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French Horns

French horns - single, compensating and double horns

Technical Specifications

French horn specifications vary enormously, but generally fall into three main categories: "Single Horns", "Compensating Horns" and "Double Horns".

Single Horns

The simplest configuration is the single horn - pitched in either F or Bb (higher). These are popular amongst students as they are lighter in weight than more complicated specifications and generally more inexpensive.

single french horn

Double Horns

The inherent problem with a single horn however is a lack of range due to the constrictions of the available natural harmonics of a horn pitched in a particular key. In order to play the full spectrum of pitch required in the horn repertoire a player needs two horns and an ability to continually change between them!

Alternatively, a double horn is "two horns in one", sharing a common lead pipe and bell section. A forth valve (operated with the thumb) enables the player to switch between the Bb and F "sides" of the instrument. This gives the player a greater range. Additionally, where the range of the Bb and F horns overlaps, it enables the player to choose which side of the horn to play a particular note on - to select the most in-tune or secure harmonic - aiding tone and tuning.

The drawback of a "double" is the added weight involved in having the extra tubing of two horns wound into one.

double french horn

Compensating Horns

A compensating horn is a compromise between a single and a double horn. In essence it is a single horn pitched in Bb with a 4th valve that engages an extra piece of tubing which transposes the horn down a forth into F. In addition each of the valves has a compensating "knuckle" of tubing, to put the instrument in tune when valves 1-3 are engaged when the instrument is playing in F. For a full explanation of compensation see our background brass section.

Thus compensating horns enable players to have the range of a "double", without the added weight and/or expense. However, the compensation system doesn't offer the level of secure tuning and natural harmonics available in a "double".

compensating french horns

Other Horn Configurations

The "double" horn is the "standard" horn, adopted by most players as their main instrument. However there are other configurations that are favoured by players for certain work. Double descant horns are double horns pitched in Bb and (high) F (as opposed to low F and Bb), and are designed for high pitched repertoire.

french horns

Triple horns are mechanically the most complex of all horns, combining the F, Bb and high F horns in a single instrument - enabling ultimate flexibility and range. Even more heavy and expensive than a "double"!

triple horns

Specification Options

As well as deciding which general type of horn you require there are a number of other feature options to choose from.

"Mini Horns" Some manufacturers produce "mini horns" - which are tighter "wrapped" and have a smaller diameter bell to offer a more compact instrument for smaller players. These are usually single horns, although Besson offer a "compensator".

Detachable bells

Many manufacturers offer the option of a detachable bell on some models - which creates obvious advantages in terms of portability. However, players are mixed about the effects on tone of a detachable bell, and consequently they are not particularly popular.

"A" Stopping Valves

An extra valve is sometimes added to descant horns which is engaged when "hand stopping" sections are played on the Bb side. This transposes the instrument down a semi-tone (from Bb to A) to compensate for the effect on pitch of hand stopping the horn.

Eb Slides

Some student single F horns come with an additional Eb slide to transpose the instrument down a tone so the horn can play Eb (tenor) horn parts without the need for transposition.


French horns use rotary valves which can add considerable weight to an instrument - due to the fact that within the valve is a solid piece of cast metal. Some manufacturers offer "hollow" valves (created using pieces of pipe within a rotating core), which are lighter weight and offer a quicker response for fast passages.

Bell Specification The bell material, flair and diameter has a profound effect on the characteristics of an instrument. These are discussed in detail in our trumpet and trombone sections and exactly the same principles apply.