Instruments | Horn Family | Brass

The term ‘horn’ is generally used to refer to the orchestral horn, also known as the French horn. Although it is used in jazz slang to indicate any wind instrument played by a soloist, the name here refers to the orchestral horn.


The early history of the horn is bound intimately to that of the trumpet. Both instruments were made of brass, both were sounded by buzzing lips, both were used to give signals during the hunt. The first clear distinction was made in France in the late-seventeenth century. Jean-Baptiste Lully’s (1632–87) ballet La princesse d’Elide, performed at Versailles in 1664, is unequivocally scored for cors de chasse (hunting horns). An engraving of a scene from the work clearly shows circularly coiled horns as opposed to the more rectangular trumpets.

Two horns from this period survive – one by Starck from 1667 and one by Crétien from 1680. They clearly show the key characteristics of the modern horn: the circular spiral coil and conical bore (the trumpet at this time was cylindrically bored). French makers were vital in the development of the horn, and its ‘French horn’ title is an accurate reflection of the instrument’s origins.


Having no valves or keys, the horn could only play notes in the harmonic series of its fundamental pitch. Instruments were initially made with different fundamentals for use in music of different keys. Early-eighteenth-century Vienna, however, saw the first use of crooks. In conjunction with the development of crooks, a new playing technique appeared. During the early eighteenth century, players discovered that the tuning of a note was affected by inserting the hand into the bell. Partially closing the bell lowered the pitch by around a half step, and fully closing the bell raised it by a half step. While both actions altered the instrument’s timbre, it was possible to disguise the change created by a partial closure almost completely.

Hand Horn

The technique of hand-stopping, as it became known, made the whole chromatic scale available to the horn, revolutionizing the instrument. By the middle of the eighteenth century, hand horn playing was the standard in orchestras across Europe. The horn concerti of Haydn and Mozart, along with Beethoven’s horn sonata all use this technique. In fact, it became so popular that players, conductors and composers were reluctant to leave it behind. All of Johannes Brahms’ (1833–97) orchestral parts are written for the hand horn, even though the horn was by then fully equipped with valves; hand-horn techniques were still taught in the 1920s.

Despite this popularity, though, instrument technology continued to move forwards and by the early 1800s there was a growing demand for instruments that produced an even colour across their entire compass. The first attempt at this was the curiously named ‘omnitonic’ horn, first constructed by J.B. Dupont in Paris around 1815.

Omnitonic Horn

In truth, the omnitonic...

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Source: The Illustrated Complete Musical Instruments Handbook, general editor Lucien Jenkins


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