The horn, often referred to as a French horn, is the typical alto of the brass family and features a conical mouthpiece, bore, and widely flaring bell. The horn is typically treated as a transposing instrument pitched in F and its parts are written in the treble clef, with rare exceptions in its lower range. It has a characteristic dark and mellow tone quality and is occasionally featured as a solo instrument, though less commonly than the trumpet.
In orchestral and band writing, four parts are usually written for horns. In an orchestra, one player will play each part, with on rare occasion an additional fifth horn to cover tutti passages of the 1st horn so that the principle hornist can rest and prepare for any demanding solos. It is tradition that the 1st and 3rd horns play upper harmonies, and 2nd and 4th horns play lower harmonies. The horns are placed first among the brass in an orchestral score despite being lower in pitch than the trumpets. In this position the horns bridge the gap between the woodwinds and brass, the latter with which they are a powerful orchestral blending tool, justifying the inclusion of the horn in the standard woodwind quintet. In a wind band score the horns are simply placed below the trumpets and cornets.
Types of horn
The horn was the first brass instrument known to man, existing originally as the hallowed horn of an animal through which a sound could be produced. Even the brass horn could play no notes other than those of the harmonic series, such notes can only be played by manipulation the hand inside the bell of the instrument, thus its curious circular shape. Notes one semitone below each of the open notes of the harmonic series could be produced by a half stop, resulted in a slightly muffled tone. Pitches a further semitone and so on lower from each open pitch would require higher degrees of stopping and thus would be further muffled.
The natural horn merely exists as a period instrument today, though few contemporary composers feature it in their works, valuing its wide array of colours that can be achieved through the various crooks and hand stopping techniques. Typically a horn in C alto (which sounds at concert pitch) would have a removable length of tubing (called the "crook") which could be replaced with a longer length of tubing which would lower the fundamental pitch of the instrument to the desired tone. This would eliminate the necessity for a hornist to carry with him several instruments each in a different key for the parts of a concert in different tonalities. No matter what crook is used, the music is transposed such that the horn player may read his pitches as if playing a C horn. Note that some crooks are rarely, if ever used or even made. For more information, read the external article.
External article: The Natural Horn Today - Compositition:Today
With the advent of valves in the early 19th century, the natural horn began to fall into disuse, as an instrument that could readily play in all keys was far preferable to one that could only play in one key at a time. The valved horn was typically pitched in the key of F with three rotary-style valves manipulated by the left hand. Although the use of valves allowed for the instrument to play any note, the horn player still positions the right hand in the bell to acquire the more characteristic sound of the natural horn and secure the highest partials which would otherwise sound a dull mush. Through slight manipulation of the right hand, the hornist can fine tune all notes, so in theory, like a trombonist, any horn player should have no excuse to play out of tune. Modern single horns are typically available in three tonalities:
- F alto
- Bb (one octave below the Bb trumpet)
- F descant (one octave above F alto or a perfect fourth below the Bb trumpet)
Modern single instruments pitched in Bb or F descant are intended to be a lightweight alternative for those who play higher parts which demand more accuracy, as they are physically lighter in weight than most double and triple horns. Single horns pitched in F alto are typically, though not always, of poorer quality, often mass-manufactured for the less-demanding beginning horn players such as those found in grade schools. When composing works for horn, it is unnecessary to specify the kind of horn to be used (unless you are writing specifically for the natural horn.)
The Wiener horn, or Vienna horn is the instrument used exclusively in Austria. Famed orchestras such as the Wiener Philharmoniker (Vienna Philharmonic) use only the Vienna horn in their orchestras. Because the Vienna horn is a single horn in the key of F, Austrian horn players have to possess a very high level of control and pitch accuracy, as they will perform music on a single F horn that was sometimes intended for a higher pitched horn, such as Bb. Vienna horns distinguish themselves from the French/German horn in their construction. The system of valves used differs from any other instrument in common use today and allows for a more free-blowing, open sound than the rotary valves standard on other horns. Again, the composer should never be bothered to indicated exactly which of the insofar discussed horns should be used, this is a determination made by the player.
Suggested range for an amateur player of the horn pitched in the key of F is as follows:
- Written pitch (in F) - G3 to G5
- Concert pitch - C3 to C5
The full range for a professional player of the horn pitched in the key of F is as follows:
- Written pitch (in F) - F2 (usu. written in bass clef) to C6 ('high C')
- Concert pitch - Bb2 to F5
Note that the notes above concert F4 on the single horn in F start to get very close to each other on the harmonic series, so many horn players may have difficulty playing the correct pitches in this higher range. Only the more skilled horn players can consistently play above concert C5. Likewise, many less-skilled horn players are significantly less able in the low range, from concert C3 and lower. The extreme low range of the horn however can reach to a concert Bb1, or even lower. This would be written as F below the bass clef and notes in this range may have very little power depending on the hornist and may respond slowly. In general it is suggested to personally discuss ranges with the horn player before writing for any soloist or ensemble.
Modern double horn
The double horn is the most common variety of concert instruments played in orchestras and bands. It is essentially two instruments in different keys that share the same mouthpiece and bell, where the use of each "side" of tubing is controlled by an extra "thumb trigger". Double horns are treated as being pitched in the key of F and have separate sections of tubing for each "side" of the horn, one for the F side and one for the Bb side. The advantages of having the extra set of tubing for the Bb side is that since the Bb horn has a higher fundamental pitch than an F horn, the notes of its harmonic series are further apart than those of the F horn's in any given range. This makes for playing in the higher range of the horn (concert F4 and above) less problematic for the performer and fewer notes are likely to be missed. In addition to each set of tubing having a different fundamental, each has a different tone colour, or timbre. The F side of the horn is used wherever possible, as its darker tone is more characteristic of the instrument. The Bb side tends to be very slightly brighter and so is only used to facilitate playing in the higher range of the instrument. Note that the range of the double horn is essentially no different from the single horn in F, since it only facilitates and improves register playing as opposed to extending it. See above section for appropriate range.
Modern triple horn
The triple horn is an even more sophisticated extension than the double. In addition to having a separate set of tubing for each the F alto and Bb sides of the horn, the triple horn also includes a set of tubing for the higher F descant with a second thumb trigger to redirect the airflow to the new tubing. The advantages of the triple horn are its versatility and playing range. A triple horn can play more easily in the higher range (ie. up to concert F5), even extending its feasible range to concert A5 for the most advanced performer. The downside to the triple is its weight - some hornists may find the additional third set of tubing a bit too much to handle for an extended period of time and so many horn players will own several instruments, each for a specific purpose.
The mellophone is brass instrument pitched in the key of F descant or Bb alto and is played with a trumpet mouthpiece. The purpose of the mellophone is to replace the concert horn in the marching band. While the concert horn's circular shape and rear-facing bell are suited to indoor playing, the French horn does not project well in a marching atmosphere, so the mellophone is designed to have similar qualities to the horn but with a forward-facing bell to facilitate marching. Both the F and Bb mellophones read one fourth below the Bb trumpet and/or cornet and are intended to be played by a trumpet player, however many horn players play it using an adapter to fit the smaller horn mouthpiece into the receiver. Many manufacturers (notably Yamaha) now produce mellophones with receivers to fit a standard horn mouthpiece.
The marching mellophone of today (at right) is not to be confused with another earlier piston valve instrument of a more circular shape - sometimes called an althorn. This earlier mellophone is played much in the way of the French horn, however the hand is not placed in the bell, which typically is faced off to the left side of the body, and not the right as in the French horn.
- Read more on the althorn (mellophone) here
Scoring for horn
When dealing with most orchestras, the composer will often have access to four horns. While having all four parts available to use adds many possibilities, it is not always necessary to use all four horns at a given time. It is also not always suggested that the horns be orchestrated as four continuous individual lines. All four horns are not always needed when two could be adequate to round out or give more weight to an orchestral texture. Writing for all four horns requires a carefully controlled conception of the harmony being used. The horns are not to be treated as fillers for either the woodwinds or brass, and their material should come as closely as possible to harmonic completeness when possible.
Horns can give a fullness and richness to the sound and will not necessary have to sound loud and brassy. They can be used exceptionally well to accentuate the most important moments in the music. The appearance of the horn in the music should also maintain a balance. Adding or taking away the horns with little substantial reason can make a noticeable negative impression, as their presence should be more linearly consistent.
Because of the mellow nature of their timbre, the horns not only play part among the brass choir, but can blend rather well with the woodwinds. In thick brass writing the composer should be wary that the horns can and will be overpowered by the trumpets and trombones. However, in thick woodwind writing, four horns are likely to overpower the entire sonority. Time is thus spend concentrating on the use of unison and octave doublings, and the construction of blended timbres using the different woodwinds.
Bass clef notation
Prior to approximately the year 1920, works that called for the lowest notes in the horn range utilized what came to be known as the old notation. Whenever the composer employed the bass clef, he notated horn notes an octave below what they actually needed to be. This means that today our horn players must transpose the written notes up one octave in addition to any further transposition, from say horn in C, or horn in A. The new notation slowly came in to being as more sophisticated parts were written for the valve horn in F. The newer notation was the more logical continuation of the treble range of the horn downwards into the bass clef, transposing as normal with no octave shift.
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