Pay the Piper

So you want to play a musical instrument?

You think you'd like to learn the french horn? We tell you the advantages and pitfalls, where to buy one, how to get lessons, what it will cost - everything you need to know

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The French Horn

Family: Brass
Cost: from £785 (the lowest price we could find, VAT included)
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 horn.
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all the horn-players in the world, and (b) re-printing all the music - so instead we carry on perpetuating this out-of-date and ridiculous system!
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.
One reputable manufacturer, Besson, offer an instrument called the "Kinder" Horn which is said to be more suitable for young beginners. It costs about £700.
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 £1000. They are all the same size, but beginners may be able to cut costs by using a single horn at first. Do not buy until (a) you are sure that you can find a teacher - there aren't many about, and (b) you have explored 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 of the best-known tutor books for horn is Abracadabra 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, A 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 The Yehudi Menuhin Music Guides - Horn. Two books for more advanced players are Horn Technique and The 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 to recommend Barry Tuckwell playing 18th Century horn music, or the same player's recording of French 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. The Horn Player's FAQ is excellent too.
• Expensive instrument
• Hard to start
• Quite hard to find a teacher
• Excellent opportunities for group music-making
• Not particularly prone to damage, though trouble with valves is common
• Fairly easy to transport


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Copyright © David Bramhall 2005