Boasting the widest musical playing range from the brass family, it’s easy to squeak or crack while playing, especially when learning the basic techniques.
This is thanks to the instrument’s intricately coiled structure as well as the enormous musical range the instrument has which we will be discussing later in the article.
The French horn is an instrument that demands the time and practice from its player in order to master all of the techniques as cracking notes is a very common occurrence due to its complexity.
Made from numerous pieces of brass, the French horn is transported unassembled as it would be very difficult to travel with otherwise.
Although the layout is coiled, the length of the brass totals up to 12 to 13 feet long if it was stretched out making it one of the most intricate instruments in the orchestra.
Unlike many other brass instruments, there is more to the French horn than simply blowing into the mouthpiece. From the way it is held to the placement of the fingers, the French horn is notoriously difficult for this reason.
That is why we have come up with this mini guide to help you. We’ll delve into how the French horn is played, the musical playing range and what key the French horn is in.
By the end of reading this guide, you’ll know everything you have to know whether you are a potential player who has never held a French horn before or an avid player who wants to know a bit more.
How is the French horn played?
The French horn is played with the right hand placed inside the bell. This helps to control the pitch and tone whilst performing and keeps the instrument in balance.
Unlike other brass instruments, the mouthpiece is a funnel shape that is then blown into whilst the various note keys require a lot of fingering technique to fully master the full range.
This is because of where the keys are actually placed on the instrument. There are three lever keys which are located above the large valve and these are pushed towards the outer tubes whereas the thumb key is located at the nearest valve and is pushed inwards towards the other three keys.
What is the musical range of the French horn?
As mentioned in the introduction of this article, the French horn has the largest playing range of the brass family. It’s full range goes from A1-F5 and is usually played in treble clef but is something played in bass clef because of its wide range.
Even though the French horn has the widest range with 5 octaves, it is actually the third highest sounding instrument behind the trumpet and cornet which are the highest and second highest, respectively.
Because the range is so vast, there are more techniques that the player has to master to produce a beautiful sound. Breathing faster and producing more lip tension are the techniques used when playing the higher notes and the French horn is mainly played in its higher register.
What key is the French horn in?
A French horn is usually played in the keys of F or B♭. If you have an F horn, they are regularly tuned to E♭ whereas a B♭ horn is tuned to the A key. This is done by using a valve. You’ll know which key your French horn is in by the length.
The most popular model, the F key horn, has a longer coil so is larger in circumference whereas the B♭ has a shorter coil and therefore looks smaller.
French horns are most commonly played in F because it allows more access to the full musical range, especially the higher notes which is ideal for those who are learning to play so they can experience the full range of the instrument.
This is why when you go to concerts or recitals, the French horn will usually be played in the F key. B♭ horns are higher pitched in general due to their shorter length meaning they’re suited for higher registered pieces only and cannot reach the lower registers.
Why does the French horn sound so unique?
It is a transposing instrument which means it is not written in concert pitch so when conducting for the French horn, its sound needs to be fully considered and tailored to the instrument otherwise it will not sound right when it comes to performing.
Music for the French horn is written a perfect 5th higher than they sound.
When it comes to concerts, you’ll find that the music for the third horn is often higher than the second horn which is unusual when it comes to how the ordering works for other instruments such as the trumpet.
This is because when writing his Eroica symphony, Beethoven added a third horn to the composition which was lower than the first but higher than the second.
From then on, the first and third horns have been known as “high horns” whereas the second and fourth horn are the “low horns”. Some composers still follow this technique today whereas some composers will have the horns in descending order as is expected in tradition.
In conclusion, the French horn may be one of the hardest instruments to play but once you have mastered how to play it, you’ll probably be able to play other brass instruments with ease.
As mentioned above, there are a lot more techniques to consider when playing which makes it so difficult in terms of how the instrument is constructed and the breathing techniques required to reach all the notes.
It is, however, one of the most beautiful sounding brass instruments as it has a mellowed sound thanks to its rounded coiled shape.