Alto Horns

Quick guide to popular Alto Horns

The Alto Horn

In the 1800s most towns had brass bands. They were enlisted to join the armies. In a lot of those bands, the E Flat Cornet, B Flat Cornet which was lower sounding, Alto Horn which filled in the middle voices with its even lower sounding voice, over-the-shoulder cornets or sax-horns which threw the sound back to the regiment so that they could hear their favorite tunes while marching, and other brass instruments comprising of different sizes to the biggest – the E FlatTuba, were being played. Military bands also had field music instruments for camp calls, combat calls and duty calls.

For this article, we will discuss the Alto Horn or E FlatHorn that is known also to the British as the Tenor Horn. It belongs to the saxhorn family and often was pitched in E-flat (Eb).

It’s mainly canonical bore and deep funnel or cornet-like mouthpiece makes it a good alternative to the French Horn. The alto horn, as a valved brass instrument, with predominantly piston valves, is common among Brass bands while the French horn does a lot of solo parts.

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Benefits of Using the Alto Horn instrument

The sound it produces is mellow and rounded and thus it is used as a middle voice to support trumpets and flugelhorns like a bridge between the lower tenor sounds and the bass sounds comprising of trombones, baritones and tuba.  The alto horn has many shapes, mostly like a small tuba with the bell pointing upward to blend the band with the crowd, for UK and US models, or pointing forward like most European models, like an large flugelhorn, thus projecting the sound towards the audience. There are other variants like those with bells pointing backwards over the shoulder to help the regiment listen to their favorite marching piece.  There are also variants that can be pointed to the player’s choice because it has a detachable bell.

 

Downside of Playing an Alto Horn instrument

The loops of the alto horn are either over the top of the valves or below them.  Top brands are looped like a classic horn or a Wagner tuba with rotary horns. Alto horns often play in the middle of the band often with solo passages although not usually a solo instrument.  It does lack resonance, projection power and force making it difficult to hear even as a section. They were dubbed as the “Cinderella” of the band often hiding its beauty as her loud sisters the cornets and trombones sing with powerful voices.  Very few pieces have been written for the alto-horn because of this. It is therefore being used more as a bridge instrument to help the band attain a rich melodious yet full-bodied sound, than as a solo or section instrument.

Newer alto-horns like the Besson Sovereign and the Yamaha Maestro are now being designed to enhance projection power without losing the mellow qualities of the original design.  There are different bore sizes to emphasize on exquisiteness of melody and tone, to the modern day alto horn, which makes it play similarly to the Flugelhorn which has large bores that give weight to the sound. Some have added a 4th bore as an F trigger similar to the trombone.  Of course, the biggest consideration when choosing a good alto horn is the sound itself…one should look for that creamy light and soft mellowness which is the mark of a finely made alto-horn.

 

How the Alto Horn work

The alto horn was actually a popular instrument and not many are being sold nowadays. From time to time, though, an alto horn would be found being sold online priced much less than a brand new one.  People buy it for fun and for learning about classical music.  Alto Horns were popular in the olden days as brass band instruments but the French Horn seems to have overtaken it by reputation relegating the Alto Horn as the peck horn or the French Horn’s poor cousin.

 

Is the Alto Horn cheap? Is the Alto Horn heavy?

A brand new alto horn ranges from $1,000 low end to $2,500 high end but if you get lucky, you might find one in good condition online that sells for $100. Alto Horns are just about the weight of a Trumpet or a French horn and not too bulky either. One can carry it around during a parade or a performance, without much difficulty.

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