History of Horns August 09, 2014

It took hundreds of years for the natural horn to evolve into the complicated and very important musical instrument that it is today. The horn is an instrument made from brass with a tubing of 12–13 feet (3.66–3.96 meters) that is folded into a coil with a flared bell. Musicians who play the horn are generally called horn players or less commonly, hornists.

The natural horn is the ancestor of this brass instrument which was often referred to as the French horn. In 1971, the International Horn Society recommended using just the name horn; but, today, many people in the United States still prefer to use the name French horn. The horn belongs to the brass family and is the second highest sounding instrument.


Primitive types of horns have been found all over Europe. These instruments, either from animal bones or created with metal, facilitated the creation of sounds by adding mouthpieces. They were used to summon animals, or employed by watchmen to alert to oncoming enemies, or by the military for signaling. Early horns were simple and were played during hunting; the sound given off was called recheat. The most common pitches used were B? alto, A, A?, G, F, E, E?, D, C, and B? basso. In order for the instrument to be played in different keys, they used crooks (parts of tubing with different length were inserted) that changed the length of the instrument and its pitch.


Greeks used a long straight trumpet called a salpinx, the lituus (a small and straight horn with an upturned bell) was used by the Romans and the Scandinavians played on metal horns called lurs (a long natural blowing horn without finger holes that is played by the use of facial muscles and the shaping of the lips to the mouthpiece). Various similar types of horns were also discovered in other ancient civilizations.

The Romans also used the cornu (a large coiled trumpet similar to the later hunting horn); actually this was a collective name of four kinds of horns: the short horns from animals used by shepherds, the longer and semicircular horns used as signals, the longer horn that can be bent and carried called the buccina (a brass instrument used in the ancient Roman army which had the wide bore of the modern tuba) and the small Medieval horn used for hunting.


The most famous medieval brass instrument (although it was often created from ivory but not coming from the elephant’s tusk) was the oliphant. Based on the oral tradition of this period, the oliphants might have been used as signaling devices during hunts or battles but many believed that this large and often ornately decorated horn was a status symbol of the rich and wealthy land owners. These were some of the most commonly used horns in the Middle Ages:

1. The cow horn was medium size and made from buffalo horn. Due to its loud volume, it was a hunter’s horn.

2. The military horn was curved and made from metal. Its height was as tall as man and due to its booming sound, it served the military well. Its successor was the Alpine horn.

3. The bugle was the smallest horn and made from either animal horn or metal. This was used by guards, sentries and shepherds. In the high circle of society, the bugle was made either of gold or ivory to look elegant.

Around 1000 AD, finger holes were added to increase the horns range of notes, like that of the pipes. The Baroque period transformed the horn from a hunting instrument to an orchestral instrument. The cup-shaped mouth pieces of the Baroque horns were either flared up extensions of their tubal mouth or a separate detachable fitment. In this period, the art of cornet playing was popular. The cornet was a soprano instrument with seven curved tubes and seven finger-holes made of wood. .


Jean Baptiste Lully of Paris, in 1680, introduced some orchestral technique innovations by expanding the string orchestra to five parts and championed the use of hunting horns by orchestras. In 1700, the hunting horn underwent an important change in design at the hands of the Leichamschneiders, who were brothers from Vienna. The new horn design gave the instrument a different quality of tone. Around 1753, the hunting horn evolved into the French horn in Vienna, accomplished by Joseph Hampel, a Bohemian hornist. He gave the horn the sound characteristics and structure of the modern valve horn. At the start of the 18th century, the hunting horn was used, particularly by Bach and Handel who asked for hunting horns in various tunings.

The invention of the valves was the last important development in the horn’s evolution to its modern form. Heinrich Stölzel of Berlin introduced a valve horn in 1814. In 1818, Friedrich Blühmel and Stölzel were given the piston valve patent, and since this time, the valve horn has gone through various improvements to its sound and construction.


Fritz Kruspe, a German instrument maker, near the end of the 19th century, manufactured the first F/Bb double horn. From then through the mid-20th century, this horn was outfitted with rotary valves and it started to gain greater acceptance. Today, the double horn in F/Bb is the most widely used orchestral music horn, along with horns, in high Bb, and in F and the triple horn in F/ Bb/high f. German inventors worked on a method of combining together two rotary valve horns, sized differently, for a wider range and easier playing. They adopted the smaller horn in B flat and fused it with the standard horn in F. With this combination of the new four valves, the French horn became known as the double horn and is still considered the standard.

Today, only a few players use something other than the standard double horn and only those who play professionally play with the triple horns or B flat horns with stopping valves. After all the crucial changes that happened during the last centuries, the best and the most sophisticated horns are now available. However, horn makers are still trying to improve them in every way possible. The horn has probably achieved its final evolution: it can be played in any key, gives a very even sound and has speedy effective valves.

For more information about the history of horns, refer to these links:

Thesaurus of Musical Instruments: Horns

Evolution of the Horn

French Horn Music Instruments

Horns: From Ancient to Modern

Medieval Horns

Modern Valve Horn

All about Horns

Lip Vibrated Instruments

More Facts about French Horns

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