Instruments | World Horns | Brass

Virtually any tube, even without any modification as a musical instrument, can be sounded as a horn, producing a series of notes from the harmonic series.


Many of the world’s horns are found objects: an animal horn with the tip cut off, or a large spiral-type shell, usually a conch, with the point cut off to give access to the tube within. Separate cup-shaped mouthpieces are often fit. Blown conches aren’t particularly suited to playing tunes; their use is usually for signalling and ritual – for example in the ceremonies of Hindu temples in India and in the Buddhist temples of Tibet, Nepal and East Asia.

Animal Horns

Most of the range of musical animal horns in Africa are blown not at the end but via a hole cut in the side. This approach gives the maker control of the size and shape of embouchure independently of the tube’s diameter. Some animal horns, such as the Norwegian bukkehorn (‘goat-horn’, though often a cow’s), are drilled with finger holes. Accurate pitching is difficult on such short horns.

Bark-Bound Horns

Most of the world’s many horns are, indeed, made rather than found: at the simplest, a spiral of birch-bark, pegged at the wide end to stop it unravelling, or a branch split, a bore and mouth-cup hollowed out, and then the two halves glued back together and bound with birch-bark. Bark-bound wooden instruments were played, particularly by herders, up to the twentieth century in the Nordic countries, Russia, and in the mountain areas of Europe. Many of these are of great length; the longer a horn, the more usable are the higher harmonics, which – being closer together in pitch – can produce a more complete scale. The best-known and most engineered of these is the Alpine alphorn, a straight, gradually expanding tube up to 4 m (13 ft) long that curves upwards just before the bell. Modern alphorns usually dismantle for travel, and some are made of carbon-fibre.


The famous didgeridoo of aboriginal Australians is made from a length of eucalyptus branch hollowed out by termites. Its blowing end is wide, usually smoothed with a beeswax coating, and the player uses a sophisticated technique with slack embouchure producing low drone notes, pulsing his breath, utilizing mouth resonance and adding in vocal yelps and barks that intermodulate with the blown sound, which is maintained continuously by circular breathing.

Metal Horns

Metal horns are widespread and, being durable, examples have survived from antiquity. Among these are the Bronze Age Scandinavian lur, which is ‘S’-shaped with a disc bell, and the mouthpiece and animal-headed bell of the otherwise probably wooden carnyx of the ancient Celts.

Metal horns played today include ornate straight ceremonial trumpets in Tibet and Benin, which range up to alphorn-length, the lur-like ‘C’-curved kombu and ‘S’-curved narsiga of India, the short signal horn of English foxhunters, the coiled military signalling bugle, and the whole range of trumpets and other orchestral brass.

Introduction | Brass Instruments
Instruments | Cornett | Brass

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


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