The extremely rich albeit soft timbre that the horn produces gives it a special quality half-way between brass and woodwinds. It also blends well with the timbres of many other instruments.
People used to blow on the actual horns of animals before attempting to imitate their sound using metal and other materials. This original use exists for example in the Shofar, a ram’s horn, which plays an important role in Jewish religious ceremonies. Likewise, hunters used the horn as a way of contact during the hunt until the middle of the sixteenth century. The body of the horn was wound in large coils so that it could be placed on the shoulder and sounded while riding a horse.
The horn is somewhat similar to the trumpet in that the vibration of the lips creates a tone. Perhaps that’s why both share a similar production history.
Due to their simple construction, which consists of a large bell, a single coiled tube, and a mouthpiece, horns manufactured up until the middle of the nineteenth century were called “natural horns”. On the other hand, the modern horn is a highly complex instrument with a coiled tube.
Adjusting the vibration of the lips controls the pitch of this instrument, and even then it’s only possible to produce natural harmonics. This means that it can’t play actual musical scales. This is what prompted horn players to believe that they must stick a hand in the bell to produce a sound other than these natural harmonics. This method of playing the horn called the “hand-stopping technique,” evolved amongst the horn players in the eighteenth century.
With most brass instruments, the right hand operates the levers or pistons. The horn, with the right hand sitting inside the bell, has the index, middle, and ring fingers of the left hand operate the levers instead.
The little finger of the left hand and the thumb of the right hand inside the bell support the instrument. Some weight presses on the skin between the thumb and index finger on the left hand. Because of that weight, people who practice a lot sometimes get “horn calluses”.
Measures and materials of the horn
The length of the instrument changes between the long F tube or the short B♭ tube. The F tube’s length is 370 cm without pressing any of the levers. Pressing the first lever causes air to pass through the first branch tube, extending the overall length by 45 cm. The second lever adds 22 cm, while the third lever adds about 74 cm. The longest possible length is 510 cm, with all the levers pressed.
On the other hand, the B♭tube is generally about 275 cm long. With all three levers pressed, this increases to 385 cm. Depending on the model and manufacturer, size measures can change.
In addition to its shape and length, the materials used for this instrument may also have a minor impact on the timbre. Brass, which is an alloy consisting of copper and zinc, is more malleable and corrosion-resistant than iron or other metals. Since it’s also pleasing to the eye, it has long been used as the primary material for manufacturing brass instruments.