The Role of the French Horn in Classical Music
The most noble-sounding of the brass instruments in classical music is the French horn. With a full, round, dark tone, the French horn sounds both powerful and elegant. Because the French horn actually is a horn (unlike the English horn, which isn’t), it’s often called the horn. (It’s not, however, actually French.)
You’ve probably heard the characteristic, majestic hunting call of a French horn. Long ago, these proud instruments were a common fixture in royal hunting parties, until it was discovered, after years of research, that guns worked much better. Here’s the lowdown on the French horn.
Hunting for notes: The natural horn
In those olden days, the most common kind of horn was the natural horn. The natural horn was a coil of brass tubing with a mouthpiece at one end and a bell-shaped opening (called the bell) at the other. It had no finger valves or keys at all. To change notes on a natural horn, you had but one recourse: Change the tightness of your lips.
That setup worked fine if you wanted to work with a very limited set of possible notes — along the lines of 16. What if you wanted to play some melody too complex for those 16 notes — for example, Flight of the Bumblebee? You’d need a different horn. No problem. Just switch in the 17 nanoseconds between notes.
Either that, or you could insert a tubing extension (called a crook). The crook altered the length of the column of air inside the horn, thus giving you a second set of 16 notes to choose from. How convenient!
Adding valves: The modern, treacherous horn
Fortunately, modern technology has solved the nightmare of the French horn player. Today, the horn player doesn’t need crooks. Modern horns have rotary valves. These valves are operated by the fingers of the left hand that — in effect — chop off or add on lengths of tubing, thus changing the horn’s entire pitch.