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Pay the Piper
The French Horn
Cost: varies wildly - see text below
Best age to start: 12 years upwards
Easy to start? No
The French Horn, or just "horn" for short, consists of a
very long, narrow tube of brass coiled round on itself to save space.
The sound comes out of the flared bell, and is made by blowing a "raspberry"
with your lips into the cup-shaped mouthpiece. In effect, your lips
are vibrating like the reed of a clarinet, and this vibration becomes
musical sound in its passage through the specially-shaped bore of the
You can obtain a number of different "open" notes in this
way by varying the tension of your lips (try blowing a raspberry and
smiling at the same time), and can then produce the notes in between
by pressing different combinations of valves. The valves divert the
air through little extra lengths of tubing, thus making the instrument
temporarily a bit longer and therefore deeper. There are usually three
valves, sometimes four.
The horn is carried in one piece in a rigid case specially shaped.
Despite its strange shape, it is not difficult to carry.
The French Horn is a transposing instrument, usually described as "Horn
in F". This means that when you play Middle C on the Horn, the
sound that comes out is actually the F below Middle C so all your
music is modified to suit. Therefore you won't be able to play the
same music as your friend who plays the flute (well, you can, but it
won't sound too good!).
The system of "transposing" instruments is a bit of a
nonsense, and has its roots way back in musical history. It would be
far more sensible to do away with it so that all instruments could
play from the same music, but this would mean (a) re-educating all the
horn-players in the world, and (b) re-printing all the music - so
instead we carry on perpetuating this out-of-date and ridiculous
There is more than one type of horn, the two principal ones being the
single horn and the double horn. The single horn is suitable for
beginners, but it won't be too long before you'll want to get a double
horn which will make it easier to play in different keys. Your horn
teacher will advise you about this. You hold the horn on your right
hand side with the mouthpiece to your lips (obviously!) and the bell
pointing backwards - it is the only instrument that adopts this odd
position. Your left hand operates the valves, while the right supports
the bell of the instrument. Before long you will be taught to insert
your right hand into the bell of the instrument and use it to modify
the sound - again, a technique unique to the horn.
The horn is not an easy instrument to start. The amount of puff
required is considerable, and it is rare for players to begin before
they are 11 or 12 years old. It is not unknown for pupils to start on
the trumpet and transfer to the horn later. Another problem is that
the "open" notes are numerous and close together, which
makes the horn more difficult than the trumpet or trombone where the
open notes are spaced further apart so it's easier to control movement
from one to another.
The horn is used in orchestras and wind bands. There are almost never
enough horn players to go round, so once you are a good enough player
you will find little difficulty getting into local youth orchestras
etc. In this respect the horn offers good opportunities for group
music-making. Horn-players are also in demand for chamber (i.e. small
group) music as composers frequently use the horn as a member of
woodwind and other ensembles. For instance, a "wind quintet"
normally consists of one flute, one oboe, one clarinet, one bassoon
and one horn. Just why the horn has this association with the woodwind
is not clear - probably it just sounds right!
There is little to go wrong with a horn as it has few moving parts.
It is easily dented, of course, and this can be expensive to repair
especially if the damage is so severe the lacquer which protects the
brass surface has to be renewed. The few moving parts are in the
valves, and these do give trouble from time to time. Repairs are not
difficult or expensive, but they can be annoying as even the smallest
fault can make the instrument completely unplayable. There is little
maintenance to do on a horn, but the tuning slides need to be moved
and greased from time to time.
Horns are expensive to buy - a new double horn will probably cost you
more than £1,500. They are all the same size, but beginners may be
able to cut costs by using a single horn at first. These can be incredibly cheap (about £180 on the internet) although we aren't sure of their quality. This wide variation
makes it very important that before buying you (a) find a teacher (there aren't many
about) and ask his/her advice, and (b) explore the possibility of borrowing or
renting one. Local Music Services are well aware of the shortage of
horn players, and may be eager to help you by lending you an
instrument. Another very useful resource is the website
which advertises secondhand instruments at attractive prices and
carries a database of horn teachers.
One reputable manufacturer, Besson, offer an instrument called the "Kinder"
Horn which is said to be more suitable for young beginners. It costs
about £800, but this reputable dealer sometimes has secondhand ones.
One of the best-known tutor books for horn is
French Horn. A few people consider trying to learn the horn by
themselves without a teacher. We don't recommend this at all.
But if you're absolutely determined,
Tune a Day for French Horn may be fairly old and no longer the
best tutor book around, but we still think it's particularly suitable
for lone students.
To learn more about the horn and how it is played, try
Yehudi Menuhin Music Guides - Horn. Two books for more advanced
Horn Handbook. Click the links to buy them online at discounted
prices. We also looked for a CD that would enable you to hear the horn
being played by one of the world's great masters, and we have decided
Tuckwell playing 18th Century horn music, or the same player's
French Horn music!
You might also be interested to look at
, a wonderful site for those who play the French Horn or are thinking
of doing so. Advertisements for secondhand horns, a database of horn
teachers, an interesting links page and loads of other good things.
Hard to start
Quite hard to find a teacher
Excellent opportunities for group music-making
Not particularly prone to damage, though trouble with valves
Fairly easy to transport