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The French Horn

From longing, to sinister, to epic, the sounds of the horn are incredibly diverse. There are so many different colors that the horn is capable of, but not many people understand the physics of the instrument and what the player does to make all those cool sounds. The texts have not done a great job of explaining it. There are links to my chat with Jim Thatcher throughout, however the whole video is posted at the bottom of the page.

The Instrument

Size matters
There are two common bore sizes (diameter of the tubing). In the LA studios the players usually use a large-bore horn (the most common of which is the Conn 8D) as opposed to the smaller bore ones often used in the concert hall or London studios. It should be noted that the difference in size is quite small and not noticeable unless you really know what you are looking for. The large bore instrument has a larger bell that works well in the studio where a big, wide sound must be evident at a close distance, where the microphones are. The smaller bore and bell project better in the concert hall where the listening point is further away. Sonically, the smaller the bore is, the more zing you get at lower dynamics. I prefer the large bore as these instruments can play a solid forte with a nice round sound, and the zing enters the sound later as you get to fortissimo. Normal horns can start to get zinging at mezzo forte. People often wonder why they cannot get the ‘Hollywood’ sound with orchestras in other parts of the world, and this is one of the reasons. To me, the smaller bores can also sound ‘pinched’ when played loud and high.

The other reason why the cinematic sound can be elusive is that we use players who are all capable of playing well in the high range. A normal horn section has two high-range and two low-range specialists. Film and game music often has high horn parts for everyone, and when you have a traditional section play it, you are asking at least two of them to come out of their comfort zone. This can mean a weaker, pinched sound up high and a greater risk of missed notes. In scoring we often use six or eight horns and hearing them all up above the staff is quite a moving sound.

Make it a Double
Regardless of the bore and bell, the standard horn in use today is the Double Horn.

It is virtually two horns in one; a thumb key lets the player switch between two complete valve sections. The player decides what notes work and tune best on which side; this is not something that an orchestrator needs to think about.

JT front side of horn
JT Backside of horn

Some horns have the B-flat as the low side and an F side above, sounding an octave above the F on the standard double horn. This makes playing higher notes easier and is often used for classical repertoire where the horn being written for had no valves and was in a high key (a natural horn). Unless there is some specific sonic requirement, these are not used in the studio. The sound we are after in the studio is the larger horn playing high, at the top of its range. It is a similar situation to the trumpet and the piccolo trumpet. It is harder to play high on the normal trumpet but it has a ‘brilliant’ quality that the piccolo does not have. I always think of James Bond vs Penny Lane. The color change in the horn is not quite as drastic as in the trumpet, but it is there.

There is a third variety that has all three keys (F, B-flat, high F). These are heavy and not as common as the double horn.

(Note: all references are to written pitch)

The horn has a huge range due to its very long length. The sound also changes dramatically over the space of the horn’s range. Deep in the bass clef the horn can have an unfocused, weak sound. If you compare the bore size and length of a trombone to that of the horn you can see why the trombone has a full and powerful sound in the lower range and why the horn does not. Modern sample libraries are very misleading when it comes to the sound of low horns. They have played the notes many times, out of context (one at a time) and cherry picked the best ones to put in the library. That is just not the sound that comes out in the real world. I often take parts that were programed by a composer for low horns and add the trombones for support or completely reassign them.

Low note example

I am not saying to avoid this range, as it has its uses (it is dark and can be quite sinister), but it lacks power and focus. So think about the result and do not trust the sound of the samples! If we move up to the middle/upper part of the bass clef, the notes can still sound flabby at loud dynamics but are much more useful at softer ones. The horn still lacks power in this range and will not cut through very well. From here up to the middle of the treble clef the horn works really well in soft to medium volume pads. They blend in with the orchestra.

The range centered around the treble clef is the sweet spot; this is where melodies sound rich and lyrical at soft and medium dynamic (think end of the Firebird), and epic and powerful at louder ones. As you get above the staff the sound gets a little thinner, however a professional high player can still make it sound pretty big.

Division of Labor
One could write a whole book on the hows and whys of this, but I will keep it short. In a traditional orchestra the horns are thought of in two high-low pairs: 1st and 2nd, plus 3rd and 4th. This goes back to when natural horns were used and in order to play in other keys, you needed other horns in that key. In a traditional orchestra these pairings are still in place. This has developed into 1st and 3rd being high specialists, 2nd and 4th are the low specialists. In the score, two staves are used and the horns are ‘interlocked,’ so the pitch order goes 1,3,2,4 while the score order is 1,2,3,4. Some people change the staff order to 1,3,2,4 so they can see the chord in pitch and it is a lot easier to notate, but that is cheating and not traditionally correct. I have heard many arguments against doing this, and they are valid if you are working with a traditional orchestra and conductor. They are expecting the classical arrangement. When I write for the studio, I write in pitch order. I common reason for keeping the traditional pairings is tuning, I think the 1000’s sessions I and my colleagues have done in pitch order seating make that one a bit of a wives tale.

Also note, the high/low specialty is for the extreme ranges and most horn players in professional orchestras can cover the whole range, they are just more comfortable and produce better sounds in their specialized range. However, the sound of a low specialist struggling to play high can be quite awful, and risky as they may miss. I have learned this lesson the hard way when scoring in eastern Europe. It is important to consider your section before you orchestrate. I will avoid writing all up high when orchestrating for those ensembles. In LA and London I know everyone will be able to play both high and low with no issues.

The Bumper
You will often see five horns in the symphony. The extra player, called a bumper or assistant, sits next to the principal and is there to give them breaks so they can save themselves for solos and important parts. The principal may decide to add the bumper to unison phrases as well. This only happens in the concert hall, not in the scoring stage.

In the Studio
In the studio, six horns is standard in a large orchestra (around 85 people). This gives us a big sound for unison passages and allows us to have two players per note on a chord. On action scores we often use eight.

The horn is very versatile and can be used for melody or padding; however, its primary use in modern scoring is as a melodic instrument, and therefore it gets a lot of unison writing. The section can blend a unison unlike any other woodwind or brass section can. One would never have six trumpets or six oboes on a lush melodic line, but it is magic with six horns. Eight is epic, but it can start to get a little heavy, so you need to think more when writing softer passages and maybe ditch a few.

Horns can also play rhythmic figures, but you need a really good section to carry it off and make it in time with the rest of the orchestra. The horn projects backwards, and while this is not an issue on long notes, on short rhythmic figures the sound can often be late. Also, it does not matter how good the section is, if you want a tight sound, avoid low rhythmic phrases all together, too flabby and unfocused to be precise.

When notating my horn parts I most often use just one staff for all of them (even eight!). If there is one note, it is unison. If there are two notes the copyist will split the section in half (1/2/3, 4/5/6 etc), three notes and the section splits in pairs. If there is anything that does not work out obviously, I label what they are to do, either once at the beginning if it is a common split, or as it happens. For example, if I have four horns and a three note chord, I would have 1st and 2nd play the top note and 3rd and 4th take the other ones. This system saves me a lot of time. I have hidden text in my scores that explains this to the copyists. They see it on their screens but it will not print out. Here are the horn staves from a recent score.

What Is with the Hand?
The hand sits in the bell and serves two main functions. Some players use the hand to hold the instrument up off the leg, but primarily it is used to help with tuning.

By moving the hand in and out the player can adjust the pitch. This can be as drastic as cupping the hand and lowering the sound a half step, or as subtle as moving a single finger to adjust a couple of cents.

JT Normal Hand
JT Hold hand position


The most common of all horn effects, the stopped horn makes a thin, buzzy metallic sound when blown hard and a thin muffled one when at low dynamics. To make this sound, the player blocks the bell with the hand.

A side effect of this is that the pitch goes UP a half step. To compensate for this, the player fingers the note a half step DOWN from the sounding one. This is second nature to them and not something the orchestrator needs to worry about at all.

The notation for this is a + above the notes you want stopped. You can also use the word ‘stopped’ (or foreign equivalent), but why use that much ink when a simple + gets the job done? Most people then cancel the stop with a º or the word ‘open.’ I do not bother with this. If there is no + on the note, it is not stopped! I have never had anyone ask if I wanted the next note stopped. The only time I have ever canceled it was when I had a figure that happened several times stopped, and then I did want one of them open. That could have been confusing, so I did mark it open. Another common thing everyone else does but I do not, is to repeat the + on tied notes. I have never done it, and no one has ever opened up in the next measure on the tied note. You would have to go out of your way to ask for that effect!

Players also often use a stopping mute. This simulates the sound of the stop with a mute, instead of the hand. The sound is a little brighter and more focused than with the hand and can be louder. The hand stop starts to become harder and less focused as you get below the treble clef, whereas the mute is good down through the bass clef. It also has a better sound when played softly. The disadvantage though is that the player cannot tune the note as they usually do with the hand. Also, the player needs time to put in the mute. Getting the mute out can be very quick though, as they have a strap that goes around the player’s wrist and they just pull it out and let it hang off the wrist while they continue to play in normal position. Generally the choice of hand or mute is left to the players.

Jim Thatcher discusses and demonstrates some of the differences between stopping with the hand and the stopping mute in this video.

Stop notation
  1. Common notation, but no need to say it twice. The + can only mean stop to a horn player.
  2. Better.
  3. How I do it. I do not repeat the + on the tied note. Nor do I put the ∞. They will not stop the D as it has no + on it. Seems pretty obvious to me and all the horn players that have never questioned me about whether it is open or stopped!

Metal mute
Sometimes inexperienced orchestrators call for the ‘Metal Mute’. I think some might be a bit confused. There is a stopping mute, as above, that is usually made of metal, so sometimes colloquially it is referred to as a metal mute. But it is used instead of the hand to make a stopped sound, you never specify that mute. You can get a metal straight mute, but they are not often used and I don’t believe that is what people are really thinking as when I see this indication it is when they want a real zing, as in stopped.

Straight Mute
If you write con sord. in a horn part, you get the straight mute. Made of wood or fiber, it takes the edge off the sound as it reduces the higher harmonics. Generally it gives you a more mellow sound. Note that this is quite different than the orchestral straight mutes (usually made of metal) used on Trumpets and Trombones, that give a nasally, pointed sound when blown anything over mezzo piano. If you play loud with the mute, you get an interesting sound where you hear a normal pitch and a slight buzz.

Mute Soft
Mute Mezzo
Mute Loud

Here’s Jim Thatcher talking about how the horn’s straight mute is used.

The Hand Bend
This is a common effect, often abused due to certain sample libraries containing it! By cupping the hand and using it to extend the bell, the pitch can be lowered a half step.

There is also a color change associated with this, as the hand gets to its final point, it is also starting to block the bell, thus the sound gets muffled and at louder dynamics sounds a bit like a stop (but muffled). It is important to note that this is NOT a stop. It is just a side effect of having the hand in that position. As explained above, a true stop, where the hand completely blocks the bell causes the pitch to go the other way, up a half step from the open position. If you do bend down into a true stop, the pitch now actually jumps up a whole step. Just to confuse things a little bit, due to the nature of the horn and the fact that several notes can be played with the same fingerings in the upper range, there are a few freaky notes where you can bend into a true stop and you do not notice the change. Best not to think of this. I should not have even mentioned it as it does your head in trying to work it all out. I am just saying it now, as otherwise some smarty will point it out to me later.

Bend down
Bend around
Horn Bend

This effect is commonly written o-+, open to stop. It was not until a player pulled me aside one day and told me what really happens that I learned that, while he can fake it, it is not really a stop at the end. You can also write the portamento to a note a half-step below and they will do this with the hand. If you do not mind when they actually land or want it to be a little dissonant, I just say ‘bend down’. There is no need to get carried away with other descriptions; they know what you mean. It is their job. You are the confused one if you have to explain it!

A cool effect is to do the opposite, have them start with the hand cupped and open up, thus raising the pitch. I usually just say something like ‘start bent down and bend up with cresc’. This sounds great on end-of-phrase cluster pushes that are common in scores these days. In this example I have six horns. Three start on the C chord, while three finger the C# chord but start bent down, so it sounds as C, then they raise the pitch and you morph into a cluster.

Cuivre, or brassy, as it translates, seems to be as poorly explained in the texts as stopping and bending. There are really two parts to it. In the real world, when the horn plays loud, it gets brassy, they can’t help it. That is the zing. They can push it a little harder, loosen the embouchure and make a nastier noise if you wish. Good players will decide how they need to play to be heard in any particular situation, and therefore may play cuivre, or appear to, without being asked. But be warned if you ask for it on the smaller horns and don’t have a tasteful section, you are in for a treat, and not a tasty one. I marked it once for a session in Prague and since then, have never marked it again.

swell to cuivre

Check out my chat with Jim Thatcher where we discuss it.

Due to the nature of the horn and the fact that in the mid-to-high register the notes in the harmonic series are close together, when a horn plays a slur (blows through a leap), you get a lovely portamento effect. When you write for horns you must keep this in mind as a slur pattern for a clarinet, trumpet or string part will get you a very different result with the horn. While it is an awesome sound, you do not want to overdo it. If you do not put a slur, the horns will play legato up through mezzo forte. From forte up, they will articulate the notes a little more as they must push them out. So it is not necessary to put large phrase marks to make a legato sound, save the slurs for when you want the portamento effect.

Horn Slur
  1. Will sound like a slimy mess if they take it seriously.
  2. How I would do it. You get the expressive portamento effect on the upward 5th, and lyrical fall on the next note. The other notes will be played legato. No need to specify it at this dynamic.

If it is connecting two notes it is a gliss, if there is not a note before it, it is a rip. You can specify a start note (but then it is a gliss…), or just write the rip articulation. It will be a little rougher sounding as the section will all start at slightly different times, from different notes.

Horns are great at glissing between notes. Keep in mind, it does not matter how long the note is, they will wait until the last minute to do the gliss.

Horn rip and gliss

Please do not add any text to your glissandi and rips. Players are not idiots; they understand what the lines all mean and there is nothing else that they could confuse them for.

Balls Up, I Mean Bells Up
This is when the players lift the horn and the bell. While not technically facing upward, the bell is higher and more forward facing than in the regular position. The hand may stay in the bell or if really going for it not. This does four things. Firstly, with the hand less or not in the bell they are unable to tune like they usually do, so the sound of the section gets a little wider and wilder. Secondly, the hand does muffle the horn a little, and with it out of the way the sound is a little brighter. Thirdly, the bell is now, throwing the sound in a more forward and upward direction. Lastly, there is a theatrical element to it, the audience sees the bells up and the horn players rise to the occasion and milk the extra attention.

However if you want a loud, open sound that spreads around the room, I would suggest the Wagner Tuba (and the players will love you for getting them a double on the session!). Here is a post on it.

Thank you to Jim Thatcher for explaining a lot of this to me and playing the examples.

Here are the complete videos of Jim explaining the french horn.

Part 1 – Career

Part 2 – The sounds and techniques

Part 3 – Stopping and Mutes

Part 4 – Horn Construction

Posted in: BrassOrchestration


  1. Dear Tim, congractulation your Blog is just amazing.

  2. Are Horns and Wagenr tuas the only “left-handed” brass instruments?

  3. Great article! I have two things to mention:
    I would always notate stopped notes as in your 2nd example, not the 3rd as it definitely can cause questions outside hollywood.
    And secondly you write: “if I have four horns and a three note chord, I would have 1st and 2nd play the top note and 3rd and 4th take the other ones.”
    Why would you do it like that on a normal balanced chord? The top note is louder by itself and to enforce it by a 2nd player just makes it worse/ more unbalanced for me. If its the root of the chord i would put it an octave down for the 4th, otherwise give one player tacet.

    • Thanks for the observations. In my experience, adding another person to the top note will not change the balance at all, it just makes that note a bit creamier, smoother and as that is the top and where we perceive most of the quality from, it can help make the whole thing sound bigger. It only adds 12.5% more volume, plus the players will adapt. So it is more about quality and color.
      I still do the 3rd way, and still have never had an issue with any orchestra from Europe to Asia to the US. I have seriously never been asked.

  4. What do you mean by “end-of-phrase cluster pushes”?

  5. Fantastic Tim, love it. 🙂 I reposted this on the “Horn people” facebook page, got this comment from Chris Earnest: “Great article! One nit: I didn’t see a mention of the importance of the hand in the bell for stabilizing the higher notes and keeping them from being sharp”

  6. As a horn player I’d love to comment on a couple of things, the first being bass clef. Pros can and will read it fine, but we’re treble clef beasts by training and comfort, and I would definitely stick in treble clef to an absolute lower limit of the (written) C below middle C. If the phrase and/or surrounding notes are all below the F below middle C, then stick it in bass clef, but I see a lot of unnecessary bass clef use, which just adds a layer of unnecessary brain processing – we’re used to leger lines! If all notes bar one are above middle C, and one drops suddenly to below an E or so, then it’s not great horn writing so the notation isn’t your biggest problem!

    In your example, for example, unless for ease and tidiness of scoring, I’d hope the copyist would put all but maybe the lowest part into treble, if only to avoid the constant switching! Another copying bugbear is when say 2+4 are in octaves, and in the score in bass clef, but horn 2 is not transposed into treble when the separate part copied out, and so there’s an unnecessary switch into bass clef for those few bars. As horn players we’re used to people not really knowing how to write for the instrument, and so something simple like this will give the players license to give the rest of your markings a knowing glance and take them with a pinch of salt.

    Cuivre is ambiguous – in some French music it was used to mean ‘handstopped’ and so therefore probably best to rely on that if you put anything above ff, the sound will be cuivre. ‘Brassy’ would be better, just because then there’s no risk of confusion.

    Also, I have *never* heard of a player removing their hand from the bell to play bells up – that seems insane to me! If I did that on a gig I’m fairly sure I’d be sacked immediately, it’s just a tool for the concert hall that means the section projects (due to a brighter sound as less is being lost behind/down), and also looks cool. One usually just adapts their right hand position (with a bit of uncomfortable wrist contortion) and holds the bell at around head height. Taking the hand out of the bell whilst doing this would sound vile, and close to baroque horn, so unless you actually desire that raucous and crass sound….

    And yes, Wagner tubas are so much fun, but due to their relative lack of development (compared to a standard modern instrument), very risky to play. Expect normal levels of intonation, control and reliability at your peril – and nothing too high!

  7. Hi Tim,

    Great info! But it doesn’t make things easier 🙂 I mean, there’s a lot of flavors to choose from and they actually all sound great. For instance I noticed that the straight mute played loudly sounds pretty close to the cuivr?©, though a little less bright. Hearing you say that you’ve never written cuivr?©, do you write “mute” with a forte dynamic to get in that area? The stopped note is also in this area, but is even “brighter” or more agressive-sounding on loud dynamics (or so it seems). How do you choose?

    Thanks for all of this!

  8. Thanks Tim. This is pure gold. Amazing.


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