French Horns

Quick guide to popular French Horns

The French Horn

The French Horn or simply “the Horn” is a wind instrument used widely in orchestral, chamber and military or school bands. It is brass and was first derived from a large circular hunting horn used in France in the mid 1600s. Originally, the horn did not have valves but in the 19th century, valves were added. Today, there are two types of horn: the French and the German with mostly rotary valves (French) or piston valves (English).  Most modern horns were derived from the German model.

The horn is circular but when stretched into a straight line, the horn measures about 2 meters with a detached tubing or crook at the narrow end to lower the pitch.  It plays in the Key of F and with a cup-shaped mouthpiece that used to be funnel-shaped.

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Playing the French Horn

The player puts his right hand inside the mouth of the bell, while the left hand actuates the valves that deflect the air through the attached tubing.  In French horns, the 3rd valve, when depressed, creates an ascending tone. The German Horn, with a large bore compared to the French model, is also known as the double horn because a thumb valve, creates either an F or a Bflat, or Bflat and A. This gives the horn more versatility and confidence especially when it comes to high notes.  The German horn is capable of more elaborate efforts and can deliver towering sound.  Muting can also be done with a separate mute or by inserting the right hand to raise the pitch a semitone.

Tensing the lips against the mouthpiece was how original horns were sounded. Animal horns which truncated at the narrow end where a side hole was made gave a natural sound that helped hunters of old. Metal horns, shaped like the tusks of mammoths, dated back to the Bronze age and have been used by the shepherds of Scandinavia, Spain, Sudan, and also in ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Israel, and Africa

The French horn became a popular orchestral instrument in the 1700s.  An orchestra nowadays will normally have 4 horns. Inserting a hand into the bell to alter pitch and to obtain additional notes, gave the French horn the nickname “hand horn”. This technique coupled with the use of crooks to modify tonalities, enabled Mozart and Beethoven pieces to be played.  The two-valved horn and the 3-valved horn of 1815 and 1830 created more even scale.


Buying a French Horn

Buying medieval horns is only for collectors. Medieval horns were made of ivory because ivory was associated with royalty.  These had mostly finger holes, not valves.  Antiques can cost up to a hundred thousand dollars or more.

Modern Professional French horns are more German actually than French, will sell up to $10,000 but average at around $3,000. Used and old horns sell for as low as $30 on eBay or Amazon. When buying a French horn, make sure you choose one that suits your needs and the sound that you are looking for.  Consider the basic parts of the horn such as the bell where the sound comes out, the rotor and rotor levers which when pressed down changes the pitch or when opened redirects air flow.

Consider also the turning slides – those extra tubings that cause pitch to change, the lead pipe that holds the mouthpiece, and the water rotor that releases built-up moisture. When considering these, consider and be familiar with the kind of material that they are made from. We cannot discuss here the difference for say, a yellow brass bell versus a bell and a red or rose brass; or plastic versus metal parts. Most professional horns are made of high-grade materials. For beginners, a Look for dents, scratches, dirt and hardened smudges that can affect sound or sound clarity.

The size is not really a big issue when it comes to portability. And most horns come in a good leather or semi-leather carrying case.  Most horns have a screw bell or a detachable makes it easier for transport.


Maintaining the French Horn

The horn is an instrument that likes warm water and soap. Wipe dry with a soft towel. Clean the mouthpiece and then its finish and end up with a polish cloth. Do not use liquid polish. You can grease and wipe with clean cloth the horn’s parts by removing them carefully such as the valve caps, bearing shaft, pivot points and to rotate the valves. Cleaning will keep the horn sanitary. Do not remove the rotor valves – let a pro do it.

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