French horn

Also:       double horn      horn      cor      corno      

Title: Mozart: Four Horn Concertos—Concerto No. 4 for Horn and Orchestra K. 495, by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; Dale Clevenger, French horn, with Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra. Label: CBS Masterworks. Format: CD. Catalogue#: MK 42324. Track: 11.

Contextual Associations

The modern horn (also referred to as the ‘French horn’ and the ‘double horn’) is an end-blown lip-reed aerophone outfitted with rotary valves that make it fully chromatic. Originating in Europe, the horn today can be found throughout the world wherever Western cosmopolitanism has taken root. It is played both by professionals and amateurs, males and females. It is a standard instrument in the symphony orchestra, where much of the repertoire written from the second half of the 18th century to the present requires two or four, occasionally eight, horn players. The instrumentation of works for military, marching, and concert bands and wind ensembles invariable include multiple horn parts. The horn has been included in a wide array of chamber music ensembles as well, including the woodwind quintet and other mixed woodwind and brass combinations, and many brass ensemble configurations. A solo and concerto repertoire of considerable size, dating back to the second half of the 18th century, has accrued for this instrument. Not only concertizing professionals draw upon this literature for performance dates with orchestras and for recitals throughout the cosmopolitan world, but amateur players as well for solo competitions in secondary school music programs. The performance of this solo repertoire is today perhaps most concentrated in tertiary educational institutions around the world (music schools and conservatories), which typically include on their faculty a professor of horn and offer degrees in horn performance at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Amateur horn players can find musical outlets in municipal bands and orchestras. Because of its origins in the natural hunting horn, composers have on occasion drawn upon this association to index the social practice of the hunt, or its pastoral setting, in their compositions by writing fanfare-like passages that listeners interpret to mean ‘the hunt,’ even though in reality true hunting horns were used to produce monotone signals.


As one of its names reveals, the double horn is two instruments--or at least two sets of tubing--in one. Both sets of tubing share the same starting and ending sections: a length of narrow cylindrical tubing into which a brass mouthpiece is inserted; and several feet of moderately conical tubing that coils around itself before culminating in a widely flaring bell. A thumb-operated rotary valve (see detail image, the single rotor to the left) located at the other end of the mouthpiece tubing serves as both the starting and ending point of the two different lengths of valve tubing, one that in sum total with the mouthpiece and bell sections is approximately 12-feet in length and produces a fundamental pitch of F1 (this is in operation when the valve is not in action), the other 9-feet in length producing a B-flat1 (in action when the valve’s trigger is pressed and the valve rotates). Both the F-tubing and the B-flat-tubing (only one of which is active at any given moment) then pass sequentially through a set of three identical rotary valves each of which will, if rotated by depressing its spatula-shaped finger plate, add an additional loop of tubing to the active tube length (each of these valves has bored into it air channels at two levels, one for when the F-tubing is in action, the other for the B-flat tubing--see second detail image, the upper-right group of three rotors). Two different lengths of extra tubing, situated one on top of the other, are attached to ports on the side of each valve casing, the top, longer one, for the F-tubing, the bottom one for the B-flat-tubing. The first valve, closest to the mouthpiece end, when rotated adds enough length to lower the pitch of its tubing by a whole step (M2); the second valve by a half step (m2); and the third valve by a minor third (m3). Each additional length of tubing, or loop, has its own tuning slide at a U-bend, and there is also a general tuning slide for each of the valve tubing segments, or sides (F and B-flat), of the horn. A detachable thin-rimmed cup mouthpiece is used for this instrument.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The performer holds the final coil of the instrument with the left hand near where the valve finger-plates are located so that the mouthpiece is positioned in front of the mouth and the bell faces sideways to the right of the torso with the right hand, in a partially-cupped position, inserted into it. The first three fingers of the left hand operate the three valves. With any given length of tubing (of which there are seven for each ‘side’ of the horn--the basic length and six combinations of additional loops added with the valves), the performer may produce a fundamental pitch (called a pedal tone) and the notes in the natural harmonic series above it by controlling the force of the airstream (with their diaphragm muscles) and its modulation (with their embouchure muscles adjusting lip tension). The fundamental of the F-side of the horn is F1 and that of the B-flat-side is B-flat1. The pedal tones on the F-side are difficult to sound and seldom used; those of the B-flat side are used. The practical range of the horn is B-flat1 to B-flat5, though some horn players can extend both the upper and lower ends of this four-octave range. It is fully chromatic over this range. The horn is a transposing instrument written in F but sounding a perfect fifth (P5) below. Orchestral players in particular must learn how to transpose at sight parts for older symphonic works written at pitch for horns in a number of different keys. The horn has a wide dynamic range and a smooth, mellow sound. Variation in the timbre of the instrument is achieved through changes in the position of the player's right hand in the bell cavity and by the use of mutes placed in the bell of the instrument (in the gallery photo, three varieties of horn mutes are seen). For a video illustrating the player-instrument interface for this instrument, view the Philharmonia Orchestra website chapter on the horn.


The modern double or French horn with rotor valves pictured and described here evolved from earlier natural horns capable of producing a fundamental tone and the notes in the harmonic series above it. For this earlier history, see the final paragraphs of the entries for Baroque natural horn and Classical natural horn. In the early nineteenth century, piston valves were invented and added to the horn, making it a chromatic instrument. The rotor valves now most commonly found on double horns were developed around 1830. The final major design development for the horn took place in 1898 when a fourth rotor valve and a second set of tuning slides were added to the instrument. This is when the double F/B-flat horn pictured here came into being. 

Bibliographic Citations

Baines, Anthony. 1976. Brass Instruments: Their History and Development. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Campbell, Murray, Clive Greated, and Arnold Meyers. 2004. Musical Instruments: History, Technology, and Performance of Instruments of Western Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Carse, Adam. 1975 (1965). Musical Wind Instruments. New York: Da Capo Paperback.

Gregory, Robin. 1969. The Horn: A Comprehensive Guide to the Modern Instrument & its Music. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers.

“Instruments.”  Philharmonia Orchestra website, accessed September 14, 2015:

Morley-Pegge, Reginald. 1973. The French Horn. 2nd ed. London: Ernest Benn Limited.

________, Frank Hawkins, and Richard Merewether. 1984. “Horn.” NGDMI v.2: 232-247.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Region: Western Europe

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

423.232.12 aerophone--narrow-bore chromatic labrosone valve horn with long air column (more than 2m); the tube is of intermediate bore profile

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - conical with flaring open distal end

Source and direction of airstream: player exhalation through mouth into air cavity; unidirectional

Energy transducer that activates sound: lip reed (player’s lips) placed over cup mouthpiece at end of tube

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: incremental lengthening with valve mechanism of air cavity in which the standing wave is active

Overblowing utilization: overblowing at consecutive partials

Pitch production: multiple - changing length of standing wave by adding tube length with valves or slide and by selecting partials through overblowing


20.1 in length (across)

Primary Materials

metal - sheet
spring - flat and/or needle




Farkas H179

Entry Author

Roger Vetter