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