The term “French horn” refers to both a brass instrument and an organ stop. The brass instrument is the subject of this article. This instrument is only referred to as “French” in English; in French, German, Spanish, and Italian, for example, it is simply referred to as “horn.”
The origins of the French horn can be traced back to shepherds’ warning calls, hunting horns, and instruments made from animal horns. Modern horns are wind instruments made of metal that are usually considered to be one of the four main divisions of the brass family. A valve horn is the type of French horn used today.
The body, bell, valve system, mouthpipe, and mouthpiece are the five parts of the French horn. The right hand, which is positioned inside the bell, not only supports the instrument, but also helps to shape the sound. The hand can also be used to seal the bell, which is known as “handstopping.” Mutes are also used to change the timbre of the French horn.
The modern French horn has four valves, though some instruments have as many as six, and so-called “single” horns have only three valves, and it is pitched in either F or Bb. The fourth valve on the four-valve instruments, known as “double” horns, changes the tuning from Bb to F or vice versa. The double horn is the most common orchestral horn, but there are also triple horns and double descant horns in alto and soprano voicing.
Parts for the French horn are usually written in the treble clef with no key signature. Standard double horn parts in F and Bb are transposed to sound a fifth lower than they are written. Georg Telemann, Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Paul Hindemith, Antonio Vivaldi, Richard Straus, and Johann Sebastian Bach all wrote concertos for the French horn. Ludwig von Beethoven, Hindemith, Sir Michael Tippett, and Francis Poulenc all composed horn sonatas.
Dennis Brain, Louis François Dauprat, Giovanni Punto, several members of the Lewy family, Franz Strauss, Helen Kotas, and Philip Farkas are notable French horn players. Several people who have made a name for themselves in other fields played the horn. Both quarterback Otto Grahm of the Cleveland Browns and actor Samuel L. Jackson were French horn players in their youth.