english horn

Also:       cor anglais      englisches Horn      corno inglese      

Title: David Matthews Quartets—A Little Threnody; Nicholas Daniel, english horn. Label: Metronome. Format: CD. Catalogue#: 1005-01. Track: 1.

Contextual Associations

The english horn is an end-blown conical-bore double-reed aerophone developed in Europe but that is today found distributed throughout the world wherever Western cosmopolitanism has taken root. It is played mostly by professionals but also by amateurs. The english horn (also called the cor anglais) is sometimes described as a tenor oboe because it shares many details of design with its smaller counterpart but is pitched in F a fifth below it (see oboe). It is essentially an auxiliary instrument usually played by an oboist in an orchestra (although some professional orchestras will have a specialist on this instrument), concert band, or chamber ensemble, used only when a composer has written a passage specifically for the instrument. There does not exist a significant repertoire of solo or chamber music written expressly for the english horn. It is therefore not an important recital instrument and is seldom heard even at tertiary educational institutions where most oboists earn their performance degrees.


The body of the english horn is made in three sections--upper body, lower body, and bell sections--that are connected by metal-lined tenon-and-socket joints. The upper body joint of the instrument pictured here is made of resin, the lower two sections from hardwood. It has a mostly conical bore with its smallest diameter at the top or reed end of the body and its greatest diameter in the bell section where there is a slight ballooning just before the bell opening (this distinctive bulbous bell is sometimes described as ‘pear shaped’). One end of a detachable metal tube (called a crook or bocal) that has a slight bend given to it is wrapped with a thin layer of cork and inserted into a countersunk hole at the top end of the upper body joint; this tube serves as an extension of the instrument’s conical bore. Twenty-one holes of varying sizes are situated in acoustically ideal locations along the length of the body. All of these are operated with padded keys--not a single hole is closed directly with a fingertip of the player. A complex mechanical keywork system involving springs, levers, rod-axels, mounts, and keys made from nickel silver allows the performer to cover and uncover remotely located tone holes that would otherwise be impossible to reach given the anatomy of the human hand. The instrument's double reed is made from a long and narrow strip from the wall of a stalk of cane that is folded at its middle, its two ends are then bound with a fine twine to a metal tube (called a staple). The fold is then trimmed off, leaving an elliptical opening. The blades that articulate this opening are then shaved and shaped until very thin. The base of the staple slips over the top end of the bocal.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The player, either standing or seated, holds the instrument vertically in front of himself or herself with both hands, left hand on the upper body joint and the right hand on the lower one. The reed is inserted into the mouth and pressed between the lips using the embouchure muscles. These muscles help shape the elliptical opening at the tip of the reed, and it is the action of the tip in response to the airstream directed against it that generates the sound wave forms in the bore of the instrument. The player’s left hand thumb and all the fingers on both hands are used to operate the keys and key levers found on the instrument; the right hand thumb, situated on the back side just below a thumb rest, helps steady the instrument and absorb much of its weight. The instrument functions acoustically as an open tube, meaning that it overblows at every harmonic partial (starting at the octave). With all the finger holes covered the lowest sounding pitch is E3; its highest possible pitch depends on the performer, but D6 would be attainable by professionals. Its compass is therefore just under three octaves, and over this range it is fully chromatic. It is a transposing instrument notated a fifth higher than it sounds. In the latter part of the twentieth century, composers and performers have experimented with new techniques for the english horn such as the production of multiphonics, quarter- and micro-tones, and singing and playing simultaneously. For a video illustrating the player-instrument interface for this instrument, view the Philharmonia Orchestra website chapter on the English horn.


Precursors of the modern English horn existed in the late 17th century, and because their widely gapped fingerholes were fingered directly their wooden bodies often included one or two bends. In the early 18th century and into the 19th century the english horn was found primarily in military bands and in double-reed ensembles of the French royalty. It wasn’t until the first half of 19th century that straight-bodied english horns were designed, and until the 1880s that they were equipped with a keywork system like that seen on the instrument pictured here. In the course of the 19th century the English horn came to be increasingly associated with the orchestra and less so with the military band.

Bibliographic Citations

Baines, Anthony. 1962. Woodwind Instruments and their History. New York: W.W. Norton.

Bate, Philip. 1962 (1956). The Oboe: An Outline of its History, Development and Construction. London: Ernest Benn Limited.

________. 1984. “English horn.” NGDMI v.1: 707-708.

________, and Niall O’Loughlin. 1984. “Oboe.” NGDMI v.2: 792-808.

Burgess, Geoffrey, and Bruce Haynes. 2004. The Oboe. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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.

“Instruments.”  Philharmonia Orchestra website, accessed September 14, 2015: http://www.philharmonia.co.uk/explore/instruments

Joppig, Gunther. 1988. The Oboe and the Bassoon. Portland: Amadeus Press.

Van Cleve, Libby. 2004. Oboe Unbound: Contemporary Techniques. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

422.112.2 aerophone--single conical-bore reedpipe with double (or quadruple) reed: the pipe has a reed (usually a flattened stem) of paired lamellae which periodically open and close, controlling the flow of air; with fingerholes

Design and Playing Features

Category: aerophone

Air cavity design: tubular - conical with open distal end

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

Energy transducer that activates sound: exposed concussion (multiple) reed

Means of modifying shape and dimensions of standing wave in air cavity: opening fingerholes to reduce space or shorten length of standing wave in air cavity

Overblowing utilization: overblowing at consecutive partials

Pitch production: multiple pitches - changing length of standing wave within cavity with fingerholes and by selecting partials through overblowing


34.7 in. height (without reed)

Primary Materials

reed - cane





Entry Author

Roger Vetter