French Horn: History, Facts & Songs

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

Despite being one of the few orchestra pieces to have a geographical name, the French horn is actually German. Keep reading to learn about the surprising history of the horn, how it is used in music, and addition information on this musical instrument.


The very first horns were animal horns, cleared of any marrow and blown through to announce anything from the beginning of a feast to an approaching army. Perhaps the most famous example of these is the Hebrew shofar, a ram's horn used to announce Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. However, to create a different note, the musician would have to start blowing through the horn at a different speed or let breath leak out of the seal of his/her mouth, as there was no other way to adjust the quality of the sound.

Building on the example from nature, Europeans in the Middle Ages used the natural horn, which was made of brass. Like the shofar, this instrument created difficulties when it came to adjusting the note produced and one common solution was to offer additional lengths of pipe for each few notes. Obviously, this was clumsy at best and meant that the horn was of little use in a concert environment.

By 1815, pistons and valves were incorporated into the design by builders in Germany, allowing for musicians to avoid the interruption of changing the pipes mid-performance. With this adjustment, the horn became an increasingly more popular instrument and soon gained the notice of composers. The horn as we know it was created in Germany by this time.

Example of a natural horn
Natural Horn


Despite the long history of the horn, there are many surprising attributes about it.

  • Foremost, it is incorrect to refer to it as a 'French horn' (this article does so for the sake of simplicity). The horn was invented in Germany and since 1971, has been properly referred to as simply a horn.
  • The horn itself makes music by increasing the distance that air must travel within the pipes of the horn. A number of available routes for the air are available and the longer the air travels, the lower the note it produces.
  • Instead of using pistons like a trumpet or an adjustable pipe like a trombone, the modern horn player pushes down on rotary valves, which open a loop for the air to travel through before returning it to the main passage.
  • Before the widespread use of rotary valves, musicians would practice a technique known as hand covering, by which they would change the note by covering some of the bell, or where the sound exits, with part of their hand, changing the quality of the note.

A modern horn

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