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