The horn, still commonly referred to as French horn, is a brass instrument made of narrow tubing of conical bore with a widely flaring bell. Like all brass instruments, the horn is sounded by the vibration of the player’s lips. The horn is equipped with valves (similar to the trumpet, valve trombone and tuba) which assist the player in playing different notes by altering the overall length of the instrument. Rotor valves, as opposed to piston valves are most commonly used today and unlike other valved brass instruments, they are manipulated using the fingers of the left hand rather than the right. The tubing of the horn is coiled so that despite its length, the instrument can be held across the body with the right hand in the bell allowing the left hand to operate the valves. The type of horn most commonly played today is the double horn. The double horn is comprised of two sets of tubing with one being about twelve feet long (F horn) and the other approximately nine feet in length (Bb horn). Modern horns typically have three valves with an additional thumb valve used to switch between F and Bb horns. The modern horn is a transposing instrument notated in F, meaning that a written C sounds as F a perfect fifth below. The double horn is capable of a range of approximately 3 ½ octaves from written “F# ” to about “c3”.
Natural horns (without valves) were common in Europe during the sixteenth century in various forms. Crooks were used to enable playing in various keys, but before the invention of the valve in 1818, the horn was limited to producing given notes of the harmonic series. A technique of “stopping” the horn by placing the hand in the bell followed, allowing for some additional notes although this technique affected the tone quality of the instrument. Because of the its sonorous tone quality, coiled, compact nature (earlier horn types were shorter than the horn of today) and limitations in terms of available notes, early horns became suitable instruments to depict various types of fanfares including hunting calls for which the modern horn is still used today. Although the horn found its way into the orchestra by the mid-eighteenth century, its role as a chromatic instrument did not come about until the mid-nineteenth century after the advent of the valve.
The modern horn is used in a variety of performing groups and styles. Found in symphony orchestras, chamber orchestras and ensembles, bands, film scores, solo settings and occasionally jazz ensembles, the horn is the only instrument typically used in both woodwind and brass ensembles. Because of its unique blending capabilities, the horn is used to depict many different moods ranging from the noble calls associated with Siegfried in Wagner’s opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, to the longing, tender melody at the end of the tone poem, Ein Heldenleben, by Richard Strauss. Hornists often use mutes made of wood and cardboard or a similar synthetic composition which fit into the bell and are used to alter the timbre of the instrument. A special mute may be used, rather than the hand, to play “stopped” notes. Standard solo repertoire for the horn includes works by composers such as Mozart, Schumann, Strauss, and Hindemith. Well-known hornists include Denis Brain, Philip Farkas, Barry Tuckwell, and Dale Clevenger.