Horns are defined as instruments with a conical bore. This means that they start small and gradually increase in diameter as the instrument lengthens. The musician blows into the smaller end using a technique called buzzing. The sound comes from the larger end.
The very first horn instruments were made from animal horns. It’s believed that prehistoric people used horns as a way to communicate during a hunt. Different-sized horns were used to produce a variety of tones.
The first horns were simple horns obtained from animals. These horns were hollowed out and polished for use. There are examples of horns used in ancient and prehistoric times from all over the world.
One of the earliest, and possibly well-documented examples of this is the Shofar. The exact history of the shofar is uncertain but, the first recorded use of the shofar is in the Book of Exodus, Chapter 19 of the Hebrew Bible. This verse tells of a blast of shofar coming from thick black smoke on Mount Sinai. The shofar blast causes the Israelites to tremble in awe.
There are many other records of the shofar being used in the Hebrew Bible and throughout rabbinic texts. Some examples include
- Announcing the new moon
- Announcing the Jubilee year
- First day of Rosh Hashana
- To signify the start of a war
- David added shofar to the temple orchestra
- The shofar was blown to help Joshua capture Jericho. As the Jews surrounded the walls of Jericho, the shofar was blown.
According to the Jewish Talmud, the preferred material is ram horn, but shofar can be made of any horn from the family of animals known as Bovidae other than a cow.
The animal horn is hollowed out, and the bone in the center is removed. In modern practice, there are two common types of animals used for making shofar. The Sephardi and Ashkenazi shofar is made from the horns of domestic rams, and the Yemeni shofar is made from kudu horns.
Shofar is still used today in Jewish religious ceremonies and prayers. Shofar is traditionally blown on each day of Rosh Hashana, as well as at the end on Yom Kippur. The shofar is also used to signify celebration and victory. One example is Jewish elders blowing shofar on May 8, 1945, after the Nazis surrendered.
Shofar is also used in non-religious music. Some notable examples are:
- The film version of Godspell opens with cast member David Haskell blowing the shofar.
- The Israeli Oriental metal band called Salem in their rendition of Al Taster.
- The score for the movie The Ten Commandments uses a shofar.
- The movie score for Alien, written by Jerry Goldsmith.
- Also written by Goldsmith, the musical score for Planet of the Apes.
- During her Confessions Tour, artist Madonna used a shofar. For her tour, Madonna had Yitzhak Sinwani play the horn.
- A shofar was used in multiple episodes of The Howard Stern Show.
- In the movie Return of the Jedi, the Ewock’s horn calls were reused from the movie Ten Commandments.
The lur (also Lure or lurr) is an ancient horn with no finger holes. The earliest lurs were found in bogs in Denmark and Germany. However, some have also been found in Norway and South Sweden. These instruments date back to the Bronze Age. They were between 1 1/2 and 2 meters long and curved. It’s thought the purpose of the curved shape is primarily to make the lur easier to carry.
In ancient stories from Iceland, the lur is described as an instrument used to scare the enemy and motivate the troops during wars. Wooden lurs have been found in longboats. These instruments were straight and made of wood, unlike the Bronze Age lurs.
During the Middle Ages, ivory from elephant tusks was used to create horns called Olifant. It’s believed Olifant originated in Asia and was brought to Europe by way of the Byzantine Empire. They were intricately carved and came to be associated with royalty. The first mention of the Olifant is in 12th-century French literature.
Alpine horns or alphorns are mentioned as far back as late antiquity. But, the first known reliable description of these long, wooden horns is from Conrad Gessner. Mr. Gessener described the alphorn as “nearly eleven feet long, made from two pieces of wood slightly curved and hollowed out, fitted together and skillfully bound with osiers.”
Alphorns are still used today in traditional Swiss music. The modern version was developed in the 18th century in Switzerland. They’re made in different sizes to achieve different pitches. Alphorn groups bring a variety of sizes together to play music with several parts.
Composers still write for the alphorn today. Some examples are:
- Lai nair for alphorn and contrabass by John Wolf Brennen (2015).
- Bob Downes & The Alphorn Brothers by Bob Downes open music (2004).
- Concerto for alphorn in F and orchestra by Daniel Schnyder (2004).
The cough drop brand Ricola is manufactured in Switzerland. The companies commercials often feature the alphorn.
The following video demonstrates alphorns being played at the 2011 International Alphorn Festival.
This horn is long and straight. It’s the most widely used instrument in Buddhist culture. This horn is mostly used in Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhist ceremonies.
The dord is from Ireland. The earliest samples have dated to about 1000 BC. One hundred and four dords have been recovered from excavation sites throughout Ireland. There are several words housed in the Irish Museum. The longest is about 7 1/2 feet long. There are no records of how it was played, but many modern musicians believe it was played with circular breathing and timbre shifts similar to the techniques used with the didgeridoo.
The Nyele is one of the traditional horns of Zambia. Nyele is made from an animal horn or matete reed. This instrument is made from 5 inches to 18 inches long. The different lengths provide a variety of sounds. Traditionally, men play the Nyele along with budima drums for ceremonial occasions and funerals. The Nyele is never played alone.
This is a horn from Sudan. It’s made by joining multiple long wooden tubes to create one long instrument. The Wazza must be dampened before use to achieve the correct sound.
While blowing through the horn, the musician can be tapped for a percussion sound. Wazza are made in a variety of sizes to achieve different ranges. Typically several Wazza musicians play together. The instrument is a traditional horn of the Berta people of the Blue Nile State in Sudan.
A few early horns included finger holes used to change the pitch of the instrument. The fingerhole horns date back to the Iron Age. The most well-known of the early fingerhole horns are probably the cornett. The cornett is very different from the brass instrument known as the cornet. Despite the similarity of their names, the two instruments are not related.
The cornett was a popular horn during the Renaissance and early Baroque period. It was carved from two pieces of wood which were then glued together. The instrument was long and had many finger holes that the musician used to change notes. The name cornett comes from the Latin word cornu, for horn.
Natural horns have no valves and no keys with which to change pitch. These horns use tubing of different lengths to achieve changes in notes. Natural horns have a conical bore.
They start with a small end, where the mouthpiece is inserted, and slowly widen to the bell end. These horns can have several feet of tubing coiled around themselves. Many of the early natural horns looked like a modern French horns without the valves. And, in fact, the French horn descended from natural horns.
Natural horns were used in a wide variety of settings, including bands and orchestras. The musician used three main techniques to change the key of the horn and to hit a wide number of chromatic tones.
- First, the musician could change out the tubing to make the horn longer or shorter as needed to achieve the correct key. This was cumbersome, but horn players of the era became adept at changing the tubing quickly. Composers would often write in rests to give the horn players time to swap tubing. The tubing to be changed out (called a crook) was invented in 1753 by a German man named Hampel.
- Next, they could bend a note sharp or flat by changing their embouchure. Embouchure is the combined positions of month, teeth, tongue, and lips used when playing an instrument. Modern musicians often refer to bending a note with embouchure as “lipping” the note.
- Finally, horn players often used a hand placed inside the bell to assist in bending the sound of a note or to control volume. This technique is called “hand-stopping,” and it’s still used by French horn players.
This video by Rick Seraphinoff does an excellent job demonstrating the different sizes and lengths of natural horns. He shows how tubing was changed out and how early horn players used embouchure and hand-stopping to play orchestral music.
The bugle is a brass instrument most typically associated with military calls. It has no keys or valves, so it’s a type of natural horn. Early bugles were made from animal horns and shaped like a coil. Over time the bugle shape developed into the triple-coil used today. Bugles were used both by hunters and carriage drivers as a means of communication.
The first brass bugle used as a military signal is dated back to 1758. The half-moon bugle was used in Hanover, Lower Saxony, Germany. This brass bugle was shaped like a U and carried over the shoulder with a strap. By 1764 the bugle was widely used by the English foot soldiers.
Bugles have a range of about 5 notes. The notes are put together in different ways to create bugle calls. Bugle calls were used to give instructions to soldiers in battle, give marching orders, and assemble the troops. Today, bugles are still used on military bases to announce daily routines. Bugles are also commonly used in military funerals.
Bugles, hunting horns from the Middle Ages, and posthorns are considered natural horns.
Posthorns are another example of a natural horn. These instruments were used primarily for communication. Early mail coaches and post riders used these small and easily portable horns to let the townspeople know the mail (called post back then) had arrived. Since post horns had to be carried easily by men on horseback, they were no longer than 32 inches. The tubing was coiled once or twice between the mouthpiece and horn. Post horns could be carried on the shoulder or in a leather bag.
Modern Orchestral Horns
Most people visualize French horns when they think about the modern orchestral horn. However, this is technically incorrect. What most American’s call The French horn was actually developed in Germany.
The German horn is the most common type of horn in orchestras and bands. This horn has an 11.5 mm bore and uses rotary valves. Most professional horn players prefer the F/Bb double horn.
Like all the other horns, the pitch on the German horn is controlled by mouth, tongue, and lip position (embouchure) and the use of rotary valves. In the case of the German horn, the player pushes a key which causes a metal disk to turn. The turning of the disks route the air through or away from specific sections of tubing. Rotary valves are believed to have been invented by Friedrich Bluhmel in Waldenburg, Germany.
Double horns feature an extra circle of tubing. By pressing the fourth valve with the thumb, the player can choose to play the instrument in the key of Bb or F. This innovation was created by Edmund Gumpert and Fritz Kruspe in the late 1800s.
A French horn has a small bore of between 10.8mm and 11 mm. French horns use piston valves, unlike the more familiar German horn. Piston valves are sometimes referred to as Perinet valves.
French horns are most commonly pitched to the key of F. Like the German Vienna horns, the bell of the French horn points toward the musician’s back. The horn player uses the piston valves, embouchure, and left hand placed in the bell to control the pitch and tuning of the instrument. Strictly speaking, a French horn is always a single horn. While the commonly known double and triple horns use rotary valves and are technically German horns.
In most English-speaking places, the term French horn or “horn” refers to both the German horn and the French horn.
The Vienna horn is rarely seen outside of Austria. It uses special valves called the Pumpenvalve. These unique valves operate using a double piston system inside the valve slides. When the musician presses a key, a long pushrod moves across the width of the horn to open or close a second piston. These horns have a bore size of 10.7 millimeters.
This is the smallest bore size of all the orchestral horns. Vienna horns allow the player to switch out tubing to change the key of the horn. The coils of tubing are called crooks. Vienna horn players usually use the F crook, but Bb and A crooks are used occasionally. This horn features a smooth and continuous movement between notes that sounds similar to a glissando. Because of this unique sound, it’s more difficult to keep this horn in tune.
Mellophone is used in marching bands and drum corps. It’s in the key of F and is derived from the F alto horn. The mellophone is shaped much like a flugelhorn. It has piston valves, and the bell faces front. Mellophones are usually used as a middle voice instrument. Musicians usually use a mouthpiece similar to that used on a cornet. It is possible to use a horn mouthpiece with a special adapter.
Marching horns look a lot like mellophones. Unlike mellophones, the marching horn is pitched in the key of Bb. The alto model is pitched in the key of F. Marching horns uses a French horn mouthpiece, which is smaller in diameter and has a smaller cup than a mellophone mouthpiece. As the name suggests, marching horns are primarily used in marching bands.
The saxhorn was developed by Adolphe Sax in the mid to late 1830s. It’s important to note that the Adolphe Sax is better known for inventing the woodwind instrument known as the saxophone. These two instruments may have similar names, but they are very different.
Saxhorns are conical bored instruments that use deep-cup mouthpieces and piston valves. They have a deep mellow sound that blends in with an orchestra or other brass instruments. At one point, there were ten different types of saxhorn. Each one had a unique range and pitch. Today, there are six original saxhorns still in use.
- The Flugelhorn is the highest pitched of the modern saxhorns. It’s pitched in the key of Bb.
- The alto/tenor horn is pitched in the key of Eb.
- Baritones are low-pitched saxhorns and are in the key of Bb.
- The Bb bass saxhorn is pitched similarly to the modern euphonium.
- Eb bass horns are very similar in range and pitch to a bass tuba.
- The contrabass saxhorn is pitched in BBb and has a range similar to the contrabass tuba.
The Wagner tuba or Wagner horn was developed specifically for the operatic piece Der Ring Des Nibelungen written by Robert Wagner. In 1853 Robert Wagner visited Adolphe Sax.
Wagner was looking for an instrument with a very specific sound. He wanted something somber and noble like a trombone but with a timber closer to that of a horn. After evaluating the saxhorn, Wagner decided it didn’t quite meet his needs, and he set out to design his own. The first Wagner tuba was built by the C.W. Moritz company in Berlin, Germany.
The Wagner tuba has a conical bore and uses rotary valves. It comes in Bb tenor and F bass keys. In addition to being used in Wagner’s piece, it’s also called for specifically in Symphony No. 7 by Anton Bruckner and Richard Strauss’s piece Alpine Symphony.
Famous horn players
Sarah Willis was the first female brass player in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Dale Clevenger was principal horn player for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1966 – 2013. Mr. Clevenger won a Grammy for The Antiphonal Music of Gabrieli.
Radek Baborak is a horn player from Czechoslovakia. He’s been a guest artist in orchestras all over Europe and in Japan. He became the principal horn player for the Czech Philharmonic at 18 years old. He has also served as principal horn for the Munich Philharmonic, Bamberg Symphony Orchestra, and the Berlin Philharmonic.
Stefan de Leval Jezierski was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1954. He started playing with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1978 when he was 23 years old. In addition to playing classical orchestral music, he formed a jazz quintet in Berlin. He has released many CDs of his music.
Richard Dunbar played French horn in the genre of Free jazz. In 1980 Mr. Dunbar started his own record label, called Jahari Records. He released 5 albums under that label. Dunbar moved to Paris in 1993, where he continued to play gigs and teach. Mr. Dunbar died on February 8, 2006, while on his way to a gig.
Barry Tuckwell (1931 – 2020) was a horn player from Melbourne, Australia. He is considered one of the world’s best horn players. Tuckwell earned the position of 3rd horn in the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra when he was just 15 years old. From there, he played with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. In 1955 Mr. Tuckwell earned the position of first horn with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Tuckwell was also an accomplished soloist. He made more than 50 solo albums and received 3 Grammy Award nominations. He was also an) accomplished conductor and founded the Maryland Symphony Orchestra in 1982.
Answer: The original instrument known as the horn has been used since Biblical times.
Hampel invented the removable pieces of horn called crooks.
Adolphe Sax invented the saxhorn.
Piston valves as used on a French horn were invented by Heinrich Stoelzel.
Rotary valves used in the German horn were invented by Friedrich Bluhmel.
Answer: Horns got their name because they were originally made from hollowed-out and polished animal horns. As the instrument progressed, the name came to mean a conical bore instrument.
Answer: Horns were originally used to communicate over large areas. Horn players could alter the notes and rhythm played as a code for predefined messages.
Answer: French horns face backward to mellow and dampen the sound a bit. The shape of the bell also permits the player to use their hand to bend notes and help control volume.