How the French Horn Went From a Hunting Tool to a Musical Instrument

We generally think of musical instruments as being intended for just that: music.

But there is one instrument—the horn—that actually has roots as a utilitarian tool rather than a musical device.

HOW HORNS WERE ORIGINALLY USED

When they first found their way into human hands, horns were simply hollowed out animal horns. These horns were not used as musical instruments at all; instead, they had a number of utilitarian uses. Hunters used these animal horns to communicate with each other, while nobility and religious leaders used the horns to make announcements or commence celebrations.

DEVELOPMENT OF THE FRENCH HORN

Although the original animal horn instruments were useful, they were what is known as monotoned instruments—that is, they did not allow for any sort of manipulation of sound. Instead, the player could only play a single note. This all changed in the 16th century, when a brass version of these hunting horns was invented to be used in operas

While these new horns were an improvement, they still didn’t allow for much flexibility in the sound they produced. In fact, musicians in the operas needed to switch between multiple horns of different lengths throughout a single performance just to create the different notes they needed. It wasn’t until the 17th century that modifications to the bell end of the horn were finally made, allowing for a wider range of sounds.

The modern French horn was created in the 1700s in Germany, which has led many critics to say that it should simply be called a horn, rather than a French horn. It was during this time in the 18th century that movable slides were first placed on the horn, allowing musicians to change the key they were playing in. By the late 18th century, musicians had accidentally discovered the technique of “stopping,” where a hand or object is placed over the bell of the horn. This technique lowers the tone of the music, thus allowing for an even wider range of sounds to be produced. 

It is difficult to attribute the creation of the French horn to a single person, as there are multiple people who contributed to different aspects of the horn. A few notable names are:

  • Heinrich Stoelzel invented the French horn’s valve in 1814.
  • Friedrich Blümel was a miner who may also have contributed to the invention of the horn’s valve.
  • Edmund Gumpert and Fritz Kruspe were both musicians who invented the double French horn in the 19th century.

HOW THE FRENCH HORN WORKS

The modern French horn is a brass instrument consisting of a long tube that is wound into a circular shape. Although the horn itself isn’t too large, the metal tubing would actually be up to 20 feet long if fully stretched out. The French horn has an open “bell” on one end where the sound comes out, and a mouthpiece on the other end; it is the only horn with a funnel-shaped mouthpiece.  

The modern French horn has a number of valves that the player can press to adjust the length of the tube, thus changing the pitch of the music. The player can also change the sound produced by opening or closing their lips when blowing into the mouthpiece.

THE FRENCH HORN IN POP CULTURE

While the French horn is largely used in orchestral and military settings, there are quite a few celebrities who play it. Some of the most notable of these celebrities are Jon Stewart, who played for years in his high school band, and Ewan McGregor, who studied the French horn religiously in his teen years. Here is a video of McGregor playing the French horn when he was just 16 years old. 

The French horn’s deep, versatile sound has made it phenomenally popular in everything from military bands to cinematic soundtracks—it has certainly come a long way from its humble beginnings as a monotoned instrument used only for hunting and making announcements!