The French horn is a lip-blown instrument, this means that it makes a sound when you vibrate or buzz your lips whilst blowing into it. Human beings have been blowing and buzzing into hollow objects such as shells, animal horns and bones to make sounds for thousands of years.
Brass (a metal made from copper and zinc) began to be used as a material to make musical instruments in the bronze age (which was around 4,000 years ago!) and there are lots of different brass instruments in existence today, for example trumpets, trombones and tubas. When we refer to ‘the horn’ we are generally mean the French horn but there are actually many different types of horn such as:
Natural horn = Mozart era natural horn
Hunting horn = Vienna horn
Russian horn = French horn
German horn = Double horn
Saxhorns = Mellophone
The modern French horn is based on hunting horns that were used in Germany and France around the 16th century. French composers were the first to add the horn into musical repertoire around this time, they appeared in a piece by Jean-Baptiste Lully in 1664. Advances in the instrument were made by adding the flared bell to the end and valves which gave players access to the full chromatic range of notes. The French horn is a standard part of both the symphony orchestra and a concert band but it is not normally part of a brass band.
Image A: The horn in France about 1660
Image B: Crooks, extra lengths of tube introduced
Image C: Crooks and a tuning slide were added
Image D: The development of the piston valve in the 19th century, gave the horn a full range of semitones.
Images A to D and accompanying text copyright of David Darling
The modern French horn is a 4 metre tube of brass which is coiled and curved into a circular shape. One end is narrow, in which you place a mouthpiece to blow and the other end has a wide bell from which the sound emerges.
To produce a sound on the French horn (and other brass instruments) the player pushes air through their lips and down the instsrument tube; a buzzing sound is turned into a pitch (or note) as the air vibrates inside the instrument. The shape that the lips makes is call an embouchure.
The pitch (note) that we hear coming out of the end of the horn depends on the speed of vibrations through the lips and the volume of air vibrating through the tube of the instrument. The longer the tube, the lower the note.
To make all the different pitches on the instrument, the length of the tube of the horn needs to change. To do this, the player can adjust the shape of their lips (embouchure) and use the valves to create length of tube needed to pitch the correct note. The image below highlights the different valves and slides on the French horn.
The typical note range for the French horn is F immediately below the bass clef or the C an octave below middle A.
The French horn is in the key of F so it is a transposing instrument. This means that the note coming out of the instrument that we hear sounds a fifth lower than the note written on the musical score. Another skill that French horn players have to master is the ability to transpose music.
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ESPECIALLY FOR KIDS
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