When we imagine horns, we often think of spaghetti westerns or military movies, where buglers trumpet commands to groups of soldiers.
However, it is difficult to imagine horns outside of this setting or used in the modern-day, especially if you are unsure what you are looking for beyond a boy scout with a small bugle.
Due to this association, horns are not considered the most interesting or cool of instruments, a useful one in certain situations, but they don’t have the complexity or elegance of a piano, nor do they produce the heart-rendering notes of a violin.
However, this is unfair to the horns of the world, as their variety and beauty can give boldness to an orchestra that you simply don’t get in other instruments. Today, we will take a closer look at horns and the different kinds you can find in the modern world.
Definition of Horn Instruments
The term “horn” refers to a family of instruments. While each variety has its unique features, the basic criteria for being a horn involves:
- Tubing (usually metal)
- A narrow end to blow into
- A wide end for sound to emerge
Earlier varieties of horns fall into these defining features with less precision, but modern horns will take their own spin on the definition.
Horns are distinguished from other brass instruments because their bore gradually increases in shape. If you think of a trumpet you will realize that the length of the tubing is cylindrical until reaching the end, but a horn’s bore gradually increases in width throughout its length.
Types of Horns
There are many different varieties of horns. These types of instruments have been in existence for about as long as music, and each culture seems to have its unique version of a horn.
The ones listed below are the most common types of horns you will hear and see in modern life.
Natural horns are a variety of horns that have no valves or keys, including:
- Hunting horns
To change the key the player must add crooks that change the length of the tubing. Pitch is adjusted through airspeed, aperture, and the use of the right hand moving in and out of the bell.
Most natural horns are used as period pieces, and they are fairly limited in their use. Because players can only play from a single harmonic series at a time, natural horns are not commonly used for more intricate pieces.
Advanced horn players may be able to alter pitch to a greater degree by partially muting the horn with their right hand, but this adjustment comes at the cost of tone quality.
Fingerhole horns are some of the oldest wind instruments known. The oldest versions involved the adaptation of animal horns (such as cow horns) with holes in the sides to allow the player to achieve a more complete musical range.
An example of a more modern fingerhole horn is the cornett. This was one of the most popular wind instruments during the Renaissance and early baroque periods. The cornett has a gentle curve, and it was usually constructed from two halves of wood secured together and wrapped in leather.
(It is worth noting that the cornett is not the same as the brass cornet, despite their similar names.)
Russian horns got their start in Russia in 1757, expanding out of the country in the 80 years that followed. These horns were typically played by Russian serfs, and the skilled players might be sold as groups along with their horns.
These horns are designed straight or slightly curved, and they are typically made of copper or brass. They have a wide, conical bore, and players use a cupped mouthpiece similar to a trumpet’s.
Russian horns have a metal cap attached to the bell for tuning purposes, and they are designed to be used in sets. Each player learns to play their note in turn, similar to how handbell ringers perform melodies.
This created a unique sound and stage quality while still allowing skilled ensembles to play complex pieces.
The German horn is the most common type of horn you will see in professional bands and orchestras. This is a double horn that is in F or B♭, and players control pitch by:
- Adjusting the tension of their lips on the mouthpiece (embouchure)
- Operating valves with their left hand
- Adjusting and routing air into extra tubing on the horn
German horns use lever-operated rotary valves, and they have a backward orientation. This combination creates a more subdued sound. These instruments are much more mellow than trumpets and blend well with most other instruments in the orchestral setting.
They have three valves that control the flow of air. The fourth valve is operated by the thumb, and it routes air to a specific set of tubing that is tuned to F or B♭.
The Vienna horn is used mostly in Vienna, Austria, and it is the preferred horn of the Vienna Philharmonic.
These horns are similar in size and weight to the natural horn, and they often use similar funnel-shaped mouthpieces. The mouthpiece on a Vienna horn is likely to have little (if any) backbore and a very thin rim.
Vienna horns use Pumpenvalves (also known as Vienna Valves). These valve types use double-pistons on the inside of the valve slides, and they are usually oriented opposite of the player’s left hand. Pumpenvalves are operated using a long pushrod.
Vienna horns are difficult to play, and they require precise techniques that even professional horn players struggle to master.
Without precise movements, a player might produce many notes that sound out of tune, but when played correctly the Vienna horn emanates a soft, warm sound. Players can use the valves to easily glissando between notes.
The French horn is another popular example of horn, and it has many features that distinguish it from its German and Austrian cousins.
The French horn has a smaller bore than the German horn, but a larger bore than the Vienna horn. It uses piston valves (Périnet valves), similar to the Vienna horn and unlike the German horn.
While you can find double horn varieties, most true French horns are single horns with three valves to control the flow of air.
While mellophone may refer to a 12th-century instrument, modern mention of the horn usually applies to the horn commonly used in marching bands, drum corps, and bugle corps.
The marching mellophone is shaped similarly to a flugelhorn and has piston valves that are played with the right hand. These horns face forward to better project sound, making them a perfect choice for the middle voice in marching situations.
The orientation of the horn also allows for better stability on the mouth, and these horns weigh less. Players can move around with less compromise to sound quality.
They are usually played with a v-cup mouthpiece similar to a cornet’s instead of a traditional horn mouthpiece. This allows the player to produce a louder, less mellow, and more brassy sound while still operating in the range of a horn.
The marching mellophone is not the same as a marching horn, which is keyed to B♭ instead of F. Marching horns also retain the use of a horn mouthpiece, but they are more difficult to balance with other brass instruments in a marching setting.
Wagner tubas are not common, and, despite their name, they are not usually considered to be part of the tuba family. This type of horn was invented by Richard Wagner specifically for his piece Der Ring des Nibelungen.
Since its invention, the Wagner tuba has been used for pieces by other famous composers, including:
- Bruckner’s Symphony No.7 in E
- Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring
- Richard Strauss’s Ein Alpensinfonie
The Wagner tuba is modified to have a larger bell throat, and the bell faces upward. It uses a horn mouthpiece and comes in both single and double varieties.
These horns have a similar range to euphoniums, but it is easier to reach lower registers on a Wagner tuba.
The saxhorn is a brass instrument with tapered bores. They were developed by Adolphe Sax, and subsequently, share many characteristics with saxophones
For example, saxhorns are pitched in 8 alternating sizes in E♭ and B♭. They were originally designed for use in the army, and their use helped to redesign American and European military and brass bands.
Saxhorns can reach a size that makes it difficult to distinguish them from tubas, especially in more modern instruments.
Most tenor and baritone horns belong to the saxhorn family.
Most Common Horns – German and French:
Even though there are many different kinds of horns, there are a couple that stands out amongst the rest as being the most common and the most well-known, that of the German and French Horns. While very similar in appearance, these horns have incredible range and versatility, doing well in most orchestras.
First, the similarities. Both instruments can come in single, double, or triple horns. This just means how many times the instrument is curled around itself. For example, a double horn would be about thirteen feet if the entire thing was uncurled. A single horn would be shorter than this, and a triple would be longer.
Both types use horn mouthpieces and are designed for use with the hand-stopping technique.
However, the differences between the two are stark. As mentioned earlier, German horns use rotary valves, whereas French horns use piston valves (similar to a trumpet). Not only that, but the bore of German horns is wider at around 11.5 mm, compared to the French horns at 10 to 11 mm bore.
This means that the sound of the horns is different, with the German horn being louder, warmer, richer, and darker when played, whereas the French horn is more refined, lighter, more open, and has a vibrancy that is not seen in the German model.
Although there are some instruments today that still use animal horns for their instruments, such as the ‘Shofar’, a ram’s horn that is used in important Jewish ceremonies.
Early metal horns started gaining prominence in the 10th to 8th century BC, with ‘Lurers’ being found in Scandinavia and depictions of horns in Etruscan monuments.
However, these horns remained fairly rudimentary, relying on embouchure – pursing of the lips – for changes in sound, and were most often used for hunting or in the military, due to their ease of use, loud sound, and durability.
It wasn’t until the 1700s that horns became popular for musical performance.
This was due to changes in their design, first adding a singular spiral shape, allowing for the maximum length of the horn with none of the drawbacks, then the use of more modern techniques, like hand-stopping, and finally the introduction of rotary valves in the 19th century, giving use the modern design of most horns today.
Although valves are probably the most dramatic change for the horn, they were not well-received at first and their adoption in mainstream music was quite slow. This is why some period pieces still call for a valveless or natural horn instead.
The different types of horns show not only the variety of this family of instruments but also the complexity of sound that can be produced by them.
We have used horns for thousands of years as a way of communication, organization, performance, and musical endeavor, with their use continuing to the modern-day. Even though the horn may have humble beginnings, it doesn’t mean the sound produced by one is any less beautiful than any other instrument.