A Brief History
Like most horns in the brass family, the french horn evolved from hunting horns. As hunting horns were being used more and more for orchestral purposes in the 16th century the horn was adapted to be able to play a wider range of notes than the previous monotone horns used for hunting.
The German musician Anton Joseph Hampel was the one who brilliantly added slides (crooks) to the horn for the purpose of a wider range. He added these slides so that the instrument would be multi-toned opposed to monotone. The most significant change came later in the 19th century when rotary valves were added by Heinrich Stolzel. This was added so that the horn could play a chromatic scale more easily and efficiently. Thus, the horn finally evolved into the horn we are familiar with today.
(Side Note: this common horn, with rotary valves, is technically called a “german horn” or more simply “the horn”. French horns actually have piston valves.)
About the French Horn
French horns have a warm, velvety tone and is most commonly found in orchestras, marching bands and school bands.
French horns are made to play in ‘Bb’ or ‘F’. Horns made to be played in ‘Bb’ are the most common among students known as “single” horns. “Double” horns can play both in ‘F’ and ‘Bb’ and are more commonly found to be played by intermediate and professional players.
How to play
Place your right hand inside the bell and your left hand on the the keys with your thumbs resting on the underside. The horn is played by making a buzzing sounds with your lips into the mouthpiece while simultaneously letting air pass through the small opening your lips. By making the “buzzing” sound it passes through the tubes and creates the full noise which then exits the bell of the horn.
How the sound works
Rotary valves are the tube like structures attached to the keys of the horn. By pressing each the keys on the horn, the valve twist and will change the path that the air will pass through the tubes of the horn which creates different pitches. This allows you to put certain notes together to make a song.
Purchasing a Horn
Purchasing a horn can be fairly expensive if you are paying out of pocket. A new student model can cost anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars to a thousand. Intermediate or professional horns start in the thousand range. If you are the beginner or you have a beginning student and plan to be resourceful by shopping online, at pawn shops or in a used instrument shop it would be a good idea to bring a horn player with you. Not every instrument is created equally and by reducing the risk of purchasing a worn or unplayable horn you’ll be much happier in the future.
Here are some tips when shopping for a horn:
- The horn should have no holes, major dents or crimps especially on the valve casings and any tube on the horn.
- Check the quality of the metal, it should be smooth and even. Especially around any joint where a metal tube meets another metal tube.
- If it doesn’t have a serial number or brand; for your sake and the sake of the repair man or woman, walk away!
- Each valve should move effortlessly. You can check this by pressing the keys on the instrument.
- Each slide should pull in and out effortlessly.
For beginners renting a horn is a great option. Most rental instruments come with an insurance or maintenance plans which ease the stress of you or your student carrying around an expensive instrument.
Here is a list of brand names that tend to be reliable:
Hopefully this information can help educate you on your journey into the brass world. Playing an instrument can be very rewarding if you are set up for success. Whether beginner or professional, let us help you. Stop by our shop or visit our contact page with your questions.
By Leah Houston