The French Horn
The French Horn is a member of the Brass Family usually found in Orchestras and Wind / Military Bands. It has a wonderfully full and rich sound and is used to great emotional effect making it a popular choice for composers of film scores. French Horns, with conical bore, rotary valves and large bell flares are more complicated to manufacture than most brass instruments making them generally more expensive. The most common categories are Single, Double and Compensating. Here I will try to explain the differences in fairly simple terms to give anyone looking to purchase a French Horn a better idea of which type may be most suitable for their needs.
Single Horns (F or Bb)
The most basic type of French Horn is the Single, which only has one length of tubing and three rotary valves. They are available in two different forms relating to their natural pitches of F & Bb. The different pitch is down to the fundamental length of the instrument, the F horn (12 feet) is longer, meaning the Bb (8 feet) sounds higher in pitch. There are different schools of thought about which instrument beginners should start on, some teachers prefer F and some Bb although we are definitely selling more Bb than F in the UK education market at present.
The other big difference between the two is their natural harmonics (how many / which notes can be played in open position), with more notes able to be produced on the F horn than the Bb when none of the rotor valves are engaged. It is more difficult to produce / centre individual notes on the F horn as the potential options are closer together, particularly in the upper register, although the sound quality is considered to be more natural. The notes are easier to pitch on a Bb horn but the quality of sound is not quite as pure. French Horn players will always read from music in F but each horn has different fingering patterns so over time a player would be expected to learn both.
Single horns are generally only used by beginners as they are the cheapest and lightest options available. Many manufacturers now also produce Compact Singles which are the same length but the tubing is wound much tighter making them easier for smaller children to hold. Eventually though, all French Horn players will be expected to use an instrument that incorporates both F & Bb tubing, otherwise know as a Double Horn.
As mentioned above, F horns produce the more pure sound that one associates with the French Horn (think Black Beauty!) but the Bb horn is more secure when playing in the higher register making it easier for a player to centre their notes with confidence. For this reason, the ultimate instrument for any French Horn player is a Double Horn, allowing the best combination of tuning and accuracy across the scale. These are, as the name suggests, two single horns in one, with two sets of tubing, one in F and the shorter one in Bb. There is an additional rotor valve that diverts the air flow from one ‘side’ of the instrument to the other. This gives the player the flexibility to choose when to use the F or Bb sides of the instrument.
Double Horns are generally not suitable for younger players to start on as the two sets of tubing means they are much heavier and the complex manufacturing process makes them expensive and therefore price prohibitive for the majority of parents.
Compensating Double Horns
Compensating Horns are a kind of ‘half way house’ between the Single and Double. They have one main set of Bb tubing and some additional tubing to change it into F. There is again an additional rotor valve but instead of simply switching between two sets of tubing as on a Double, when engaged it also routes the air through this extra tubing to effectively make it an F horn. So, to get mathematical for a moment, say the basic tubing is 8 feet (Bb), when the fourth valve is engaged an extra 4 feet is added to the length making it 12 feet (F) in total (All lengths approx). In addition each of the valves has a compensating “knuckle” of tubing, to put the instrument in tune when valves 1-3 are engaged and the instrument is playing in F.
This enables the instrument to be played like a Double horn but as there is less tubing they are cheaper to produce. Combined with the weight reduction these make them an ideal instrument for an advancing student. The downside of a Compensating is that it doesn’t offer the level of secure tuning and natural harmonics available on a Full Double because of the way the overall length is achieved using a connecting valve rather than totally separate tubing.
It is worth pointing out that there is also a Triple Horn which has yet another set of tubing to assist in the higher register, usually adding a high F section although sometimes Eb. However, as this is meant to be a Beginner’s Guide to the French Horn I don’t want to go into too much detail other than to say that their extra weight and even higher cost makes them of limited appeal to all but a handful of professional players.
I hope this article has helped you to gain a basic understanding of French Horns but should you require any further technical information / advice, please do not hesitate to email our Sales Team or call 01283 535333 and they will be delighted to help.