The Friday Fillip: The Horn

The French horn isn’t. French, I mean. It’s German, if anything. So the International Horn Society — oh, yes, there is such a thing — has decided we should join most of the rest of the world and leave off the nationalism, calling it simply a “horn”

Whatever you call it, this brass snail occupies a special place among the instruments — and I don’t just mean at the back of the orchestra. It seems to have a reputation as the most difficult instrument to play. This has something to do with the its great range — five octaves — and the closeness of the harmonics in its upper register. The darn thing is also 16 feet long and takes a might big breath to push sound though. Here’s an excerpt from Wikipedia on playing the beast:

To produce different notes on the horn, one must do many things – the seven most important are pressing the valves, holding the appropriate amount of lip tension, raising the soft palate, positioning the tongue, lowering the larynx, blowing air into the instrument, and placing the hand in the bell.

At any rate, horn players’ tendency to drop clangers has given rise to a host of jokes, most of which belong to a kind of “you-have-to-be-a-player-to-appreciate” musical humour. So: How do you get a trombone to sound like a French horn? Stick your hand in the bell and mess up all the notes. Or: Why is the French horn a divine instrument? Because a man blows in it, but only God knows what comes out of it. See?

Of course, hardening oneself against this kind of contumely — not to mention that it’s generally believed that conductors always assume they have a problem in the horn section and that the horns are always behind the beat (What is a difference between a conductor and a horn player? Two measures!) — indeed, learning to play the thing, will produce a sort of braggadocio rather well suited to the emphatic nature of the instrument’s sound: What’s the difference between a trumpet player and a French horn player? Trumpet players think that they are gifts from God and horn players know it.

Mozart must have enjoyed the horn; he wrote such great concertos for it. But here, too, jokes dog the instrument. Let me offer you a version of the rondo from his 4th horn concerto performed by the great English musical funny men, Flanders and Swann, itself something of a tour de force.


  1. Horn players are also expected to be able to read music in several different clefs, which is challenging.

  2. And then there’s drummers who are also expcted to not be able to read music in any of the different clefs, which is even more challenging (for everybody else).

  3. The clip of Flanders and Swann blew me away.

    What about a fanfare of 9 horns on the steps of the Supreme Court
    announcing opinions; majority notes-sharp and the dissent(s)-flat or whatever different clef those devine horn players would like to play. What will they play? Beethoven’s No. 9 V Presto Ode to Joy (An die Freude) which translates: “Oh friends, not these tones! Rather, let us raise our voices in more pleasing, And more joyful sounds! Joy! Joy!” The court has reached a decision, for now. Rest or Full Stop? Stay tuned.

  4. Simon!

    So good to see a reference to the great musical talent of Flanders and Swann! They were outstanding, as anyone who has heard “Mud Mud Glorious Mud… (The Hippopotomas Song)” knows.

    But in terms of an enlightened and humerous examination of the different instruments in an orchestra, you would be hard-pressed to find anything better than “A Young Lutheran’s Guide to the Orchestra” by Garrison Keillor, in my humble opinion.