The Wagner Tuba versus the Horn

The idea of the magical Wagner Tuba has always fascinated me.  I think it’s the rarity of the instrument combined with the musical connotation with the otherworldly realm that makes it such an alluring instrument.  However, I’ve never had the pleasure to work with these instruments up close.  If I recall correctly, I’ve only seen them in performance twice.  once in a performance of Strauss’ Alpine Symphony and the other in a performance of The Rite of Spring.  Neither of these works give the Tuben a real chance to shine.  Instead they are background, filler, and occasionally countermelodies.

With this said, it can be hard for an orchestrator to get an idea of how the Wagner Tuben and the Horns differ in their sounds.  I’ve found a few sources detailing the differences, but recently, I’ve found a single video of a quartet of Horns and a quartet of Tuben playing an arrangement of Bruckner’s 7th Symphony.  This really gives the listener a clear example of how the two instruments differ in sound.  The Tuben are what I would call fuzzier and warmer, while the Horns are clearer and more direct.  The interplay between the two groups is really fantastic.  The Tuben form a base to the sound of the Horns.

Horns Part 4 – Horns in the Band

Horns in the Band

            Traditionally, there are four Horn parts in every work for band (works for young ensembles excluded).  This number is rarely deviated from.  In the orchestra, there are numerous examples of scoring for more or less than the traditional four horns.  Most Classical works use only two horns.  Works like Holst’s Planets use six Horns.  Mahler used seven in his First Symphony.  Many, many composers have used eight.  Schönberg used ten in Gürreleider.  Strauss used twenty in his Alpine Symphony.  And Havergal Brian used 24 in his Gothic Symphony.  Yet, the band has never used more than four.

            With its nearly four octave range, huge chords spaced over several octaves are possible for a group of massed Horns.  This is one reason that the Horn section is always larger than the sections for other brass instruments.  Or rather, I should say that there are always more Horn parts than parts for other brass instruments.

            I would love to envision a work that utilizes the full section of eight Horns like the larger symphonic works.  It would take the edge off the trumpet dominant sound of modern band works.  Many groups, both professional and amateur, have access to eight competent Horn players.  Why not utilize the resources?

The Bumper

            I nearly every larger ensemble, there is always one more Horn player than is actually scored for.  This extra player is known as the bumper.  The bumper almost always plays off of the first Horn part.  In tutti passages the bumper will reinforce the sound or give the principal player a well-deserved rest.  While the ubiquity of the bumper is almost universal among professional and semi-professional groups, no composer has taken the opportunity to make use of this resource.  If a composer were so inclined, they could indicate when and where the bumper would play for a precise desired effect.  However, remember with the bumper, their main job is to make sure the principal player does not tire out.


            If dealing with a professional group, we might consider having four of the Horn players double on Wagner Tuba for a wider palate of sound.

Ranges and Scoring

            The Horn in its highest register is dramatic and exciting.  It can easily drown out an orchestra.

In the middle register, the Horn is the great blender.  The sound of the Horn in this range can blend in seamlessly with every other instrument of the band or orchestra.

In its lowest register, the Horn can be sinister and snarling at a loud dynamic or soft and unobtrusive when played softly.

As I mentioned above, the Horn can blend with every instrument with a good deal of success.  The low register of the flute can match the tone color of a muted Horn, Bassoons share the exact same range, clarinets share their ability to be able to blend.  The only scoring oddity is Horns and trumpets.  The timbres are somewhat dissimilar.  Don’t use Horns as the bass to a trumpet ensemble unless you are very careful (trombones will be a much better substitute).

Vienna Horns playing the theme to Back to the Future (12 Horns)

Vienna Horns playing themes from Pirates of the Carribean

Opening to Mahler’s Symphony 3 (8 Horns in unison)

Strauss’ Eine Alpensinfonie – part for offstage horns (12 off stage, 8 on stage – 4 move back and forth)

Horns Part 3 – Horn Technique


            As the Horn differs in playing than all other brass instruments (hand in the bell, use of 16 harmonics, backwards playing position, etc.), it is only natural that its technique should be different.  Much, like the use of valves is similar, but the Horn poses its own unique scenarios.

Pedal Notes

            Like all brass instruments, the Horn can play pedal notes.  These are the fundament pitch of the harmonic series.  These notes are not general used in everyday literature, but can be effective.  Pedal notes are usually only used on the B-flat side of the Horn, and thus will make a natural chromatic extension down from the normal range.  I myself once wrote a pedal E-flat (written) below the bass clef.  The players looked quizzical at first, but were able to produce the note (1st valve on the B-flat side) with some confidence.  Much lower than this and the production can be suspect.  The pedal F (sounding a low B-flat) is widely used and should present no problems, but as the pitches descend, the notes will be harder and harder to produce.  Pedal notes on the F side are nearly impossible.



            There is only one mute available for the horn, the straight mute.  It is used just like on other brass instruments to change the timbre to a buzzier and somewhat softer sound.  As the mute covers the whole of the bell opening, the Hornist’s hand will be displaced, which means that the hand cannot be used to affect the tuning.


            Stopping is a technique that only Horn players can utilize.  It involves forcing the hand inside the bell to close off the airway.  In doing this, the sound will become brash and buzzy.  It can be used for loud aggressive passages or soft distant ones.  One special note, when player stops the Horn, the instrument will sound a minor second lower.  The composer does not have to notate the passage any differently.  The player will do all the transposition necessary.

A demonstration of stopping.  Note: the player goes into more detail about how the hand stopping affects the pitch than I do.  The composer needs not worry about the transposition.

Wait… does the pitch go up or down when you stop…  Evidently, there is considerable debate here.  I leave that to horn players to figure out.

Hand Horn Technique

            The Hand Horn is a colloquial name for the Natural Horn without valves.  Other natural brass instruments (i.e. trumpet) are limited to notes within the harmonic series.  By using the hand placed in the bell, Natural Horn players can alter the pitch of notes to be able to add a considerable variety of notes outside of the harmonic series.  All pitches half a step lower than notes in the harmonic series are available as fully stopped notes.  In essence, a Horn in F could become a Horn in E when stopped.  Half and three-quarter stopping will also give varying shades of pitches.  It is beyond the scope of this blog to mention every pitch than a Horn can produce via hand techniques.  What should be noted is that the notes outside of the natural harmonic series will sound different than the pure notes.  The will have either a full stopped or a half-stopped sound.

            While all modern Horns possess valves and a fully chromatic range, hand Horn technique can be utilized by all players on any instrument.

The famous 4th Horn solo from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.  Done on natural horn with hand horn technique.


            All brass instruments are capable of producing more than one note at a time – or at least giving the impression of doing so.  In order to do this, the player must play a one note, usually in the lower register, while singing another note in a higher register.  Usually, the sung note is a note harmonious to the played note (e.g. a perfect 5th, an octave, etc.).  The result is not the two notes that are played/sung, but a fully fleshed out chord.  The Horn was the first brass instrument to exploit this technique.  The most famous example of this is Weber’s Horn Concertino written for natural Horn.  The cadenza of the works utilizes extensive multiphonics.

            Multiphonics should only be used for solo playing.  Their sound is weak and usually won’t project through a mass ensemble.

Weber’s Horn Concertino

Note: this performance uses a Natural Horn, so it is an excellent example of hand horn technique.  Listen for notes that do not sound like those next to each other.  Multiphonics start at 11:00.

Bells Up

            The last major technique is “bells up.”  This is where the Horn player tilts the instrument ninety degrees so that the instrument is parallel to the ground.  This effort is to produce more volume and to have a visual effect.  The visual effect only works in a live performance and is not apparent on recordings.  One thing to consider is that the player’s hand position will have to change, and therefore, the tuning will change.  Only use bells up on occasion for massive, loud passages.  It works best for unison lines or passages in octaves.

There are many passages in Mahler and the Rite of Spring where Horn players will use bells up.  Just before the Sacrificial Dance there is a huge unison Horn line where all 8 horns throw their bells in the air and shout out the theme.

An excerpt from Rachmaninoff’s The Bells.  Towards the end of the clip, the whole Horn section can be seen with their bells in the air.

A good example of historical Horns, hand Horn technique, and stopping.

Horns Part 2 – Horn Notation

Horn Notation

The Horn is the only instrument where we must take a look at how the instrument is notated.  A well-versed Horn player is required to be able to transpose the different keyed parts for their instrument at sight.  Players make no bones about doing this.  In fact, this is a point of pride for all Hornists.  However, this does not mean that you can write your Horn parts in any key willy-nilly.


As I see it, there are only two ways to notate the Horn in modern parlances.  The standard one is as a transposing instrument in F all pitches sounding down a fifth.  This seems common sense, except when we get to the bass clef.  In older scores, when the Horn was notated in the bass clef, the transposition changed, and instead of it sounding a fifth down, it sounded a fourth up.  In other words, the notation was an octave lower than today’s modern notation.  There is no need for this practice to continue, and in reality, it is extinct.  However, its inclusion in every orchestration text makes it confusing.


The alternative, and one I’ve never figured out why it hasn’t caught on, is to notate everything at concert pitch.  If we think about it, the majority of our brass instruments, no matter their pitched key, read in concert pitch.  Trombones, Euphoniums, tubas, all play in concert pitch even though their instrument is pitched otherwise.  Trumpet is slowly moving over to everything in concert pitch with the prominence of the C Trumpet over the B-flat.  Horn is the last holdout.  What makes this interesting is that Horn is the only brass instrument without a true “family” of other instrument for the player to switch to.  There’s no reason for the Horn not to be notated in concert pitch except for tradition.

Tradition brings us to our final oddity of Horn notation.  Horn is the only instrument not scored for in chord order.  What I mean by this is the first player plays the highest note, the second player plays the next highest, and so on, until the last player plays the lowest note.  Horn doesn’t do this.  Instead of the logical 1, 2, 3, 4; Horn parts are written 1, 3, 2, 4.  It comes from a time when Horns were only scored for in pairs.  When four Horns were scored for, it wasn’t thought of as a group of four members in the same section, rather it was thought of as two pairs of instrument that often played different parts and roles.  Stray from this arrangement, and Horn players will ridicule and mock you ridiculously.  It makes it more difficult for a composer to write for the Horn, because we have to remember this rule for this one instrument.  The logical solution, some would think, would be to group Horns 1 and 3 on one staff, and Horns 2 and 4 on the other, but once again, Horn players scoff at this idea.  Rule of thumb: odd numbered Horns are high parts/players, and even numbered Horns are low parts/players.  Stray from this and suffer.


The influence of modern practices is not to be found among Horn players.  Traditional is best, or so it would seem

Horn – Part 1 – Introduction and Species

The introduction and species chapter for the Horn will be far shorter than that for any other instrument.  The reason for this is that there is only a single instrument we call the Horn.  There are many variants, but all are considered the same instrument.

Double F/B-flat Horn

            This is the only instrument we need to familiarize ourselves with.  Horns, before the invention of the valve, used to be pitched in any key imaginable, but with the valve, these various keys went away.  The most common of the instruments was the Horn in low F (sounding a fifth lower than written).  This instrument was able to do nearly everything that the old natural Horns in various keys could do.  However, security in the upper register was a bit suspect.  To solve this problem, a second set of tubes was added to the valve F Horn that put the instrument in high B-flat (sounding a second lower).  In so doing, the upper register was made easier to play.  Therefore, the modern Horn is a combination of two different pitches of instrument (F and B-flat).  On the whole, this single instrument is the extent of the family

            The Double Horn has a huge range of nearly four octaves, which is one reason other sizes of the Horn never came into vogue.  On the high end, parts have been written up to a written high E three ledger lines above the treble clef (sounding the A a fifth lower), and on the low end, I know works that use the pedal range below a written low F at the bottom of the bass clef (sounding a low B-flat a fifth lower).  Generally, the upper range (up to this extreme high E) is avoided and the C a third lower is the maximum upper range.  The composers who did use the extreme E only did it once in their entire career (R. Schumann and R. Strauss).

            The best range for the instrument is about a two octave span from G below the treble clef to the G at the top of the treble clef.  This is the most melodious and most flexible part of the Horn.  It also corresponds to the range that was used by composers who wrote for the valveless Horn, because the harmonics in this region are closer together and can produce more interesting combinations.

            Above this range, the sound becomes bright and piercing and is best only in forte.  Below this range and the Horn gets more sluggish and cannot project as well.

            An interesting factoid that few realize is that the Horn (excluding its pedal range and its extreme high range) has exactly the same range as the Bassoon.  Perhaps it is for this reason, that these two instruments complement each other so well.

Mozart Concerto 1

Strauss Concerto 1

Single Horns

Horns pitched in solely F or B-flat are known and used by some players.  The famous British horn player, Dennis Brain, is known to have used single Horn in B-flat.  These horns have smaller ranges than do the Double Horn.  The use of either is at the whim of the player, and will only be used for special circumstances.  No special concern needs to be taken by the composer.


Dennis Brain performing on a single B-flat Horn.

Vienna and French Horns

These are two very different instruments that are used in Austrian and France respectively.  The French Horn is obsolete.  It was a single F Horn with piston valves with a 3rd valve that ascended rather than descending.  Our modern instrument is not a “French” Horn.

A true French Horn

The Vienna Horn is still very much alive, but is only used in and around the city of its origin.  Once again, it is a single F Horn (though it can be fitted with various crooks like the old natural Horn), but its valve and bore structure is quite different.  Unless you know that you are composing for the Vienna Philharmonic, don’t score for the Vienna Horn.

Comparison between a Double Horn and a Vienna Horn

Vienna Horns playing the theme to Jurassic Park (The dinosaur nerd in me geeks out over this one).

Other Horns

Descant Horn

            There are a few other members of the Horn family, but their use is not dictated by the composer/orchestrator, but rather by the player.  The main instrument here is the Descant Horn pitched in high F an octave above the standard F Horn.  Just like the Piccolo Trumpet, it cannot help the player reach higher notes, but it can aid in those notes’ production.  Passages that include the notorious high E, are usually played on a Descant.

Most times, the Descant is doubled with the standard B-flat side of the Double Horn.  It can also be coupled with the entire Double Horn making an instrument with three pitches in one (the Triple Horn).  Triples are quite heavy, and only used by select players.

Explanation of the Descant Horn

The Quoniam movement from Bach’s B Minor Mass

Piccolo Horn

            This is more of a novelty instrument than a usable Horn.  It is pitched in high B-flat an octave higher than the B-flat side of the Double Horn (same pitch as the B-flat Trumpet).  They can be found easily on eBay, but as to their use, I highly doubt that they make for practical instruments.

Demonstration of a Piccolo Horn

Bass/Contrabass Horn

            Over the years, several attempts to make a Horn larger than the standard F Horn have been tried.  In the days of the valveless instrument, pitches down to low B-flat (sounding a 9th lower than written) were common, but these low pitches went extinct.

            The famous tuba player Roger Bobo had a Bass Horn in low C constructed for his use in movie scores and his own recordings.  The instrument is a massive beast that is probably best described as a tuba in the shape of a Horn.  The bore structure is far too wide for what a true horn really is.  Other people have tried to make their own instrument to varying degrees of success, but a true Bass Horn is still elusive.

            Of all the possible brass instruments that could be made and have not been, the possibility of a true Bass Horn seems to be the most appealing.  The low range of the standard F Horn has always been inflexible at best.

A recording where a Bass Horn is used in a large horn ensemble.

Roger Bobo’s instrument

Alto Flügelhorn or Alto Tuba

Alto Flügelhorn or Alto Tuba or Alto Euphonium

Like the Piccolo Flügelhorn, I only include this instrument for completeness sake.  It is extremely rare, and I can find only a few examples of such an instrument ever having been manufactured.  In essence it is a wide bore Alto Horn.  Do not use this instrument in your writing.

That said…

The Mellophone as an Alto Tuba

I’ve gone back and forth in my head as whether or not to include the so-called “marching brass.”  In most instances, it’s a moot point.  Marching brass instruments are just reconfigured and redesigned versions of the traditional brass instruments.  There’s one exception though, the Mellophone.


There are actually two different instruments that go by the name Mellophone.  One is the older style instrument that is shaped like a Horn but pitched in alto F or E-flat and played with the right hand instead of the left.  The other instrument can more properly be called a “Mellophonium.”  This instrument is bell-front and looks like a giant Flügelhorn.  This version is the most commonly seen today in high school and college marching bands.

The Mellophone does not fit neatly into any one instrument family.  It is an odd mélange of the cornet, tuba, and horn families.  The wide bell flare is close to that of a Horn.  The bore structure is closer to cornets, but the bore width is closer to tubas.

It is clearly not a horn because the mouthpiece is not that of the deep funnel cup type, so the choice must be narrowed down to between a cornet and a tuba.  The closest analog is the Alto Horn.  Here we must look at specifics.  Alto Horns are pitched in E-flat while Mellophones are usually in F.  This means that the Alto Horn should be bigger all around than the Mellophone assuming that they are members of the same family.  However, this is not the case.  The Mellophone, in general, has a much wider bore than does the Alto Horn.  On average, the Alto Horn’s bore ranges between .409″ (top of the line professional) and .462″ (mid-range student) with an average of an 8.5″ bell, while the Mellophone’s bore is consistently .460″ with a 10″ to 11″ bell.  As we’ve placed the Alto Horn firmly in the cornet family, the means that the Mellophone should really be classified as a tuba.

This opens up an interesting world.  As we say in the entry on tuba species, there is no true member of the tuba family pitched in the alto voice range.  We go from soprano with the Flügelhorn to the tenor/baritone range with the Euphonium/Tenor Tuba.  The Mellophone could easily fill this gap.  I would like to think of it as just an Alto Flügelhorn pitched in F a fifth below normal.  I could easily replace the bottom voice in a group of Flügelhorns (say part four in a choir of four voices).  This will give an additional solo voice to the ensemble (one never before included in concert music), and will extend the range of the Flügelhorn section.

Some notes: the Mellophone (hereafter referred to as an Alto Tuba) should always be written in F transposing in the treble clef.  The instrument pitched in E-flat is a thing of a bygone age and no longer manufactured.  When being used as an Alto Tuba, it is essential that the widest bore instrument made be used for that part.  Also essential, is the use of the proper mouthpiece on the Alto Tuba.  Modern instruments are manufactured so that a trumpet mouthpiece can be used on the instrument, but the result is far from satisfactory.  In order to ensure proper results, a large, deep cup Alto Horn mouthpiece must be used by the player.  This will result in a warm, sonorous sound that will blend with the rest of the tubas.

Oddly, the Alto Tuba (Mellophone) has never been used in a concert setting.  This is probably a result of it being solely thought of as an instrument for the marching field.  However, if we remove ourselves from the football field, and realize that this instrument is not meant to be a substitute for the F Horn, then we are free to use it as it truly is – an Alto Tuba.

Summertime on Mellophone.  Note the wider bore and rounder south than the Alto Horn.

A section of 5 Mellophones

Wagner Tuben

Wagner Tuben

            It is interesting to think, that of all the brass instruments in existence, only one family has never been adopted into any wind band group.  These instruments are the Wagner Tuben.  Tuben is the plural for Tube in German.  I prefer referring to these instruments in plural as Tuben rather than Tubas to avoid confusion with true tubas.

The Wagner Tuba is essentially a wide bore Horn in an oval shape with the bell pointing upwards.  They are always played by Horn players with a Horn mouthpiece.  The instruments were dreamt of by Richard Wagner as a wholly new sound for his Ring cycle.  Contrary to popular belief, they are the only real instrumental invention that Wagner made (the Bass Trumpet and Contrabass Trombone were already in existence, but were poorly known military instruments).  The Wagner Tuben were originally developed from the French saxhorns, but quickly evolved away from that family.

The literature for these instruments is very limited, but the works that call for them are so significant that nearly every major orchestra will possess a set.  We can find Wagner Tuben called for in Wagner’s Ring, Bruckner’s last three symphonies, various works by Richard Strauss, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, and a small handful of other works from the Twentieth Century.

tenor wagner tuba range

F wagner tuba range

In nearly every case, four Wagner Tuben are required by the composer: two B-flat Tenor Tubas and two F Bass Tubas.  In sound they are hard to tell apart from one another, with the B-flat having a slightly smaller sound than the F does.  Only in the Rite of Spring does Stravinsky stray from the four tuba system as he uses only a pair of B-flat Tenors.  With the exception of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony, every time the Wagner Tuben are used, they are played by Horns 5-8.  Bruckner has two quartets, one of Horns and the other of Wagner Tubas, and the players never switch between the two instruments.  Again, in every case there is a minimum section of eight Horns (Schoenberg uses ten in his Gurrelieder, and Strauss uses twenty in his Eine Alpensinfonie).  Both Wagner and Bruckner included the normal Contrabass Tuba as the fifth member of the section.

Both instruments are written down to a low F-sharp just below the bass clef.  The Tenor Wagner Tuba sounds a major second lower (low E), while the Bass Wagner Tuba sounds a fourth lower (low B below the bass clef).  Many times the tuben are equipped with a fourth valve that lowers the pitch a fourth (effectively down to a written C).  With this valve, the Tenor Wagner Tuba will be able to play a low C below the bass clef, and the Bass Wagner Tuba will be able to play a low G below the bass clef).  These extra low notes are little used.

Historic notation for these instruments makes my brain hurt.  I have found at least five different notation systems for which these instruments have been written (including the confusing notation of writing the B-flat instruments in E-flat and the F instruments in B-flat).  The best and most widely accepted method is to write for the B-flat instrument sounding down a major second and the F instrument sounding down a perfect fifth.  However, this may not be the best solution.  Many orchestras are now using “Double” Tuben.  These are exactly akin to the Double Horn where the B-flat and F instruments are combined into a single instrument.  As these Double Tuben are becoming more and more prevalent, there is every reason to think that we will see all Wagner Tuben written in solely F notation, exactly like Horns are.  In fact, the majority of the Wagner Tuben in the United States are Double Tuben, so the preferred method among Hornists is to have all the parts written in F.

The Wagner Tuben are not flexible instruments.  Seldom have composers written passages where there is a real demand for technique.  Both Wagner and Bruckner used this instrument to portray an other-worldly realm.  For Wagner this was Valhalla, while for Bruckner it was Heaven.  This is the sound for which the instrument was invented.  Four Wagner Tuben in a chorale is one of the most beautiful sounds ever emitted from the brass section.  It is often compared to a strange combination between a Horn and a trombone.  There is a certain aspect of rich magic and sorcery to the sound of the Wagner Tuba that sends chills down my spine.

I know of no reason they have never been included in the band.  Solemnity has never been in huge demand for wind groups, but it is an effect greatly needed from wind groups.  The Wagner Tuben portray this better than any other instrument ever constructed.

As these instruments are almost always used as a double for the Horn, it might be best to use their unique tone color only in certain magical moments.  I would love to hear mixtures of middle brass where the Wagner Tuben, Alto and Baritone Horns, Flügelhorns, and Euphoniums blend to form a choir.  The effect could be a majestic sound hither to unknown.  Wagner Tuben and Bassoons or Bass Clarinet will make for a goblinesque sound.

A few notes on playing the instrument.  Players, in general, are never fully comfortable on the Wagner Tuba, as even the most advanced Horn player will only touch the instrument every few years.  Intonation is said to be the bugbear of the Wagner Tuba, as the player cannot manipulate the tuning via the hand in the bell like on the Horn.  Mutes are seldom used, though available.  Muting of the instrument takes away its other-worldly quality, though I must readily admit, my absolute favorite Wagner Tuba passage in all the orchestral literature is the chorale in the beginning of the third part of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder.  This chorale (alongside a few passages in Eine Alpensinfonie) is among the only known usages of muted Wagner Tuba, and in the case of the Schoenberg, I must admit, the effect is striking.

One more note before leaving the Wagner Tuben.  There is no standardized placement for the instruments in the score.  Depending on which score you look at, they are either placed below the trombones and above the true tuba, or directly below the Horns.  I prefer the later notation, as it clearly shows the affinity between the Wagner Tuben and the Horns, especially since they will be played by the same musicians.

Introduction to the Wagner Tuba

Bruckner’s 7th Symphony excerpt on Wagner Tuben

Work for 8 Wagner Tuben