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The French horn, more properly referred to as simply a Horn, is one of the oldest instruments with the earliest examples being actual horns from animals such as rams or certain types of cattle. The term French horn is common in the United States but this is in fact a misnomer as the modern version of the instrument was invented in Germany. The International Horn Society has been advocating use of the term Horn since 1971, with mixed results. No matter what you call them, however, French horns are integral instruments in orchestras, concert bands, and chamber music.
Choosing a French horn requires some careful consideration. Due to the complexity of building the instrument and the mount of labor that goes in to it, the French horn is one of the costlier orchestral instruments. This makes it especially important that you select the horn that best suits your needs and has the sound you’re looking for.
This guide will help you make an informed decision by explaining the basic parts of the instrument and how they work, describing the different types of French horns, and considering the pros and cons of each type.
Anatomy of a French horn
Even though there are different kinds of French horns, there are basic parts common to all types. These include:
- The bell: The wide end of the instrument where the sound comes out.
- Rotors and rotor levers: Pressing down on one of the horn's rotor levers changes the pitch by opening a rotor, which directs the stream of air into one or more tuning slides.
- Tuning slides: Additional tubing connected to the rotors. By pressing the tuning slides during play, a horn player directs air through this extra tubing, which causes the pitch to change.
- Leadpipe: The length of straight tubing that holds the mouthpiece.
- Tuning slides: Metal tubes that the player can adjust to change the horn's overall pitch. As the name indicates, these are used to get the instrument in tune.
- Water rotor: A lever that the player can press to release built-up moisture
When deciding which horn to purchase, you have some options regarding the different parts of the instrument. Next, we'll take a look at these choices.
Rotor linkage - string or mechanical
The rotors in a French horn rotate to connect various tubes to one another. These disks are well below the rotor levers that control their rotation. The keys are connected to the rotors either by super-strong string or by metal rods referred to as mechanical linkage.
String linkages are very quiet in operation, but eventually the string can break and needs to be replaced. It is the most popular type of linkage in the U.S. Europeans tend to prefer the mechanical linkage because it never needs replacement, though it can sometimes be heard during quieter passages.
Bell throat size
The throat of the bell is the area where the hand is placed while playing. A smaller throat makes it easier to control the tone, but the timbre will be thinner and less resonant. A larger throat size provides a more open, full-bodied sound, but is more difficult to control.
Bell and first branch material
Any serious player can tell you—and scientific research has verified—that differing materials used in the bell and the first branch (what the bell attaches to) make a significant difference in the instrument’s tone. Yellow brass produces a bright tone (accentuating the treble end of the spectrum) and has a very snappy response. Rose brass, also called red brass or gold brass, produces a darker tone with a little bit less-defined response. Nickel silver produces the darkest tone.
Players from different regions, that are associated with slightly different playing styles, tend to choose different throat-size/metal combinations. For example, Los Angeles and New York players often select a large-throated nickel horn, while Chicago players usually prefer a medium- or small-throated horn with a yellow or rose brass bell.
Many French horns come with a bell that can be detached by twisting it off the first branch. This is called a detachable bell, or screw bell, and allows the horn to fit into a smaller case for easier transport. There are no significant drawbacks to this design, and it’s a very popular option.
Types of French horns
There are three main types of French horn: single horns, double horns, and triple horns. There is also a specific type of triple horn known as a descant horn discussed in more detail below. Each has its own specialized characteristics and uses. Below we will explore these considerations as well as which types are best suited for players of varying skill levels, from beginners to professionals.
The most basic (and least costly) type of French horn available is the single horn, which is operated using three rotors and comes in two keys: F and Bb. Because of its lower cost, lighter weight, and ease of use, single horns are a popular choice for young students.
In the single horn category, the F horn is the older model, and with its lower tuning, it features a classic, natural horn sound that is strong in the low and mid ranges. Due to its light weight, relatively easy playability, and low cost, it is the most popular choice for beginning students in the U.S. Although intermediate players and professionals may also use F horns for some performances, they typically will find them limiting, as they do not play very accurately in the higher ranges.
The Yamaha YHR-314II Student F French Horn’s narrow .472 bore makes it easier for students to produce a full sound from the instrument.
An early solution to the F horn’s limitations in the higher range was to modify the French horn for a higher tuning. Thus, the Bb horn came into being. Because of the Bb horn’s improved accuracy in high ranges and its light body weight, some experienced horn players prefer it for performing certain compositions. As a primary instrument, however, the Bb horn has its limitations, carrying a less desirable tone in the low and mid-ranges, and an inability to play all of the low register notes.
The Yamaha YHR-322II Student Bb French horn uses a tapered design for the mouthpipe, which improves intonation and response in the lower ranges.
The double horn was designed to solve the dilemma presented by single horns and improve the responsiveness across the French horn’s range. Through the wizardry of tubular engineering, a double horn is actually capable of shifting between the key of F and the key of Bb through the use of a fourth rotor. Actuated by the left thumb, this rotor actually cuts out about 4 feet of tubing from the vibrating air column within the horn. Some horns also can be changed so that the lever works the other way around, turning the horn into an F instrument when engaged.
Because of their versatility, double horns are very popular as a primary instrument for intermediate and professional players. Their higher cost and added weight, however, might make them a less-than-ideal choice for young students, depending on their level of commitment to the instrument.
One point of preference to consider when choosing a horn is the instrument’s “wrap,”—the way in which the tubing is coiled. There are two basic types of wrap for a double horn. The Kruspe wrap locates the fourth rotor above the other three when the horn is in playing position. This makes for a shorter linkage between the rotor lever that controls the fourth rotor and the actual rotor.
A popular choice for professional players, the Conn 8D CONNstellation Series double horn has a Kruspe-style wrap and comes in nickel silver, rose brass, or yellow brass.
The Geyer wrap (which, like the Kruspe wrap, is named for its German designer) locates the fourth rotor behind the third. Since the linkage reaches past the other three rotors, it is much longer.
The Yamaha YHR-567 is an intermediate model that uses the Geyer wrap style and features a tapered gold brass leadpipe for improved responsiveness.
Intermediate and professional double horns
The single F horn is a popular model for beginners, while double horns are more commonly built for intermediate- and professional-level players. Both levels offer improved construction and high-quality materials, while professional models often feature advanced craftsmanship for the best possible tone and expressiveness.
Although the prices of these models are higher than single horns, some students may find a quality double horn to be a better long-term investment that they can continue to use as they advance in their playing skills.
With a narrow bore, durable yellow brass construction, and professional quality features at an affordable cost, the Conn 6D Artist Series is a good choice for a player’s first double horn.
While the double horn essentially combines the F and Bb horns in to one instrument, the triple horn adds yet another: the alto F horn. Because it provides better reponse in the high registers, the triple horn is becoming an increasingly popular option, especially for professional players. Some, however, might find the weight of the instrument and its steeper price tag to be significant drawbacks. If you want a horn that can handle any range with ease, browse the Musician’s Friend selection of triple French horns.
The Yamaha YHR-891 Custom Series triple French horn features an non-lacquered brass body that enhances the instrument’s natural sound characteristics.
As a developing player, you may be looking for an instrument with greater stability in the upper registers, without as much concern for the low and middle ranges. In this case, a descant horn—essentially a double horn combining the Bb and alto F horns—might be a good option for you. With a lighter weight and friendlier price tag than a triple horn, descant horns are preferred by some players for performing music that focuses on the horn’s higher range.
The Hans Hoyer RT92 Series Descant Horn was developed working with Rick Todd during his time as Principal Horn of the L.A. Chamber Orchestra.
Marching French horns
Gorgeous though it might be, the wrap of a standard French horn doesn’t exactly work if you plan to play while marching. For the marching band context, horns are modified to use a specialized body style that can be easily held straight forward, in the style of a trumpet. You’ll find a selection of marching French horns tuned to F or Bb at Musician’s Friend.
The King 1122 Ultimate Series Marching Bb French horn is tuned to Bb for accuracy in the high range, and it features a 10-inch bell throat for powerful projection.
The mellophone in the key of F is an alternative to the marching French horn key of Bb. It’s much more popular for today's contemporary marching band sound with its more alto voice compared to the darker French horn sound.
A well-balanced instrument with a particularly strong upper register, the Yamaha YMP-204M Series Marching F Mellophone has a .462” bore and a 10” yellow brass bell.
We’re here to help you
After reading this guide, if you’re still not sure which French horn is right for you, or if you have any questions related to the instruments we offer, call a Musician’s Friend Gear Head at 877-880-5907. We’ll help you find the perfect French horn!