Guide to French Horn

The French horn is a brass instrument that is often associated with professional bands and orchestras. Despite having a geographical name, the French horn is actually German. The name French horn is used way back in the 17th century. During that time, French makers were notable in making hunting horns. With this, these horn instruments were often called French horns, even in English. However, they were known as Trompe de chasse or cor de chasse, by their French name.

Following that, German makers had devised crooks in making a horn that is playable in various keys. Consequently, the name German and French were used to distinguished the simple horn from the horn with a crook. Meanwhile, in England, the horn with crook was also called corno cromatico or chromatic horn in Italian.

Ever since the year 1930, the French horn is often used to refer to the European orchestral horn. By the 1970s, the International Horn Society recommended that the said instrument should be simply called a horn. Specifically, a more particular type of horn used the name French horn to differentiate from the Vienna horn and German horn.In this case, the French horn was a narrow-bore instrument that has three piston valves. It also has a narrow bell-throat and crooked mouth pipe, much like the orchestral hand horn of the 18th century.  Most often, it has a third ascending valve.

Initially, humans used an actual animal horn as an instrument. As time progresses, these animal horns were replaced by a metal horn. By then, the original usage of animal horns, specifically ram’s horn, remains an essential part of the Jewish religious rituals. Back then, early metal horns were less complex compared to modern horns. These modern horns usually consist of brass tubes with a flared opening, called a bell. Early hunting horns were initially played for hunting. The change of pitch was largely controlled by the performer’s lips.

A photo of the French horn with three piston valvesWithout the modern valves, only the notes in the harmonic series are available. Commonly, the pitch of the early horns was in alto and basso. With this limit, the solution was to create or make the use of crooks. Also, in 1818, Heinrich Stolzel and Friedrich Blumel have patented the very first valve horn. Later on, piston valves were introduced in 1839. These valves were intended to overcome the problems with crooks during performances. Many traditional players argued that the valveless horn or the natural horn was a better instrument. However, the valves allowed the instrument to play a different key without crooks. With that, the Germans have made larger horns with rotary valves, while the French made smaller horns with piston valves.

In playing the French horn, one must know the complexity of this instrument. In fact, the French horn is considered one of the most challenging wind instruments to play. However, the reward is fulfilling if one learned and mastered the French horn.

As a first-time player, one should learn the basics. Nobody moves to the top without understanding the basics. So, to start with, as with any instrument, there is a proper way of holding the French horn. It must be handled correctly in order to get the best sound possible. In handling the horn, a player should place their left thumb on the trigger key, while the index, middle, and ring fingers are on the three keys on the top. The pinky finger must be wrapped around the ring below the third key. Your right hand must be inside the bell.

The second is to put your lips on the mouthpiece. This is a tricky part since the French horn is played by correctly blowing the mouthpiece. One must blow right from the diaphragm instead of blowing from the chest. You should also make sure not to press your mouth too hard. Remember that breathing techniques are a great help in properly playing the French horn. The third is to know and memorize the keys. Learning the keys will make it a lot easier to understand where you’ll place your fingers when you are playing.

After you learn these, it will be easier to get into the next level of learning French horn, like notes reading, tempo, melody, and more. But before that, you could probably practice these steps until you perfect it. Another option is to take lessons from professionals, in order to get an advanced skill in playing the French horn.